Looking back at Grahamstown

5.30 am in Grahamstown – I collect Mat Lewis from the house he was staying at for the fest and together we pack up the truck and hit the road. The morning is cold, but not nearly as cold as it has been these last 18 days I’ve been here. We take the N2 South and West, and Grahamstown is a bowl of sparks that disappears behind us.

Both Mat and I had been working at Princess Alice Hall for Cape Town Edge productions. I was stage-managing London Road and teching Yawazzi’s Man Turn Life Up and Down while Mat was stage-managing Rump Steak and lighting …miskien. We’d both been at the whole festival and were looking forward to being in the Mother City again. But we enjoyed that festival to the last. Oh, yes. From the manic scramble of the first days, juggling schedules against stubbornly erratic technologies to the late-night, Klippies fuelled discussions we’d had about the good, the bad and the beautiful plays we’d seen in our free time.  Festival is a time between 2 extremes of work and play, the high pressure gets under your fingernails and the sudden concentration of people who understand what you’re all about is a heady mix.

I love working with the London Road team, Robyn and Ntombi are wonderful actresses and best of all – consummate professionals with no time for bullshit or ego. They know what it takes to get a big crowd, to hold its attention and they respect it. Really the Edge itself was a great place to be, and I loved the chats and banter with the different teams all working together (mostly). Cheers to the late night, post-I, Claudia comedy sessions, which evolved out of people helping out with Tara’s strike and Mat’s prep for the next day’s morning show. I’ll never forget Lara almost falling out of her chair laughing at Mat and my preview for Rump Steak 2: the Rumpening: This time the steaks are higher. All rather silly really. And the question: “Are you an animal lover?” will ever be more disturbing.

Picking people’s brains was invaluable; I will definitely take away from the festival Tanya’s 3 statements: “Not in a day. Not without discipline. Not without failure.” A grim, tough and ambitious mantra that some people might mistake as a bodybuilder’s rather than face the fact that in theatre that is what it takes.

I saw only about 10 shows, kind of pathetic really and not my proudest moment. The one that stood out most for me was Blood Orange. Craig Morris is kickass. The precision and unity of his vocal and physical work was astounding and humbling. The craft and beauty of the piece drove me to my feet for my first standing ovation in a long time. Definitely head, shoulders and torso above the rest.

I’ve never been in that town for so long before, and the festival itself has never been so long. The “15 days of Amazing” is a thing of some controversy – some artists supporting it and some condemning it. I can totally understand the thinking behind it, but I have some criticisms, top of the list is way the information on the festival’s performance is spun out. It’s essentially the problem with all statistics, not enough context and not enough analysis. My problem is that I feel it’s pretty deliberate.

Go here for the 2009 post mortem and here for the 2010 one released last week.

Most telling for me is the reported growth of attendance at 8% over last year. Think about that for a moment and then consider that the festival lasted 50% longer. That’s not real growth.

Overall, why is 2009 more detailed? The 2010 report seem to deliberately fudge the line between Fringe and Main. Why? Because there were fewer successes to report over all and rather than spread them thin the report pointedly notes that “About 35 productions had sold-out performances” – which includes Main, Fringe and Music. Meaning about 1 out of every 15 or so shows had at least 1 sold-out show. Is that really so many? Is that more than last year? How were sales in monetary terms?

But past the numbers is just the sense that I’m being bullshitted. The organizers of the festival did a good job under tough circumstances – they were ambitious and dedicated, but they aren’t being straight about it. Instead we’re hearing sound bites of optimism and defensiveness, more political than I can take seriously.

“Organisers this year extended the Festival to 15 days from its usual 10 days, a move which Lankester says paid off. We wanted to send a clear message that our artists, directors, writers and performers could rise to the challenge of producing great work that makes South Africa proud.”

Seriously, what does that even mean? It doesn’t tell you what I felt at the festival, which was a fun and mostly professional environment, a wide variety of work for a wide variety of people, good shows and hospitality. Some excellent policy shifts toward a better festival that encourages and supports new artists. Frustratingly thin spread audiences that are still divided sharply by race. Bad tech support but great and dedicated technicians.

So that’s my take on the 2010 National Arts Festival.

Peace and Love,

JK

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About Jon Keevy

Jon Keevy is a writer of stories and plays and also runs Alexander Bar's Upstairs Theatre.
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