Home safe from the KKNK

On the 31stof March at 6am I hit the N1 out of Cape Town with Gaetan Schmidt and Jason Ralph. Together we drove for 5 hours and at some point crossed over the mysterious “Boere Wors Curtain” and into the land of Die Taal. We arrived in Oudtshoorn just in time to get to work. What were we doing so far from our Soutie homes? We were taking part in FTH:K’s latest step towards global domination: Iets Anders.

This seems like a great way to transport set.And actors.

Built up on the same model as the Cape Town Edge, Iets Anders is a group of theatremakers making independent work but coming together to provide support and lower the costs of things like accommodation, transport and, most importantly, marketing. This is the first year Iets Anders has run and the lineup was: Rumpsteak, …miskien, London Road, Hats and Pictures of You. The marketing encouraged the title, that the venue was ‘something different’ from the rest of the festival, noting the English, Edgy, Physical and Visual theatre elements. In retrospect the KKNK isn’t the kind of festival that people come to for something different, let alone something English. Still, FTH:K worked hard and Next year they’ll be ready to knock the sokkies off for real. You can check their blog of the fest Here.

So we arrived and got straight to work. I’ll give the KKNK its due, the Techies are good. Better than NAF? They certainly think so. I still have my doubts. There were a lot of comparisons between the KKNK and NAF flying around – most of them not very flattering to the NAF. I’ll say this: Both had good and bad aspects, they both have great people working for them, they both are trying to run huge festivals with limited resources – sometimes you get faulty lights/dimmers/bulbs. It’s the nature of festivals in this country.

Despite 4 hours of get-in, I still hadn’t run the sound for London Road by the time we were kicked out by the next production. Still, despite one of the lamest rigs ever proposed, the Ladies were looking good on their island of carpet.

The next couple of days were pretty mixed up, trying to get into a rhythm and create a smooth running get-in and strike. Too many braais happening all the time. Too much Klippies. Finally a balance was struck and I could relax into a good daily ritual with the ladies. I even got to see some shows, despite ticket prices that were about 95% of my daily S&T.

First of these was Lot directed by Nicola Hanekom, which was the buzz of the festival (at least among those I was standing near to) and it was certainly an ambitious piece. A solitary security guard in a parking lot in the afterlife sits awaiting the arrival of those killed in car accidents. I wasn’t sold. Although there were moments of real magic it veered between pretentiously silly and pretentiously dull. Neels van Jaarsveld however stood out from the ensemble with his madcap pop star.

I had a better time with Wees (Orphan) directed by Hennie van Gruenen; I had seen the original production performed in Edinburgh in 2009. The text was fantastically gripping – perhaps more so in its new Afrikaans context, to which themes of Us versus Them are uncomfortably well suited. The piece was only let down by weak design – from set through sound and lighting, good ideas were just poorly executed. The performances were great from Nicola Hanekom, André Weideman and Gustav Gerdener.

Messe en Henne was a South African and Dutch collaboration from De Appel directed by David Geysen and performed by Albert Pretorious, Nadia Amin and Hugo Maerten. Here was something really exciting – the direction and performances were a daring interpretation of a monstrously intense text by David Harrower. I didn’t like all the choices, hated a couple even, but they were a muscular expansion on the South African directing vocabulary (the very same reason I love the work of Jaco Bouwer).

Overall the festival was great fun and I definitely want to come back and conquer it thoroughly.

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

The Fugard Theatre

From the outside the Fugard looks like a church that the city has grown up around. The other buildings are tightly packed around it and loom a little over it, giving its stone façade an out of place feeling that captures the magic of the whole place. It feels like a old and trusted place, rather than the new kid on the block in the little theatre world of Cape Town.

On these grey winter days that feeling is even more powerful as you walk into the foyer. The yellow wood warms up the interior and sets off the exposed old brick and concrete. The designer perfectly balanced hard and soft, cold and warm to create a welcoming and stylish space.

But what really make this place special is that this quality, this style and care is everywhere. From the dressing rooms to the operating booth, the rehearsal room to the bath rooms. This is a theatre as much for the people who make theatre as the patrons. Mark and Manny have built a home. Everyone of the staff who I’ve met there is amazing, welcoming and energised. They have a family feeling about them.

Bringing London Road into such a space is such a pleasure. The play itself is so centred on connection and bonding that it feels like it just wouldn’t work in one of the dinosaur theatres squatting around Cape Town.

Technically the theatre is also top notch with an extensive rig and an advanced lighting board. All the conveniences and technological essentials have been built into the auditorium. Although I must confess that as an operator I love being out in the auditorium and working analogue sliders. That’s my style, hearing and seeing from the audience’s perspective and adjusting levels and timing to the little changes in performance.

I’m sorry that I’m only going to be here for the week, Tara Notcutt will take over from next week. But on the upside Lara Bye has been very understanding about my commitments. Next week Yawazzi opens Twofold at Tabula Rasa. This is a very exciting project for the team and everyone is nervous – it’s a big project with a lot of elements. But we’re ready to pull it out of the hat. Magically speaking, of course.