National Arts Festival Celebrates 40 Years of Artistry

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Joey, the War Horse, at the 2014 National Arts Festival
Joey, the War Horse, at the 2014 National Arts Festival
Photo credit: Marius Janse van Rensburg

Street parades, a birthday celebration, a dazzling array of international performers from over 40 countries, and over 2800 performances in eleven days all contributed to a record 225 538 attendees at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year.

Releasing attendance figures yesterday morning, Festival CEO Tony Lankester paid tribute to the artists whose work "filled our stages and the hearts of our audience" during the annual event. "This was a special year for us for a variety of reasons, and we wanted to mark 2014 as one of the best Festivals ever. I think we achieved that," he said.

Attendance at the event grew by 6.5% over 2013, and the new figure represents 21.4% growth over a rolling 5-year period. "Last year we began looking at our numbers over a period of time rather than a year by year basis," Lankester said. "This gives us a better idea of audience trends over five years, and can be more informative than snapshots of a moment in time."

The biggest growth this year came from sales on the Main programme, attributable largely to an expanded programme aimed to commemorate the Festival's 40th birthday, and from attendance at a greatly increased number of free performances and activities aimed at the broader Grahamstown community.

"Ticket sales, in rand terms, also hit a new high, breaking R7m for the first time. This puts more money into the pockets of performers than ever before," Lankester said.

Wessel Pretorius in UNDONE
Wessel Pretorius in UNDONE
Photo credit: CuePix/Louise Feiter

While Lankester said it was difficult to single out specific productions from the vast programme, he noted the high number of performances on the Main that were completely sold out. "What is encouraging about these is the diversity of productions selling out individual performances - from Dance (CARGO: PRECIOUS and NILE) to Theatre (UBU AND THE TRUTH COMMISSION and KWELA BAFANA+), Music (The Muffinz and Lira) and also including film, jazz, some lectures and performance art.

The Fringe also featured a "healthy crop" of sold out performances. These included perennial Festival franchises such as RAIDERS and BIG BOYS and also new theatre work.

"Overall we're hearing from our Standard Bank Ovation Award panel that the quality on the Fringe was higher than it has been for a while. They cited work such as UNDONE, WHISTLE STOP, GOGO AND BIG SISTER, A MAN CALLED ROLEX and SIEMBAMBA. Additionally it was encouraging to see new artists come to the fore - including young comedian Sne Dladla and jazz musician Tumi Mogorosi, who has been acknowledged elsewhere for his extraordinary talent and debuted his Project ELO on the Fringe this year," Lankester said.

Another pleasing aspect of the Festival in 2014 was the expansion of activities into township spaces. "We are acutely aware that we operate in a deeply divided city and, while we can't hope to change that single-handedly, we hope we can make a difference for the short period in which the Festival operates," Lankester said. Initiatives this year included two expanded Street Parades on the last weekend, both of which started in Grahamstown East; the sprawling citywide exhibition which formed part of the Creation of a Nation programme and which included works, murals and a presence across the whole city, and ongoing support for the Fingo Festival which plays a vital role in drawing the youth to the Arts.

"Over and above those projects we staged 48 free performances in places such as Grahamstown Prison, Santa TB Clinic and Settlers' Hospital, to take the Festival to people who can't come to us, and we distributed 5907 tickets to Festival performances to 32 community groups, schools, churches, and youth projects," Lankester said. This equates to over R350 000 worth of tickets.

Lesoko Seabe in Siembamba
Lesoko Seabe in SIEMBAMBA

"One can always argue we should do more, but as an NGO ourselves there is a limit to what we can achieve in just two weeks," Lankester said. The previously announced Creative City project will begin to address the city divide, Lankester said, by establishing year-round arts projects and activities.

The dates for the 2015 Festival have also been announced, with the event due to take place from 2 - 12 July 2015. "Planning for 2015 is already underway with the Main call for proposals currently open. Between now and then we have the inaugural Cape Town Fringe in September (25 September - 5 October) which will give us another opportunity to showcase some of the best performances South Africa has to offer", Lankester said.

The National Arts Festival, now in its 41st year, has proved its sustainability and has grown to be one of the leading arts festivals in Southern Africa. Its objectives are to deliver excellence; encourage innovation and development in the arts by providing a platform for both established and emerging South African artists; create opportunities for collaboration with international artists; and build new audiences.

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