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The National Arts Festival Reports Final Attendance Figures and Names Top-Performing Shows at #NAF17

The National Arts Festival Reports Final Attendance Figures and Names Top-Performing Shows at #NAF17
Stefan Erasmus, Luke-Brown and Nhlanhla
Mkhwanazi in UNDERMINED at #NAF17
Photo credit: Samantha Davies

The National Arts Festival, which ended in Grahamstown last Sunday, has reported its final attendance figures for the year. Opening on 29 June, the Festival ran for 11 days in the small university city of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, bringing a programme of drama, dance, physical theatre, comedy, opera, music, jazz, visual art exhibitions, film, student theatre, street theatre, lectures, craft fair, workshops, as well as a children's arts festival to stages and spaces in the city.

Now in its forty-third year, the National Arts Festival is the largest and longest-running celebration of the arts on the African content. The Festival's chief executive officer, Tony Lankester, commented on this year's attendance figures:

We experienced a 10,2% drop in attendance to our various events and performances, with overall Festival attendance settling to 202 643. While the drop isn't pleasant, it isn't surprising given the current economic climate and the costs associated with making the annual trip to Grahamstown. The recession is beginning to bite and South Africans are having to be more careful with their money. On the positive side, the long-term growth trajectory is still positive, with the rolling ten-year attendance up by 37%. The state of the arts is still strong - but as a City and as an event we're going to have to be a lot smarter in years to come to keep innovating and offering audiences good value.

Local businesses reported a mixed bag of results, with supermarkets claiming an increase in turnover from last year, and restaurants and bars a decline. Lankester said:

Those figures tell us a lot about what choices Festinos are making. In the past people would come for five or six nights, and eat out every evening. Now we're seeing people come for three or four nights, and opt to eat at home instead.

Despite those shifts, Ashraf Johaardien, the executive producer of the National Arts Festival said he was pleased with the general response to the programme:

We had a number of sold out shows on the Main and Arena programmes: For the first time in many years the Symphony Concert, featuring the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra was sold out. Smash group THE SOIL filled our biggest venue two nights in a row, and numerous theatre, dance and performance art works had strong runs - including Dada Masilo's GISELLE, MAMBA REPUBLIC, Nadia Davids' mesmerising WHAT REMAINS, TARTUFFE, Mandla Mbothwe's SABAMNYE NOMENDI and children's favourite THE GRUFFALO. The biggest selling international production was The Pretend Men's smash POLICE COPS.

Johaardien also noted that the work by the Standard Bank Young Artist Award winners across all genres was "inspired" and well received by both critics and audiences. Turning to the Fringe, he noted that, once again, the collective venues demonstrated that innovative marketing coupled with top quality productions are a winning formula:

We saw strong audiences at The Edge, Followspot Productions' venue and for shows at ExploSIV Productions' debut venue at Masonic.

The two biggest grossing shows were both presented by Followspot Productions - the Standard Bank Ovation winning AU REVOIR and BIG BOYS THE THIRD. The top performing theatre productions were UNDERMINED and A MAN AND A DOG. Johaardien said:

Unsuprisingly, in tough economic times, we saw audiences take fewer risks, gravitating toward the known quantities - names like Loyiso Gola, Chester Missing, the perennial RAIDERS franchise and magicIan Stuart Lightbody enjoyed good runs. That isn't great news for theatremakers looking to trial new work or for new artists wanting to break through. We'll have to see how the Festival can help newcomers break into audience consciousness in years to come.

The Standard Bank Ovation Awards, given to top performing productions on the Fringe, were well received and included a special award for performance to Daniel Richards for his work in STATE FRACTURE.

Writing in an open letter to the City following the Festival, Lankester outlined a number of steps he feels the City needs to take to "recession-proof" the event:

As a City and business community we need to constantly innovate; seek out opportunities to enhance visitors' experience; and remain upbeat and positive about the Festival.

Among the opportunities for small businesses he cited is the planned move in 2018 of the Village Green Craft market to a new site. The market, which hosts about 300 traders, crafters, food vendors and artists during the course of the Festival, will move off Rhodes University's campus to the playing fields of Victoria Girls High School in Beaufort Street. The new market will be the core of a new 'Festival Zone' planned for the CBD that will feature, alongside the stalls, a large children's play area, beer tent, box office, multiple performance areas, a food court and an 'art walk' for lovers of visual art. Lankester concludes:

We've established a planning committee comprising traders and local business who are already soliciting input and ideas, and we believe the Festival Zone will be an area to be proud of.

The next edition of the National Arts Festival will be held in Grahamstown from 28 June - 8 July 2018.

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