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SoldOutKill for a ticket? This reviewer just might

The poster says Sold Out. People in the know are saying: Kill For a Ticket. Your mood is black enough (thanks to all the post-apartheid theatre you have seen post apartheid) to be happy to kill for a ticket but you can’t work out who to kill. So you call in every favour you can to try get a ticket. It is impossible! The hot ticket at the National Arts Festival at Grahamstown will remain out of your reach. Sigh.

Oh, you might think, it must be great to be so successful, to have people smashing and grabbing to see your show, the cash must be rolling in. But the truth is a little more gritty than that. Hang around and more often than not you will soon see the same artists working like mad to fill houses for the weeks and months between festivals.

Without killing anyone, I finally secured tickets to a nice little schedule of shows at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, including a visit to hell (but not for the croissants), which I am told is one of the festival’s Hot Tickets and has been Sold Out!

Last night I saw the 2013 Standard Bank Silver Ovation Award winner The Year of the Bicycle. Excellent performances (Amy Louise Wilson as Amelia and Aphiwe Livi as Andile) and an intelligent and interesting script were not quite enough to help me shake the feeling that I had already explored the charred landscape of apartheid enough and I had to go elsewhere if I wanted some green shoots with my charcoal and guilt.

HellCroissantsI have seen the Epicene Butcher at Cape Town’s Alexander Bar theatre so I have already been pulled into the kaleidoscope and spun around by Jemma Kahn once before. Of that dazzling and brilliant play I remember thinking I am going to have to watch that quite a few times to be finished. Kahn’s next one has come along before I had that chance.

Even if I had not had this delightful experience who could resist the title We didn’t Come To Hell For The Croissants: 7 Deadly New Stories For Consenting Adults. This is what I am told to expect: “Jemma Kahn and her irreverent side-kick (played by Roberto Pombo) return in the eagerly anticipated sequel to the international cult hit The Epicene Butcher with stories that seduce the sinless and astonish the immoral. Directed by: Lindiwe Matshikiza and written by Lauren Beukes, Tertius Kapp, Rosa Lyster, Lebogang Mogashoa, Nicholas Spagnoletti, Louis Viljoen and Justin Oswald.”

A little something to snack on before that will be Wednesday night’s “burlesque-ey, cabaret-ish” Bon Soir, where I am told that drinking wine is recommended.

It certainly looks like I will be out of my post-apartheid theatre funk soon.

Like a kid in a candy store

My word, I love the theatre! I have loved it since I was taken to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat as a child. I see a lot of great theatre and never leave unmoved. Still it is a rare piece that makes me want to shout out “I love you!” Bon Soir at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this week is that sort of theatre! It is also the sort of theatre where you would feel quite happy to do it too.

CandyPart cabaret, part dance, part gymnastics, part comedy, there is no need to put on your thinking cap, no mind-bending questions. Bon Soir, high-octane singing, dancing and booty-shaking from FollowSpot, will fill you with pure joy.

It is on at 6pm every day at Kingswood Theatre. Take a bottle of wine in with you and shout if you like, I think it is kind of like pantomine for grown-ups.

This was a joyous and delicious end to a day that had started with more traditional fare that challenged, confused even and stretched the mind.

Who can say what forces come into play when a child goes into a huge candy store and must choose just three little bonbons. This is what it feels like coming to Grahamstown for just three days. My choices were made through a vaguely organised system of randomness, based on advice from friends, research, names I liked the sound of, suggestions from my probation officer … only kidding … but you get the picture.

Still, more by chance than design, my choices have taken me through many landscapes, from the thrilling and fluffy to the devastating and tragic, the old and the new, the borrowed and the makes-you-feel-blue. The choices have also taken me backwards and forwards along so many pot-holed roads in this very badly sign-posted town. What’s the lack of signage about, Grahamstown? Struggling to find your way can give such a bad first impression.

Thankfully first impressions are not everything. If they were I wouldn’t have made it through Curl Up and Dye, my first show of the day on Wednesday. For at least the first half of the show I alternated between shameful giggling and wanting to curl up and die. The stereotypes were hideously familiar and not all of them were left in the eighties. The characters poked fun at what is real and awful in South Africa even today. They seemed to say: “Let’s LOL! The tragic has become commonplace. Let’s roll in the aisles.”

A motley crew of largely unlikeable characters interact with each other in a hair salon in 1989 Joubert Park. The neighbourhood is turning grey as the Group Areas Act crumbles and black and white are forced to live side-by-side. Imagine the horror of the white junkies and prostitutes forced to accept non-white teachers and nurses as their neighbours. The ‘pure whites’ are already hanging by a thread, the ‘play whites’ always were.

Watching lives unravelling slowly makes for very uncomfortable viewing. But suddenly the show catches fire and the anger and fear bursts to the surface in a dramatic ending that leaves the audience gobsmacked. In the heat of the argument the cast leaves the stage and doesn’t come back to hear applause. We are left with just our thoughts, no smiling, clapping and cheering to warm us up and distract us from the cold reality. But we have Bon Soir for that.

It is the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, there is something for every mood! Sue Pam-Grant’s Curl Up and Dye is still relevant. I am not rushing back for a second helping; there may still be tickets left for Bon Soir tonight though.

Does great theatre have to make sense, financial or otherwise?

If the convoluted review made for uncomfortable reading, it was nothing compared with seeing the frying its author got on facebook and elsewhere.

So what did I think of the play, you may wonder.

Confronting, astonishing, challenging, ground-breaking, very very funny and confronting (did I say that already). I will be back for more, and maybe one day I will understand what I feel well enough to form sentences around those adjectives.

Jemma Kahn is a mad and very special talent; she has surrounded herself with talented people, including her sidekick Roberto Pombo, who is a bit like Mr Bean on acid. We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants is seven plays written by seven writers, delivered in the Japanese theatre format Kamishibai, or literally “paper drama”, which combines verbal narrative with flashcard-style illustrations.

I expect this play will go on, like its predecessor The Epicene Butcher, to entertain sellout houses for years to come. But will I ever be able to form articulate sentences that make sense of my feelings about it? Hmmmm, I don’t know.

Maybe, like my colleague this week, I am asking the wrong questions of art. Likewise the question: does great theatre make good business sense?

A success on so many levels, the National Arts Festival, which ends this weekend, has definitely put Grahamstown on the international arts map. That it injects a massive feel-good factor to the local landscape and community and has been a launchpad for many careers is well-documented. It is harder to know if it makes business sense and is driven by market forces, or rather if keeping it going depends on plenty of prayer and/or super-human effort on the part of all those involved.

The arts festival market in South Africa seems to have exploded in the last few decades. The National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, Aardklop in Potchefstroom, the Klein Karoo Kunstefees in Oudtshoorn, Vryfees in Bloemfontein and Innibos in Nelspruit are but a few leaders in a pack of an estimated 600 festivals around the country, each of which is said to generate at least R10 million for participants, organisers and locals.

Trees, the tourism research unit at North-West University’s Potchefstroom campus, has been studying the economic impact of festivals in South Africa for nearly a decade and a half. The organisation’s Professor Melville Saayman says art and music festivals, both big and small, can have a very big financial impact.

The Cape Town International Jazz Festival is an example of a very big money-spinner. A Trees economic impact study found that the festival contributed R522 million to the Western Cape economy in 2013 and created 2,721 jobs. Because many of the 35,000 people who attended the festival were visitors to Cape Town, much of the money was spent on flights, accommodation, food, restaurants and transport, underlining the festival’s importance to the local economy.

Saayman said even the smaller, quirkier festivals can have a big financial effect. The annual weekend-long Wacky Wine Festival in Robertson, a small town in the Western Cape, is estimated to have injected R20 million in revenues into the town’s economy this year.

“This spending stimulates further economic activity and the value of the festival for the Robertson region could be as much as R30 million a year,” said Saayman.

And then there is the cultural capital, part of the wealth of a region or a nation. It is widely acknowledged that the arts play a vital, non-economic role in society, and that the value of cultural events cannot be fully measured in financial terms.

After intensive study of the impact of the National Arts Festival, Rhodes economics professors Geoff Antrobus and Jen Snowball said: “The intrinsic value of arts and culture refers to the inherent value of the good of experience itself, its meaning and importance in a historical, cultural and emotional sense, regardless of any market or financial value that it may have.”

One way of measuring the non-market value of festivals to the local population is to use a willingness to pay (WTP) study, which asks what people would be willing to pay to extend a particular event, or avoid its decline.

A WTP conducted at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown (Snowball, 2009) asked a stratified sample of local residents whether they would be willing to pay to prevent the festival from getting 25 percent smaller.

This study showed that the festival generated considerable non-market benefits. It also found that unlike financial benefits, which accrue mostly to the wealthier residents, significant positive non-market benefits flowing from the festival accrue to poorer people. One finding from the 2009 study was that a slightly higher percentage (80 percent) of low-income areas residents were willing to pay to support the festival than high income area residents (78 percent).

While the South African government acknowledges the role of the arts in enhancing the country’s identity and distinctiveness, encouraging nation-building, assisting in personal development and so on, government support for the arts has been stretched thinner and thinner.

In this context, arts festivals provide an increasingly important source of funding, work and opportunity for South African writers and performers. They also play an important role in maintaining a body of work by and about South Africans, our combined cultural capital.

Successful festivals benefit not only the organisers and participants, but so many individuals and businesses providing supporting services. The list in Grahamstown includes everyone from butchers, bakers and candlestick makers through hotels and bed and breakfasts, bars and restaurants, and even children from Rhini, the local township who become buskers for the 11 days that the festival boosts the local economy by doubling the population.

A 2013 survey found that during the festival direct spending totalled nearly R110 million. Based on findings from other similar studies, a multiplier of 0.18 can be used to determine successive rounds of indirect spending. Various estimates put the total economic impact on the Eastern Cape Province at between R350 million and R370 million. In a relatively poor province, this represents a considerable inflow of funds.

A healthy balance sheet might not be the point of it all, but it is surely enough to buy croissants for everyone next time.

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