05 July 2012 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

When all the city is a stage…

For 2 weeks in June/July, the National Arts Festival transforms the streets of Grahamstown with its mix of theatre, music, dance, drama and visual art.

Through Blue, by UBOM! Eastern Cape Drama Company and Andrew Buckland. Image by Terrence Matola, courtesy The Famous Idea

I’m not at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year, but I wish I was. I’ve been putting off writing about it because each time I start, I think of what I’m missing.

Image courtesy The Grahamstown Foundation

With over 80 productions on the Main Programme, 8 on the Arena and a record 390 shows on the Fringe, this year's event is packed, and so is the town. Last year the festival reported an attendance of just over 200 000 people, all squeezed into 34km2.

At the very 1st festival I attended, I remember the excitement of seeing the whole town turn into a giant stage with me an actor on it, however minor my role. It’s easy to recall the chaos and colour of festival-goers, feasting on a mix of theatre, music, dance, visual art and cinema at what is the country’s largest arts event.

There will also be many moments, mostly unrecorded, when a dance, a play, an exhibition or some street art will quietly change someone’s view of themselves, or of the world. It’s in these subtle transformations that the magic really happens.

I remember rushing, programme in hand, between venues and only getting lost occasionally. I remember being torn between concurrent shows (theatre or dance, perhaps) and then being surprised by a compromise: something I hadn’t thought to see that turned out to be amazing; perhaps a new act on the Fringe? Or was it Rain in a Dead Man's Footprints, a collaboration between Jazzart and Magnet Theatre that still gives me goosebumps when I think about it.

I remember being part of the animated buzz of an enthralled audience as it spilled out onto the street, and the intense discussions between strangers-now-friends at late-night venues around the town, where people gather once the day’s shows are done. I remember meeting John Kani, discovering the art of Wim Botha and talking to Mncedisi Shabangu, who was directing Cold Stone Jug.

Ancestors, by Suzy Bernstein. Image courtesy The Famous Idea

I watched street theatre with groups of enthusiastic bystanders, sipping on steaming coffee and scanning Cue for reviews, news and fresh, young writing that got me excited about arts journalism. I saw Cape Town City Ballet’s production of Carmen, which got standing ovations (although I don’t think that was the same year), and was stunned by Precious, based on Sapphire’s 1996 novel, with its raw pain.

I was enchanted by Umcebo, an exhibition that saw students from Ningizimu School for children with mental handicaps create magical art from the rubbish and debris of daily life. I lost myself in the festival’s amazing jazz line-up, watching electric performances into the early hours of the morning.

Fragile, choreographed by Nicola Elliott. Image by Terrence Matola, courtesy The Famous Idea

My nostalgia aside, I've no doubt that this year will produce its own memories and moments. The Standard Bank Young Artist Award winners always present exciting premieres. People will laugh until they cry at comedy shows; audiences will listen intently to the big debates that happen at Think!Fest, 1 of the many mini-festivals catering for special interests; people will discover amazing film and documentary productions; and there will be too many opportunities for learning to count. And in 20 years, I don’t think the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival has ever disappointed.

There will also be misses, the odd performance or show that doesn’t quite come together. For each production that fails to deliver, though, there will be plenty that impress: classical works, cutting-edge contemporary pieces, several inter-disciplinary productions and collaborations, and a whole new category of live art that blurs boundaries between genres.

To ease the frustration of not being at the festival this year, I'm reading some great reviews, watching some of the multimedia that is being produced, and following festival-goers on Twitter to give me a taste of the intensity, the camaraderie, the passion and the creativity that’s transformed Grahamstown again this year (the literal transformation involves 32 tons of equipment and over 1 000 lights, which are rigged in 59 venues).

Street vendors at the festival. Image courtesy The Famous Idea

There will also be many moments, mostly unrecorded, when a dance, a play, an exhibition or some street art will quietly change someone’s view of themselves, or of the world.

It's in these subtle transformations that the magic really happens; this is the festival's greatest gift. If you're interested in the event, watch Cue TV, read Cue and visit the event's official blog to get started.

You can also join the National Arts Festival group on Facebook or follow them on Twitter: @artsfestival.

Category: Arts & Entertainment

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