A new stage for the National Arts Festival

The organisers had to get inventive to hold the festival in Makhanda again this year, but are passionate about ensuring that it thrives for artists as well as audiences.

In a time of crisis, what do you do? This was the question facing the organisers of the National Arts Festival. “You go back to your mission,” says chief executive Monica Newton. “And your mission is to host the annual festival.”

The biggest gathering for arts in South Africa, which has been running since 1974, is back in Makhanda for the first time in two years despite many challenges.

“We do it because it’s important, because the festival matters, because the arts matter. If we don’t play our role in the ecosystem of the arts sector, then we’re not fulfilling our mission and our mandate. So, here we are. Tough as it is, it’s necessary,” says Newton. 

Left: National Arts Festival chief executive Monica Newton. Right: Artistic director Rucera Seethal. (Images supplied)

A few weeks ahead of the festival, at the height of preparations, Newton says things have been “absolutely crazy. It really is fundamentally on us – and that’s a huge deal.” 

The festival runs from 23 June to 3 July, led by a powerhouse of women: Newton, executive producer Nobesuthu Rayi, festival manager Kay Mosiane, fringe manager Zikhona Monaheng, technical director Nicci Spalding, communications manager Sascha Polkey and artistic director Rucera Seethal.

“It does feel odd to say that it’s the first festival that I’m putting together, having been here for three years. I move between curiosity and excitement, and also that comes with a bit of nerves,” says Seethal. 

A scene from The Drowning Eye, a play by Frantz Fanon. (Image supplied)

In at the deep end

Newton and Seethal, appointed in the latter half of 2019, faced the daunting task of running a festival during a global pandemic in their first year at the helm. Rather than back down, they ran the 2020 festival digitally for the first time in history, with all the work on show created remotely. A fourth wave of Covid-19 pushed the festival online again in 2021, but with work produced in Makhanda. 

The pandemic was a blow to the festival in many ways, affecting arts creation, performance, production and the experience for audiences. It also had an enormous impact financially on travel, hospitality and technical services in Makhanda.

Much was achieved in the digital domain during those two years, says Newton. “How the art sector responded to the challenge with the innovation and the can-do attitude was really humbling. It was extraordinary to see people face incredible hardship and yet create, innovate and push themselves and learn a completely new thing.”

But it has affected the festival. “This year, it is definitely a festival of its time,” she says. “We are a little rusty. We haven’t done this in a while. And the bigger impact of two years of not working on the artistic community has been very difficult. We’ve lost people, we’ve missed opportunities, the normal engine of content ground to a halt for a couple of years. So, it’s been a very interesting process to imagine the festival almost going back to its roots.”

Singer Bongeziwe Mabandla. (Image by Justice Mukheli)

The organisers’ first decision was to opt for a smaller programme, because of costs and the uncertainty of another Covid lockdown. They reduced the number of venues and improved the integration between fringe and main programme venues. And they have incorporated the National Schools Festival into the main festival for the first time. It made sense to allow schoolchildren to be part of the festival, Newton says: “These are going to be the artists and ticket buyers of the future.”

This model works beautifully for the jazz festival, where the integration of various schools is central to its programming. The jazz festival heard recently that main sponsor Standard Bank has discontinued its funding after 24 years, although the bank has confirmed its support of the broader festival and its awards. 

The printed programme moves online this year, for cost and environmental responsibility reasons. The festival has partnered with Rhodes University’s school of journalism and media studies, as part of the latter’s 50th anniversary, to resurrect festival newspaper Cue, which will run as a multimedia daily. 

Left: We Regret To Inform You, an exhibition by Wezile Harmans. Right: An image from walking project Engeki Quest when it was created in Japan. (Images supplied)

A ‘hard prune’

A historic move amid the challenges of the past two years was the festival taking legal action against its biggest sponsor, The National Arts Council (NAC), in 2021 when it failed to honour a contracted payment of R8 million. “It was a really tough decision,” says Newton. “The festival in its entire history had never, ever litigated against a donor.” But when artists were left hanging in the middle of creating works, the festival fought for the financial commitments the NAC had made – and won. 

Another big challenge is the 50% capacity limit that current Covid regulations place on theatres. “The distancing requirements are probably the hardest thing we’re having to face from a revenue perspective. We’re constrained to half no matter how good or successful the show is,” says Newton.

The festival generates most of its revenue from the main programme so this will affect mainly the fringe, which relies on ticket sales. The fringe programme has also scaled down this year. 

Hello, Bu-Bye, Koko, Come In features artist Koleka Putuma. (Image by Nurith Wagner-Strauss)

The festival will be adhering to mask, distancing and ventilation regulations. And Rhodes University said just three days before the start of the festival that it will be enforcing a vaccine mandate at all its venues for audience members over the age of 12 or require rapid testing at a minimal fee. 

The organisers see this year’s more intimate festival as a “hard prune”, which they say “is not a bad thing, because this programme feels a lot more manageable and easier to navigate”.

They are unsure of the audience this year and hoping for good ticket sales, but are aware that these are hopes and not guarantees. “The uncertainties this year are almost more profound than they were in the last couple of years,” says Newton. “Digital work does a lot, but at this point it doesn’t replace revenue from ticket sales.” 

Darkroom Contemporary dancers perform Deus::ex::machina. (Image by Oscar O’Ryan)

Screens on stage

A new initiative the festival is working on is artist residencies that connect to the main programme. “There is this question of what this festival is and how do you have a national and international festival in this very precise little town in South Africa,” says Seethal. She sees the residencies as a way for artists to engage with their projects on a deeper level.

There was no central theme guiding applications, but Seethal was drawn to works that engaged strongly with feminism and gender-based violence. There are international productions from India, Japan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

The online element runs alongside the live festival. Having found an interested and engaged audience online, the organisers want to nourish this relationship with local and international viewers. A few live performances will be streamed, but there will also be work made for the digital domain. 

Artist Gavin Krastin in 12 Labours. (Image by Evaan Jason Ferreira)

Seethal says artists are working more consistently with screens on stage after the past two years. “The screen and the camera are really part of our performative language now. Love it or hate it, it’s part of the language and it’s something that artists are working with and audiences are engaging with.”

This year’s festival offers the arts community a long overdue gathering and the organisers are taking brave steps to rebuild the National Arts Festival. “There are concerns about whether or not this is going to be financially successful. But we’re non-profit, we don’t do this for the money,” says Newton. It still has the support of local, provincial and national government and all the festival’s partners are on board. 

“Two and a half years later, here we still are, living with the complexities of economies, societies, livelihoods and infrastructure. But surely we’re innovative and flexible and resilient enough to find a way through. That’s what we hope Festival 2022 will be about. We say, welcome back. We’re different, we’re relearning, we’re growing, we’re building… Come and support the arts. We so desperately need our audiences to come back.”

Left: Mpume Mthombeni in Isidlamlilo (The Fire Eater). Right: Dancer Xolisile Bongwana in Mnquma. (Images by Zivanai Matangi)
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