Photo Essay | So, how was Fest?

Makers and lovers of theatre reflect on the experience of this year’s National Arts Festival, which was pushed online by the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown restrictions.

“Some of those typos were fucking amazing! I wish we’d choreographed them, that’s how good they were,” Lesego Chauke laughs. Chauke is the director of The Shopping Dead, a live play performed entirely through WhatsApp at the first entirely virtual National Arts Festival in Makhanda.

Her voice booms out of Faye Kabali-Kagwa’s phone, the producer of the show, who sits cross-legged in her sweatpants, smiling behind three screens. The cast has just pulled off their last successful dress rehearsal on 1 July, just 24 hours before their first show. Kabali-Kagwa has been watching the WhatsApp show unfold much like the audience will, from the comfort of their couches.

1 July 2020: Faye Kabali-Kagwa, the creator and producer of live WhatsApp play The Shopping Dead, watches the piece unfold from her home in Cape Town during their last dress rehearsal, 24 hours before their first show. All three shows of the production ‘sold out’, meaning the WhatsApp groups filled up to their 250-person capacity.

This novel medium of performance is exactly the kind of innovation shown at the first virtual Fest, sparked in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the effect of the virus and the government’s lockdown to contain it on the arts.

The creative industry suffered a particularly devastating blow at the onset of the pandemic, especially in the performing arts, as many events were cancelled and venues shut down. When it came to the most anticipated arts event in South Africa, the annual National Arts Festival, South Africa’s creatives got, well, creative.

3 July 2020: From left, Loren Loubser and Gabe Gabriel performed in the short film Together Apart, which was created by a largely queer team. ‘In theatre, you have feedback immediately, like when a joke doesn’t land or you hear the audience gasp and react,’ says Loubser. ‘I don’t know how you’re watching this at home. You could be cooking and not even paying attention.’ Gabriel adds, ‘In theatre you’ll have an intimate scene but you’re there to experience it with the audience. There’s something unnerving about not knowing what the reaction is.’

A new kind of festival

The festival, which is usually held in Makanda in the Eastern Cape, responded by creating vNAF (virtual National Arts Festival) and hosting it online. There have been many forms of performances, some live like The Shopping Dead, some pre-recorded and on demand. So, how did it go?

“I have found that vNAF has featured a wider range of artists and performances. The festival has always been fantastic about featuring a wide variety of artists and genres, but this format has possibly made the festival even more accessible,” says Candice Bernstein, a theatre professional, arts journalist and founder of Sarafina Magazine. “Not to mention, bringing a show to the NAF can be extremely expensive,” she continues.

Accessibility, technical difficulty and creativity seem to be the hot topics of the festival.

3 July 2020: Gabe Gabriel edited and shot much of the film Together Apart. ‘I hope the challenges of making a virtual NAF will make for some really creative endeavours,’ they say.

The National Arts Festival is expensive to attend because it requires travelling to and staying in Makanda. But online viewing has made the art more accessible than ever. Like for the 15 young creatives who produced short films with the Low-Def Film Factory that were streamed via the festival programme.

“Most, if not all, of these young artists would never have been able to afford to go to Makhanda anyway. Now their friends and family can see their work online,” says project co-founder Amy Louise-Wilson.

3 July 2020: Loren Loubser plays the lead in Together Apart. ‘My character is a sex worker but the film is not shot through the male gaze,’ says Loubser. ‘It was difficult having someone direct you and to do rehearsals via Zoom. Like with my co-stars, I couldn’t see how they were really playing the scenes because they weren’t in the same room as me when we shot. I just had to imagine how they played it based on rehearsals.’

Additionally, the abundance of on-demand viewing options has made audiences the masters of their own time. “It allows you to watch shows at your leisure instead of having to carefully plan your traditional NAF viewing schedule and trying to be in a million different venues at once,” says Bernstein.

But some critics worry that the new online format, by its very nature, is exclusionary because many in our country do not have Wi-Fi access and data is notoriously expensive. In 2018, only slightly over 10% of South Africa had household internet access.

“The sad part is that those who are marginalised will miss it as they do not have the resources. This is the status quo of our country when it comes to who’s moving with the times and who’s left behind,” says activist and performance artist Mamela Nyamza. Her acclaimed autobiographical work, Pest Control, debuted at the festival.

2 July 2020: From left, actors James Cuningham and Iain Robinson in a live performance of Jigsaw at the first virtual National Arts Festival. ‘It feels as if lockdown circumstances, each of us creating from pockets of isolation together, allowed us to somehow push the boundaries and find a new form of digital expression, a hybrid between film and theatre,’ says Sylvaine Strike, the play’s director. The story plays out over a series of Zoom calls between two characters.

Longer life for performance art

Besides these challenges, Nyamza is happy to share her work in a medium that can transcend space and time. “As an artist, I’m happy the work is online, can go beyond our borders, and that it will be there as long as I live and even after I’m dead, it will always be out there as a live document [or] archive,” she says.

This new format is not without its challenges, as anyone who has ever attended a Zoom meeting knows. But this uncertainty, these challenges and the possibilities is what made this year’s festival so special and exciting.

“I think it’s fucking amazing!” says Chauke. “With all the technical difficulties and the video lags and the I-can’t-access-thises. It’s just amazing because it’s happening nonetheless. They’ve found an alternative and makers are coming on board and playing through the mediums. It’s really important in these times,” she enthuses.

Artists have responded to these unexpected times in truly astounding ways. From WhatsApp plays to stories told through a Skype conversation as in Jigsaw and live shows such as The Solo Ball hosted on Zoom.

The work created at the festival this year has been as unexpected as the reality in which we’ve found ourselves this year.

“South African artists have always been incredibly resourceful and this only proves that further. vNAF has allowed artists to adapt and continue to create,” says Bernstein. “I think this is a moment in time that we will all look back on and remember how we were challenged as humans and as artists.”

7 July 2020: From left, Amy Louise Wilson and Francois Knoetze are the creators of the Low-Def Film Factory, a community theatre initiative that gives South Africans the opportunity to create their own short films, which were shown at the virtual National Arts Festival. ‘We wanted it to be a mad jumble of screens and gifs that could give a sense of the madness and scale of the project. It was about the process – these are amateur filmmakers who achieved beautiful and creative things,’ says the collective.
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