Festivals, like any enterprise, constantly need to innovate in order to meet the changing challenges that impact on their markets. To its credit, as per its post-Festival overview media release, the National Arts Festival launched “two key initiatives” this year that provided “fresh energy to the iconic 44-year-old event: the launch of the Creativate Digital Arts Festival and the move of the Standard Bank Village Green craft market to a new venue”.
These also helped to contribute to a “modest but important” increase in the attendance figures.
Notwithstanding this “fresh vibe and energy” though, I couldn’t help but come away with a feeling that the 2018 Festival, could very well be my last as a producer.
Shows staged by MVG Productions
The company through which I produce and tour works that I author staged three productions on the Fringe (Green Man Flashing, When Swallows Cry and Land Acts), and co-produced a fourth (Best of Pay Back the Curry and State Fracture). These were all “in production” so that there were no pre-production costs (other than having to rehearse in a replacement actor for Green Man Flashing).
Green Man Flashing is a prescribed text at IEB schools (these schools were a significant part of the Johannesburg market where the play was produced in May), and this generation of learners would not have seen a live production, hence the staging of this work on the country’s premier arts platform. When Swallows Cry was just beginning its life as a touring production and has important things to say about a key contemporary theme – migration and refugees. The Festival attracts international students, academics and producers interested in contemporary South African theatre, so this would be another good reason to stage such a piece at the Festival.
Having been to the Festival with work for about twenty years, I know that it is unlikely that dramas (as opposed to comedy or satire) would “make money” on the Fringe. The two dramas were good showcases of the kind of work I would like to do in this genre, while the satirical revues were popular forms of contemporary social commentary. In terms of economies of scale, the two dramas were labour-intensive (8 actors, 2 directors and 2 stage managers between them), while the revues relied on the same actor and stage manager. This – the capacity of the income from the revues to subsidise the costs of the dramas – together with the sharing of some costs with other productions featuring the same personnel, reduced the potential financial risks.
As for any production at the Festival, costs (in addition to the Festival’s administration charges) included accommodation, per diems, flights, local transport and fees – the latter weekly rates guaranteed irrespective of income from the Festival.
Each of the dramas had six shows in the Gym (237-seater), Land Acts had 9 shows in the Followspot Productions venue, Kingswood College and the “Best Of” show featured 8 times in the Drill Hall, along with a number of stand-up comedians curated by Siv Ngesi. In total, there were 6460 seats to sell, more than the total number of seats for the Afrovibes Festival in the Netherlands, according to one of its organisers.
In the end, we sold a total of 2604 tickets (40% of the total), with an additional 239 free tickets allocated (8% of the overall total), and of which 116 were artist tickets (a really good innovation to allow artists to see shows for free).
Best of Pay Back the Curry and State Fracture attracted the most (947 tickets), followed by Land Acts (876), When Swallows Cry (602) with Green Man Flashing – the most expensive show to stage – having a total audience of 418. Green Man Flashing played to an average of 69 people per show (29% capacity overall); When Swallows Cry played to 40% overall capacity with an average of 100 per show, while the average show figures for Land Acts and “Best of” were 97 (42% overall capacity) and 118 (59% capacity) respectively.
In the previous two years, we staged the Pay Back the Curry and State Fracture in the 100-seater Masonic, generally playing to capacity, so that Land Acts performed at least as well as its predecessors while the “combo show” exceeded previous average capacities by more than 15%.
The Festival admin costs for each show include venue hire (rates vary according to the size of the venue and its capacity to earn income), the fringe application (R1000.00), 10% of box office for the National Arts Festival, 8% commission for the ticketing company and advertising in the programme (one of the most important ways to draw attention to one’s work prior to the Festival).
Box office income for each of the shows was R25 744.00 for Green Man Flashing and R38 926.00 for When Swallows Cry, while Land Acts and “Best Of” earned R56 184.00 and R68 792.00 respectively, for a total of R189 646.00
“Festival admin” expenses (venue hire, application, ticketing, Festival commission and advertising) for each show were R10 686.64 for Green Man Flashing, R15 989.20 for When Swallows Cry, R17 897.92 for Land Acts and “Best Of” cost R24 049.60, for a total of R68 623.36.
These costs accounted for 36% of the total box office income, with the remaining amount of R121 022.64 not sufficient to cover the costs of accommodation, fees, per diems and transport for the creatives.
To cover the total costs (let alone make a profit), the four productions would have had to sell closer to 60% of the total number of available tickets, rather than the actual 40%.
Having been to the Fringe for at least twenty years, I am more than aware that the average attendance of even our most poorly attended show and the income generated by all the shows is above the average for their particular genres. However, over the last few years and notwithstanding the interventions undertaken by the Festival, there are risks and challenges that have made it increasingly difficult and unattractive to produce on the Festival Fringe.
Risks and challenges
1. The Festival’s media release notes the country’s “tough economic climate” and the “shrinking levels of disposable income” impact on the Festival’s numbers, with people spending less time at the Festival and seeking out “…free or low-cost entertainment”.
The country’s challenging economic environment does not only affect the National Arts Festival but other festivals too, and unfortunately, given the structural declines in various sectors of the economy, the huge losses to the fiscus through massive corruption, policies such as “expropriation without compensation” that may result in less investment, increasing costs in petrol and electricity, etc it is unlikely that the economic environment is going to improve significantly over the next 3-5 years. If anything, it is likely that we will face even tougher economic scenarios (weekend newspaper headlines point to a potential recession) that will impact more adversely on the Festival and its markets, making it less and less viable for independent producers to stage more-than-two-person works on the Fringe.
While the Festival’s official attendance figures for 2018 were 209 677, a “modest but important” increase in attendance on the previous year, they remain an unreliable indicator of actual attendance and – from the perspective of Fringe producers in particular – of ticket purchases. The Festival’s official “attendance figures” have fluctuated enormously over the last five years: 225 538 in 2014 in the year the Festival celebrated its fortieth anniversary; then a massive increase to 241 116 the following year (2015), falling back to 227 524 the year after that (2016) and then a huge drop to 202 642 last year, with an increase of 7000 this year.
These figures are unhelpful as they include – as the festival media release concedes for the first time – tickets purchased and attendance at free events. In 2014, the Festival estimated – free – attendance at Main exhibitions at 120 people per day and 50 per day for Fringe exhibitions. Then, 24 Fringe and 12 Main exhibitions accounted for at least 29 000 in the attendance figure. This year, there are 11 Main exhibitions and 45 Fringe exhibitions, which, using the same attendance estimates as for 2014, would account for 39 000 of this year’s attendance. This year, there was the addition of international buskers at the Village Green who were – according to the Festival release – a “huge hit”, accounting for more – free – attendance.
It would be more helpful for producers to see trends in attendance from ticket sales for the Main programme on the one hand, and then ticket sales for the Fringe, with these further broken down into sales for comedy, drama, dance, illusion, etc. Over the last five years the “attendance” has increased by 16 000 in one year, dropped by 14 000 the following year, and then a further drop by 25 000 the year after that. It would appear that real or actual attendance has declined over a period of time, but by increasing the number of free events (exhibitions, buskers, etc), the Festival is able to arrive at an increase in attendance this year, which is understandably more attractive to sponsors than declining numbers.
For the Fringe producer though, declining – actual – attendance is bad news, particularly when one is competing in this decreasing market with 250 plus shows on the Fringe and more than 100 shows on the Main programme. Unfortunately, economic conditions in the country are not going to change significantly in the next few years to improve the actual – ticket-buying – attendance at the Festival.
2. The overall economic environment is not the only challenge and risk facing independent producers on the Fringe; the political climate impacts on what people want to see. In 2016, 19 of the top 30 shows in terms of ticket sales were in the Comedy category, while only 7 were drama shows. The Festival’s media release affirms Followspot Productions which again had the Festival’s “biggest-grossing Fringe show”, with Tony Lankester commending the company for getting “the formula right, consistently delivering productions that hit the right notes with audiences”.
Followspot Productions curated the Kingswood College with Land Acts one of the shows and another curated venue – the Drill Hall, where the Best of Pay Back the Curry and State Fracture featured – also featured strongly among the top contenders.
As per the Festival’s media release, The Edge was a third curated venue with strong – theatre – shows and which has developed a reputation for presenting excellent work. However, it is the “lighter” shows that audiences are most attracted to. This is also our experience with the two satirical revues achieving greater numbers than the dramas; if audiences want political commentary, they at least would like to laugh!
If the market’s desire for comedy and light entertainment (given the challenging political climate) is not a sufficient challenge for producers interested in presenting “serious” work on the Fringe, there is the further challenge of “oversupply” of theatre/drama on the Fringe. There were more than 250 shows on the Fringe covering genres such as dance, physical theatre, illusion, comedy, theatre, children, music theatre and music; of these, 108 (more than 40%) were theatre shows. But of the more than 1200 shows presented on the Fringe across these genres, in excess of 600 i.e. at least 50% were theatre/drama shows!
Serious theatre also – generally – has larger casts than comedy, so that it is more expensive to produce on the Fringe. So, for a theatre producer, unless one is staging comedy or satire too to subsidise one’s serious theatre presentations, the competition with comedy or light entertainment already places one at a significant disadvantage, and then on top of that, one is having to compete against an oversupply of serious theatre for a limited audience.
3. One of the “benefits” of producing at the Festival is possible media coverage that could be used for future marketing purposes. A major loss to the Festival last year, was Cue, the daily festival newspaper put together and distributed by the Department of Journalism at Rhodes University. This year, the Herald picked up the mantle with Spotlight, but while all our shows and profiles of creatives associated with the shows received generous coverage, it is too early to tell whether this newspaper highlighting festival news and providing reviews in much the same way that Cue did, is sustainable – given the precarious nature of Independent Newspapers itself – or whether commercial imperatives and considerations will impact adversely both on what it does or is able to do, and its longevity. The Festival tried to obviate the absence of Cue with more online and social media, but these did not make up for the hole left by Cue.
4. A final – and increasingly serious – risk is Grahamstown’s/Makhanda’s failing infrastructure. This year, there was only one day in which there were electricity blackouts, but fortunately, the one MVG Productions show affected by this, could be performed with natural light. If we had been unable to perform, we would have had to return the ticket income to the purchasers. Given the slim margins, and declining audiences, the risk of having to cancel shows – and losing income – because of the failure of the city to provide secure electricity makes the Festival unattractive to producers.
The National Arts Festival faces its major challenges from the overall political and economic climate in the country, and from its location in Makhanda, making it increasingly unattractive for theatre producers on the Fringe. I have deep appreciation for the pressures that the Festival faces in order to survive and keep being the interface between the arts and the sponsors/government, but I fear it has largely lost its attraction (for me anyway) as a platform for doing “serious theatre” on the Fringe.
Notwithstanding this, the Festival remains the most important national platform for the arts, and for younger producers and new entrants, this is an ideal space to learn.