The National Arts Festival has released its final statistics for the 2014 Festival that has marked its own 40th anniversary as well as the 20th anniversary of democracy in South Africa. The Festival’s media release states that “a dazzling array of international performers from over 40 countries, and over 2800 performances in eleven days all contributed to a record 225 538 attendees at the National Arts Festival…”
The release goes on to say that “attendance at the event grew by 6,5% over 2013…” and “ticket sales, in rand terms, also hit a new high breaking R7m for the first time. This puts more money into the pockets of performers than ever before”.
These are indeed impressive figures, and yet, anecdotal experience of the Fringe in particular – where artists seldom feel “more money in (their) pockets” – but also of the Festival generally where it did not feel as though there were more people than at previous festivals, beg further interrogation of these statistics. Every artist would love the Festival to have growing attendance and to have this translated into greater income for artists, so the question is, why is this not the case for most artists, particularly those on the Fringe which is where the risk is greatest (productions on the Main programme are – generally – guaranteed their production and performance costs, while events on the Fringe are entirely dependent on box-office income and whatever sponsorship they may have managed to raise).
What, then, do the Festival figures mean for Fringe productions?
Let’s take a relatively cheap, pre-existing, two-person show from Cape Town as an example. The company would include the two – entry-level or relatively “unbranded” – actors and a stage manager at least, if not a director. These three people would need accommodation for 6 nights, at a cost of R350 per night each in a residence for a total of R6300. The road transport – assuming their set and props could be accommodated in their vehicle – would be in the region of R2000, with per diems for 6 days and performance-related fees amounting to about R12 000 for the week in total. The Festival application, ticketing surcharges and venue hire might amount to a further R4000 at least. It would cost this company R25 000 just be at the Festival for their six performances.
For six shows in a venue with an average of 110 seats and at R45 per seat, the production would need to make an average of R4170 per show just to break even; this would require an 85% attendance over the Festival run.
Should the two-person show be a new production that premieres on the Fringe, production costs including rehearsal fees for the actors, the stage manager, the director, designer fees, set, costumes and props would all need to be factored in and, for a relatively cheap show, could come to at least an additional R45 000. Such a new show would add to the costs of premiering at the Festival, as it is likely that the director would need to be transported, accommodated and have fee and per diem costs catered for.
But even with production costs of R45 000 and Festival costs of R25 000 for a total of R70 000, a new show – premiering at the Festival – would need to run at full capacity for its six performances with tickets costing R106 each (more than double the cost of an average Fringe ticket) just to break even.
The point is that it is extremely challenging for a production on the Fringe – and probably impossible for a new production premiering at the Festival – to cover the costs of its participation in the Festival merely through box office income.
On the Fringe 2014 alone, there were about 350 live shows, including 109 dramas, 69 comedies, 29 dance productions, 36 music theatre/cabaret shows, 56 contemporary music shows, and 15 physical theatre and 15 family shows.
If the R7m plus that the Festival generated through ticket sales were to be allocated just to the 350 Fringe shows, they would each receive an average of R20 000, unlikely to cover the real costs of participation of most Fringe shows at the Festival. But the R7m includes the Main Programme, and according to the Festival organisers, ticket sales are – roughly – divided between the Main and the Fringe at 40% and 60% respectively. Thus, should 60% of the R7m be allocated to Fringe productions, that R4,2m would – on average – account for R12 000 per production, even less to cover the costs of their Festival participation.
Clearly then, it would be in the interests of Fringe productions that the number of Festival attendees grows so that a 6,5% increase in attendance should be good news for Fringe artists. However, two points need to be made about the 225 538 “attendees”.
The first – and not so obvious point – is that this number does not refer to the amount of people who come to Grahamstown for the duration of the Festival. If this were the case, the population of Grahamstown would more than triple for the “eleven days of amazing”. There simply is not the infrastructure nor the beds to accommodate such an influx. This “record number of attendees” needs to be divided over the hundreds of events that comprise the Festival, with one “festino” being a multiple “attendee” i.e. one person could attend fifteen events, and it would be the “attendance” at those fifteen events that would be counted towards the figure of “225 538 attendees”:.
The second important point about this figure is that it does not refer only to ticket sales; it also includes complimentary tickets (media, sponsors, etc), free shows, events such as Sundowners and the Art Reach programme, attendance at the Fingo festival as well as attendance at exhibitions, although the “Village Green” craft market is excluded from the attendance figure.
The Festival uses “conservative” estimates of 50 people per day for attendance at Fringe exhibitions and 120 per day for Main exhibitions to so that with 24 Fringe and 12 Main exhibitions, this would account for at least 35 000 attendees over the eleven days. If one doubles that number to include attendees at the daily Sundowner events, Fingo Festival performances, the first shows of many Fringe productions (of which there were more than 150), free tickets as part of the Art Reach programme, complimentary tickets for sponsors and the media, including Cue writers, free shows offered by the Festival, etc, this would account for about 70 000 non-paying attendees. This would then mean that in the region of 155 000 tickets were sold for this bumper 2014 programme, including both Main and Fringe events.
This 155 000 would also be the approximate number of tickets sold if one divided this year’s record R7m in box-office income by an average ticket price of R45 (155 555 tickets).
(The actual number of tickets sold and the breakdown of these between Main and Fringe and then a further breakdown between drama, comedy, classical music, jazz, physical theatre, etc would be useful to determine trends, but this information is for the Festival to divulge at its discretion).
As indicated earlier, if the Fringe/Main proportions of income had to be applied to the box-office income, then the 350 Fringe productions would share 60% of R7m – or R4 200 000 – between them, an average of R12 000. It is more likely though that a few shows would do relatively well, earning R50 001 or more at the box office, a second tier would generate R30 001-R50 000, a third tier R20 001-R30 000, a fourth tier R10 001-R20 000 and then a number would generate less than R10 000. I would venture that most Fringe shows – and particularly new shows that premiere at the Festival or that come to the Festival without any significant hype or branding from previous outings – fall into the fourth and fifth tiers i.e. of the more than 200 Fringe theatre-related shows, more than half would generate less than R20 000 at the box office.
If 155 000 tickets are sold across the Main and Fringe programmes, how many people are actually buying these tickets? This would provide a better indication of the actual “box-office market” of the Festival. Assuming that most festinos stay for an average of 3 days and see 3-4 shows per day, the actual ticket-buying market for the Festival would be about 15 000, significantly less than the “225 538 attendees”.
While it is understandable that the Festival would provide us with figures that show regular growth, there is another way of evaluating these figures i.e. since the Festival prides itself in being the largest Festival of its kind in terms of the number of offerings, how many unsold seats are there at the Festival? And, what is the year-on-year trend in this regard?
The Festival has stated that at any one time, 10 697 people may be seated at its events. Assuming then that there is an average of 6 time slots per day for eleven days (some venues have more, some have less time slots), that would amount to more than 700 000 available tickets. But, if only 155 000 tickets have been sold, that would account for sales of just over 20% – or nearly 80% unsold tickets!
In simple “free market speak”, this would mean that there is a gross oversupply of goods for the market that the National Arts Festival provides.
While the Festival revels in being the second largest Festival of its kind in the world after Edinburgh, and promotes the idea that artists have more money in their pockets as a result of the increase in rand value of ticket sales, in reality, it means that the income is spread more thinly between artists as the number of shows – and artists – has increased.
In the media release announcing its final statistics, the Festival states that there was “a dazzling array of international performers from over 40 countries”. While this would affirm the international standing of the Festival and is essentially true, one production – such as the Swiss Ballet Company and as pointed out by the Festival itself – comprises performers from 13 (of the “over 40”) different countries. There is very little participation in the Festival by African artists, with the most significant form of participation being through the Analogue Eye platform with video art work from 16 African countries (also considered as part of the “over 40” countries) – besides South Africa – but without the artists necessarily being present themselves. In truth then, The Festival does not have productions from over 40 countries as one might assume from the media release.
The National Arts Festival is the most important arts platform in South Africa. The interrogation of these statistics is not to undermine the Festival in any way, nor to lessen its national and international status.
On the contrary, the purpose of this analysis is to move beyond the hype in order to understand the Festival in more depth as a practicing artist and as an activist in the arts and culture space in order propose ways in which the Festival may be improved, and perhaps increase its national, international – and hopefully – continental status.
A few points that may be made in summary:
1. being the biggest Festival of its kind in Africa and the second-largest in the world in terms of the number of events it offers, does not translate into being the Festival with the largest paying audience (the two-day Cape Town International Jazz Festival attracts more box office income than the 11-day National Arts Festival – 34 000 people X R395 day rate = R13,43 million, nearly double the National Arts Festival’s box office income)
2. while box-office income may have increased to record levels at just over R7m, it is not necessarily the case that artists leave the Festival with more money in their pockets than before, since this income is spread over an increasing number of productions (and therefore, artists)
3. although the Festival is billed as a democratic space in which all may equally compete for income and attention, this is not the case as Fringe productions are competing against Main productions at generally the same ticket prices, but with Main productions being largely subsidized, while Fringe productions carry the full risk
4. even though it may appear that at least on the Fringe, all are competing equally in a democratic environment, this is not the case with productions that come with institutional support (such as my and other productions supported by Artscape), that have more “brands” associated with them, that are more resourced in terms of skills, finances and marketing, etc, are more likely to do well commercially and artistically than those that may not have all or any of these
If the financial gains at the Festival are so limited for many, why then, do practitioners continue to produce on the Fringe? Some answers to this question would include the following:
1. to obtain a space at a theatre to showcase one’s work is infinitely more difficult than to hire or book a space on the Fringe
2. the Festival carries significant prestige and status so that to perform there is to bask in this prestige and status, even if one’s production does not have to pass any artistic criteria to be staged there
3. the Festival is the most important place at which to benchmark one’s work against the work of practitioners in the same genre from around the country
4. should one have the resources, it is the best place to attend productions and learn from the work of others
5. the Festival serves as a hypermarket for local and international producers and promoters so that it presents many more opportunities than any other event for one’s work to have a national and/or international life
6. with the Ovation and other awards on offer at the Festival as well as the opportunity to have one’s work reviewed, the Festival provides potential recognition of one’s artistic work, and could therefore contribute to building or affirming one’s brand as a practitioner or the brand/artistic merit of the production
7. the Festival is a great place for networking, for socializing and for meeting and interfacing with colleagues from around the country and internationally
8. by making a potential impact on the Fringe, a practitioner’s future bids to be on the Main programme will be enhanced
9. the Festival provides a good place to acquire experience as a theatre promoter, producer or entrepreneur
Some may participate in the Festival because they are unaware of the particular challenges posed by the Festival and thus be unaware of the possible financial losses (at least one production packed up and returned to Gauteng after only three people attended its first performance this year).
So, then, based on this analysis, what would be proposals for the future of the Festival?
1. The Festival should resist the temptation – and burden – of being the “second biggest Festival of its kind in the world” which will place ongoing pressure on the Festival to provide more and more productions and programmes and, on an annual basis, to show increases in its audiences in some way or another. The Festival is the most important platform for arts in all its diversity in our country, and it is this whether it has 300 or 600 productions or events. There is no other festival or event that can compete currently with its stature, its programming, and the diversity of its artists and audiences. The Festival should seriously consider:
1.1 limiting the number of productions at the Festival to facilitate a better distribution of the box-office income
1.2 increasing the size of the Main Festival with more curated works selected from other festivals and theatres of the preceding year
1.3 place less emphasis on “premieres” than on showcasing the best works produced during the preceding year
1.4 making entry into the Festival Fringe more competitive to ensure an all-round greater level of quality, with a higher emphasis on innovation, originality and risk-taking
1.5 working with institutions in each province to identify, nurture and produce new work for the Fringe and Main programmes
2. The National Arts Festival should position itself as one of the key platforms for the arts from the African continent. Numerous promoters and producers attend the Festival to select work for their institutions; the Festival could become a major conduit for showcasing and projecting the best of African dance, theatre, music, film and visual art into international markets. The Festival could work with a range of institutions that promote and artistic collaboration and exchange on the continent. Fishers of Hope and The Baobab were two 2014 productions that showed the potential for collaboration between South African and African theatre- makers.
3. The Festival provides good information about what Fringe artists might expect; however, it might be an idea to provide – particularly new Fringe productions – with a mentor – a volunteer theatre-maker who has attended the Festival at least five times before – who could advise the production about “working the Festival.”
The Festival has achieved 40 years of artistic endeavor and there have been numerous positive innovations in the last few years. Having reached this milestone, it is necessary for the Festival to look beyond itself as an event, and to its location within the broader South African and African artistic landscape, and on the basis of this, to determine a vision and strategies that will enhance its position as the leading arts festival in the country. This would require some hard decisions, but the Festival (and its key audience, artist, sponsors, etc) stakeholders might be the better for it.
Mike van Graan
Executive Director: African Arts Institute
Associate Playwright: Artscape