NATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL 2017: A REFLECTION

Introduction

When I first attended the National Arts Festival in the early nineties, the Spur – located towards the lower end of High Street – often had a queue to get in, particularly in the evening.  A few years later, it moved higher up towards the Rhodes University side of High Street, where it had more space, seemed to have more light, and had fewer, if any, queues, but always appeared to be well-patronised.  This year, the Spur has an entirely different location, is much larger and looks smarter than its previous incarnations, but at the times I went there between shows, it generally appeared to be empty.

In some ways, my experience of the Spur over the number of years serves as a metaphor for my experience of the Festival.  From a bustling environment, to a more, shall we say, spacious one. Except that the Spur’s infrastructure is relatively new, while the Makana municipality creaks.

There is no doubt in my mind that the National Arts Festival is an important event that must continue to exist.  However, if it was not clear before that challenges need to be addressed not only for the Festival’s own sake, but in order to contribute to the development of the industry as a whole so that the Festival is a better reflection of our industry and country, then the 2017 Festival has made this abundantly clear.

This reflection highlights some of the issues (both analytical and personal), and a second piece “Towards a more impactful National Arts Festival” – written after the 2014 Festival and updated this year – outlines how a key issue (that of the size of the Festival) may be addressed.

Signs of decline

This year’s Festival had a number of signs appearing to signal that it is a Festival in decline.  The Main Programme – at least as regards theatre – was relatively shallow, comprising mainly pre-existing productions.  For the first time as far as I can remember, there was no Cue, no daily Festival newspaper with reviews, news and pictorial impressions of the Festival. The Village Green – on the few occasions that I visited – resembled a ghost town (compared with experiences of previous years), and not only because of the apparent absence of a beer tent this year.  It was relatively easy to find space at The Long Table and there was little need for the oversupply of car-guards to point out empty parking bays.

And then, when Vincent Mantsoe attracts fewer than 40 people to a performance…Nkandla, we have a problem!

Interrogating the numbers

Writing in Grocott’s Mail on 14 July, Tony Lankester, CEO of the Festival suggested that “the 2017 Festival took a slight knock in numbers…early indications are that our theatre audiences dropped by about 10% from last year.”   In another report, Lankester said “We experienced a 10,2% drop in attendance to our various events and performances, with overall Festival attendance settling on 202 643”.

According to last year’s official release, overall attendance and ticket sales were listed as 227 524, a difference of 24 881 (suggesting a 10,9% drop rather than the Festival’s “10,2% drop” in “attendance and ticket sales”).

The first thing that needs to be said is that 24 881 is not a “slight knock”; if there had been an increase of nearly 25 000, we would have been told that the Festival had experienced “tremendous” growth, in Trumpian-speak.  25 000 is the equivalent of more than 200 sold-out shows in the Barney Simon theatre at the Market (or 144 sold-out shows in the Baxter’s Studio Theatre).

Secondly, readers need to be reminded that “attendance and ticket sales” numbers do not mean that 202 643 unique individuals came to Grahamstown (after all, Grahamstown can hardly cope with its regular population of less-than-100 000).  If one person stays for four days and buys tickets for 6 shows per day, that would constitute “attendance” of 24, and if this represented the “average” festival-goer, then fewer than 9 000 people would actually buy tickets or attend events at the Festival (the Festival – to my mind – has never corrected the impression given by the Minister of Arts and Culture and by newspapers that it is NOT 200 000 unique people who attend the Festival).  For artists, this is important as the market in which they are vying for sales is significantly smaller than the impression given by the overall attendance figures.

Thirdly, readers also need to know that “attendance and ticket sales” includes attendance at free events, so that, for example, a visual arts exhibition on the Main Programme is counted as having 120 attendees per day while its Fringe counterparts are estimated to have 50 attendees each day (or that was the case in 2014). 9 Main and 30 Fringe exhibitions at this year’s Festival would thus account for (free) “attendance” of at least 28 380 (14% of the total).

So, if one subtracts the “free attendance” figures from the overall attendance figure of 202 643 (and there could be more free events that I have not factored in here e.g. is attendance at the annual street parade counted?), that would leave ticket sales of 174 263.

Let’s – conservatively – allocate 100 000 of the 174 263 to Main Programme events, the popular jazz festival, the large venue symphony and comedy concerts, the theatre, dance and family components, Thinkfest and the Film Festival, etc, that would mean fewer than 75 000 tickets for the more than 280 Fringe shows (family fare, theatre, dance, music, etc), or an average of 260 tickets per show.

But the Fringe does not work on “averages”; it operates as a “free market” with some shows attracting larger markets than others, some generating far more income than others because they are able to charge higher prices by virtue of being in more demand, and some having long runs which builds word-of-mouth advertising and brings in more income.  In the venue in which my three shows were presented – along with four others – the best of the seven sold in excess of 90% of its tickets while another sold less than a third of its tickets.

Although all were one-person shows in our venue, some had higher costs than others with directors, designers and other pre-production costs, costs that would not be recovered at the Festival even if the production sold out all its shows.  The risks and the investment by many Fringe artists and producers in the Festival are thus not insignificant.

Which brings me to the same conclusion as in previous years: the Festival – in terms of “supply” – is too large for the size of its market i.e. “demand”.  The attendance figures emphasise this even more this year.

It is simply not true – as some commentators would have us believe – that this is normal for all Festivals and that artists simply have to deal with it.  Most other festivals – the Afrikaans ones in particular – limit the number of productions, and the ticket prices are higher so that generally, artists do not lose money by participating in the Festival (which is, however, the general experience of many Fringe artists).

Reviews, Awards and Opportunities

Despite the financial challenges and risks, many artists will continue to make the annual trek to the Festival as this is the only national platform on which they can present, test and market their – particularly theatre – work.  There is always the hope that some local or international producer, some theatre, some festival will see and like the work enough to select it for a tour elsewhere, with the potential then for amortising the production costs over a period of time.  Others sell toothpaste, cars and T-shirts to earn a living; we sell our theatre productions; the longer the life of a play, the more chance we have to earn rent, school and gym fees.  The days of the Festival serving as some kind of arts hypermarket are largely over though, but there are international producers like Afrovibes and local festivals like the Hilton Arts Festival that offer additional prospects.

Then there is the possibility of a review, which – in our world of small returns – might be an affirmation of our work or our egos or both, and might even be useful for future marketing purposes.  But, with no Cue, even a positive on-line review meant little at the Festival as its primary market is not – yet – tuned into social media to make this meaningful.  Furthermore, there are few real theatre reviewers left nationally, and those that remain, do not attend the Festival; without Cue, there will be no platform (beyond the limited on-line sites) at the Festival for their work.

There are journalists at the Festival, but the most active among them are of the “embedded” or “captured” variety.

“The Critter” comprising Mike Loewe, Steve Kretzmann and Sarah Roberson are the arts journalists embedded within the Festival, coming out every July to do their “crits” and then hibernating before doing the same at the Cape Town Fringe in September.  They deny that they are “reviewers”, preferring the label of arts journalists, but this does not stop them from offering their superficial opinions about the work of new and older professionals in a demanding industry. When I last read them a few years ago, I had the impression that their “reviews” are more about themselves, their having fun and trying to outdo each other with their versions of wit and poison pens, than with writing with insight and understanding about theatre.  As embedded journalists, they would often be at the forefront of defending the Festival and its management or offering gloating “reviews” of the work of artists close to management, while not being averse to pointing their pens of bile at those who challenge or critique the Festival.

Then there are the captured journalists, like everyone’s favourite reviewer, Tracy Saunders.  As a reviewer, Saunders has enormous power to influence public thinking about the shows she reviews and about the issues, institutions and individuals she profiles.  In this, she is not, of course, unique.  However, she serves on the Artistic Committee of the National Arts Festival and convenes the Standard Bank Ovations Award panel.  In these positions, she gets to determine what is selected for the Arena (and what not) and is highly influential in the allocation of Standard Bank Ovations (a role she also plays on the Fleur du Cap committee).  Saunders also gets to influence the selection of judges for the Standard Bank Ovations panel so that the power relations and the dynamics on the panel would favour Saunders as the Convenor.

One would hope and expect that those who select work for some form of public acknowledgement do it on the basis of the work, rather than allow personal grudges, or their personal relationships and preferences within the industry or their need for institutional affirmation to inform their selections.  In our industry of small returns though, the capturing on the one hand, and on the other, allowing oneself to be captured in a mutually beneficial relationship, play themselves out in ways other than Gupta-like financial benefits.  Saunders has perks, power and prestige at the Festival, and from the Festival’s perspective, there is one less journalist to interrogate or critique it and its Cape Town Fringe sibling.

The 2016/17 Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards (admittedly, I haven’t attended for the last four years), under pressure because of the absence of black African nominees, created categories of winners to ensure greater demographic representativeness.  This year, the Standard Bank Ovations dished out awards to 35 different productions (or about 12% of the total number of shows on the Fringe).  That is a lot of awards which makes one wonder about the politics of representation rather than quality, innovation and excellence being real benchmarks as per the supposed intention of the awards.

An award was created this year to acknowledge Daniel Mpilo Richards for his “Stand Out Performance” in State Fracture; do forgive my cynicism and bemusement for thinking that this was a belated and embarrassed form of “apology” for the Ovations panel’s snubbing of Pay Back the Curry last year, a show that achieved the rare feat of selling out all its shows at the Festival, and went on to earn Daniel the Best Breakthrough Newcomer Award at the Naledi Theatre Awards (as well as a nomination for the script).

By the way, with Daniel having won this Stand-Out Performance Award, how are Standard Bank Silver Ovation Awards decided upon?  Were the writing and directing of State Fracture so average as to warrant “only” an Ovation Award (in its own right and/or relative to other Silver Ovation Award winners), or was it the same impulse and personal prejudices that informed the snubbing of Pay Back the Curry last year?

Make no mistake; being critical within our industry does have consequences.  We can so easily see the embedded and the captured within our political world; in our industry of small returns, we have much greater difficulty recognising and dealing with it.

At the risk of protesting too much, I have no problem with not winning awards (how many awards does one need to be an “award-winning playwright”?).  I believe that those of us who have managed to gain some profile within our industry should use that profile to create opportunities for other, younger practitioners, for that is one way in which we will grow our industry.  So what pisses me off is when these young practitioners are prejudiced, as was the case with Daniel in Pay Back the Curry, or when young performers are unfairly critiqued by “reviewers” like Kretzmann “the acting of Siya Sikawuti and Mandisi Sindo was unremarkable…the play needs…possibly a different cast…” (Return of the Ancestors, 2014)

Fortunately, whatever embedded reviewers and judges may think, their opinions and awards have relatively little effect at the box office.  A week before the Festival, Pay Back the Curry that had been ignored by the Ovations panel last year, had sold a hundred more tickets than two shows – combined – in the same venue, that had both won Ovation Awards in 2016. Once the Festival started, one of these shows went on to generate good houses on the basis of word-of-mouth, while the other did less well, despite both being Ovation winners.  By the same token, while State Fracture won a Standard Bank Ovation Award after its first performance at the Festival, this did not dramatically drive up its sales for the next few days (perhaps if Cue had been around to announce it, this might have made a difference). A new show, Helen of Troyeville, a “searing drama” as one reviewer described it rather than a comedy or political satire, sold about as many tickets as State Fracture overall, but, tellingly, it sold more than 50% of its tickets before the Festival even started, before any audience had seen the play.

(As an aside, none of my three shows had a poster – they did have a full-page ad in the Festival programme – and they played to 76%-93% capacity overall.  Posters may be self-affirming, but artists need to consider whether, within an expensive festival, they are a necessary expense).

Those of us who have attended the Festival for a while and have developed followings both at the Festival and elsewhere, are more likely to attract audiences for our work than newcomers or veterans who for some or other reason have yet to “capture” the attention of the Festival markets.  By virtue of having a number of shows at the Festival, in this “free market” of the arts, we do not compete on “equal terms”; those of us with more privileged education, networks, resources, etc generally do better than those without these.  So, the more shows we have, the more we take opportunities, income and profile from others; that is the nature of the so-called “free market” in which we supposedly compete on equal terms, but clearly, do not.

Conclusion

With the broader economic and political challenges of our country, the situation for the National Arts Festival is not going to improve dramatically in the next while.  Accordingly, in my view, the Festival needs to offer fewer, more quality shows and encourage the theatre community to invest in and grow the number of quality shows.  And then, the Festival needs to ensure greater independence and rigour of arts journalism and quality of reviews and award-making so that these actually contribute to the quality of the work, of our industry and thus of the Festival, rather than being content with what passes for these at the moment.

Mike van Graan

July 2017

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About mikevangraan

Mike van Graan is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. He is a playwright, and most recently served as the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute. He was the founding Secretary General of Arterial Network, a civil society network of artists, activists and creative enterprises engaged in the African creative sector and its contribution to human rights, democracy and development on the continent. Currently, he also serves as a Technical Expert to UNESCO on the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.
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