Towards a more impactful National Arts Festival

This article addresses some of the “how” in relation to criticisms and points raised in a previous article reflecting on the 2017 Festival.  It combines recommendations made after previous festivals on the size of the Festival (2014), reviews and reviewers (2014) and the Standard Bank Ovation Awards (2017).


After this year’s edition (2014), there was much debate about the National Arts Festival as a market for the performing arts, and theatre in particular, given that there is clearly an oversupply of theatre on the Fringe for the size of the market that the Festival attracts for this genre.

This debate extended to the economic impact of the Festival in Grahamstown itself and in the Eastern Cape as a whole, particularly interrogating the actual beneficiaries of the Festival as opposed to broad statements of economic impact.

With the National Arts Festival also organizing the inaugural Cape Town Fringe, the questions about the size of the festival, its location and its actual beneficiaries played themselves out in that context too.

In the light of these debates and the critical questions raised, this short paper offers some ideas for how the National Arts Festival can make a real impact on the livelihoods of artists and people who really need it in Grahamstown, while maintaining its status as the premier arts festival in the country.

On reducing the size of the Fringe

Other than for a minority of practitioners who do really well on the Fringe, the general experience for Fringe theatre-makers is that they lose money. This is a direct consequence of there simply being too many theatre offerings for the size of the market.

The resistance to reducing the size of the Fringe has come in the form of numerous arguments.  Key among these are:

  1. audiences want variety and options; reducing the Fringe will take away a key attraction of the Festival
  2. the Festival is a free market; everyone has the same chance to “make it”, so this is an excellent place to learn what the real world is like
  3. theatre-makers come to the Fringe not only for financial reasons, but also to be noticed, to launch their plays – reducing the Fringe would take away such opportunities
  4. who will select and what criteria will be used to make such a selection if the Fringe has to be reduced?

Responses to these arguments

  1. Festival-goers (festinos) want variety

One festino can see a maximum of 77 shows i.e. 11 days X 7 shows per day; which only a handful, if any really achieve.  Most festinos probably see 4-5 shows per day X 5 or 6 days i.e. 24-30 shows (including Main and Fringe theatre, music, dance, etc) for the whole festival.

The first point then, is that there is no need to present 180 plus shows (quantity) on the Fringe, in addition to the Main programme, for festinos to enjoy “choice”.

The Main Programme’s theatre and other shows tend to sell out because they are curated i.e. the festino is aware that some sort of selection has taken place and/or that it (co-)produced by a reputable theatre entity.  The shows that attract “market attention” on the Fringe are those that are produced by theatre-makers with a “quality” brand i.e. whom festinos know from previous festivals and/or theatre productions in major theatres around the country.

The second point is that, should festinos be assured of a degree of excellence (quality), they would be more inclined to book for these shows.

  1. The Festival is a “free market”; as difficult as it is for some theatre producers to make it, this is good practice for the “real world”.

Any analysis of those on the Fringe who generate the most income will show that it is those with brands, with networks and historical privilege that overwhelmingly are the usual top-sellers (the exceptions do not dispel the structural advantages that many top-sellers have).

While the Festival may be a “free market”, it is also a limited market in quantity (it is simply not large enough to support all the productions staged at the Festival) and while the demographics are changing, it is still overwhelmingly white so that black, relatively unknown theatre-makers (of which there is an increasing number), do, and will struggle to attract this market.

It is not that this market has an aversion to “black” work; it is that they are generally ignorant of such work and its producers, and will be unlikely to purchase tickets for these works unless there is a recognizable “brand” association (black or white), and/or they are affirmed through a Cue review or perhaps an Ovation award.

  1. Theatre-makers come to the Festival to launch their work, to be noticed, not only to make money; reducing the size of the Festival will take away these opportunities.

While this may be true, it is more likely that theatre-makers will get noticed if

a. there are fewer productions for producers (international and national) to see

b. fewer productions mean that longer, more in-depth reviews can be written that could attract the attention of producers and

c. there were greater investment in the quality of the work, with better production values being an additional attraction

d. fewer productions mean longer runs thereby giving the production more of a chance of “being noticed” as one challenge is for producers (and audiences) to get to the productions they want to while they are still running

  1. Who will select and what criteria will they use?

There will be no selection process so that no criteria will be used.  It is recommended that self-selection occurs by the Festival placing limits on the number of productions that independent producers may bring to the Festival, and/or to link the number of productions to (experienced) festival producers investing in, and helping new entrants to find a market at the Festival.

An experienced producer or a subsidized production house/theatre may bring any number of productions to the Fringe.  For audiences and producers, they will be more inclined to purchase tickets for these shows, rather than unknown or little known brands unless there is good “word-of-mouth” at the festival about such productions.

Thus, the large(r) number of productions by “good brand” producers may prejudice younger/less well known theatre brands.

It is proposed then that there be a three-tier system (if “tiers” upset you, call it something else, but herewith, the principles):


Tier One: Producers/theatre-makers who have staged a show on the Fringe at the Festival for five years or less

Such producers:

  1. are given a minimum of 5 performance and a maximum of 7 slots at the Festival
  2. are required to attend a briefing about producing at the Festival – the pros and cons – in their respective region (the Festival is to establish partnerships with institutions in every province where practitioners could collect toolkits/information packs about Festival production and/or to host information sessions)
  3. are invited to apply for
  4. an artistic mentor to advise/assist with the aesthetics of the play and
  5. a production mentor to advise on the branding, marketing and funding of the play

Members of the theatre community are/will be invited to offer such mentoring services, with producers able to choose (in order of priority) the mentor/s which they would like, and which would be most practical (in terms of geography, but recognizing that such mentorships can be conducted through technology i.e. skype, whatsapp, email, etc)

Tier Two: Producers who have staged work on the Fringe for 6 to 10 years

Such producers will be entitled to one play per year, and a second play if

  1. they have won a Standard Bank Ovation award in the preceding two years
  2. they have been selected for an international festival/theatre as a result of their work being seen at Festival (whether on the Main or the Fringe)
  3. one of their shows has sold the following percentage of the total number of tickets available for their show on the Fringe in the preceding two years:

30% of a 200+ seater (if 6 shows, then 30%+ of 1200+ seats i.e. 360+ seats)

35% in a 150-200 seater

40% in a 101-149 seater

50%in anything up to 100 seats (if 6 shows, then 50%+ of 600+ seats or 300+ seats/tickets) or they serve as substantial (rather than token) mentors (artistic and/or production) for a theatre-maker/producer in Tier One in the year of application for a third production

These criteria point to quality on the one hand and/or market demand on the other.

Such producers may have their two shows considered

  1. for a minimum of six and up to eleven shows
  2. if it is a returning show, for it to have won an award, or having been selected for an international platform and/or sold above the minimum ticket percentages as outlined above

Tier Three: Producers who have staged at least one play on the Fringe for at least 10 (not necessarily consecutive) years

Such producers may have two shows on the Fringe Festival and a third show in any one year, depending on the following criteria:

  1. they have won a Standard Bank Ovation award in the preceding two years
  2. they have been selected for an international festival/theatre as a result of their work being seen at Festival (whether on the Main or the Fringe)
  3. one of their shows has sold the following percentage of the total number of tickets available for their show on the Fringe in the preceding two years:

30% of a 200+ seater (if 6 shows, then 30%+ of 1200+ seats i.e. 360+ seats)

35% in a 150-200 seater

40% in a 101-149 seater

50% in anything up to 100 seats (if 6 shows, then 50%+ of 600+ seats or 300+ seats/tickets)

or they serve as substantial mentors (artistic and/or production) for a theatre-maker/producer in Tier One in the year of their application for a third production

If in two years, they fail to win an award or sell tickets as above, they revert to two shows per year maximum.


Theatre institutions and collectives (e.g. The Edge, ExploSIV Productions, Followspot productions) may bring up to seven shows in any one year, provided that

  1. at least two shows are Tier One shows
  2. artistic and/or production mentoring/support is provided to the Tier One shows that are part of its offering

No formal theatre institution (as opposed to individual theatre-makers/producers) – whether state-subsidised or private – will have a show on the Main Programme unless they also support at least one Tier One show on the Fringe.

The rights that individual and institutional/collective producers are entitled to are NOT TRANSFERABLE and can only be taken up by the producer/s themselves.


By applying this strategy

  1. Those who have attended and produced works on the Festival over a long period

1.1  are rewarded/recognized with greater opportunities

1.2  are challenged to produce better quality and/or more ticket-buying work

1.3  are invited to nurture/mentor new entrants/to give something back to the industry

  1. New entrants

2.1  have time to acquire experience of producing on the Fringe

2.2  are able to be mentored and to learn from others

2.3  are incentivized to produce good work/sellable work, and are rewarded with more plays

It is strongly recommended that if such a strategy is implemented – or a version thereof

  1. 10-15 high profile Fringe/theatre practitioners be approached to support the idea and to lend their weight as mentors to the project
  2. the broader theatre community be educated about this, and that it be “sold” as the theatre sector taking responsibility for itself
  3. theatre-makers who have attended the Festival for a while but who still struggle on the Fringe be invited to apply for artistic/production mentoring too

A smaller number of works, but still with brand names, and with greater incentivization towards greater quality and/or marketability, and the lending of “brand” names to new entrants as mentors, the overall quality and marketability of Fringe productions will be encouraged.


This was written about three years ago, and some of it might still have relevance to the discussion about reviews and reviewing, particularly at the National Arts Festival.

It seems like there are numerous things in place already to improve the general standard of reviewing – training possibilities (e.g. Kobus Burger), funding (e.g. Distell, BASA), mentoring (e.g. SA Writers Circle).  Perhaps we need to take responsibility as a sector, devise a little plan and come up with a mechanism to drive its implementation.

As I see it, the following: two immediate focus areas would be the  National Arts Festival (other major festivals use professional arts journalists attached to media partners like those in the Media 24 stable) AND Gauteng and Western Cape – the main regions of arts activity

Training could be provided by five institutions in particular: Johannesburg/Pretoria: School of Arts at Wits University and Tshwane University, Pretoria; UCT in Cape Town and University of Stellenbosch and Rhodes University

Also, an on-line course available throughout the year for freelancers around the country e.g. through Kobus Burger, former arts editor of Beeld, training.

There could be a generic course with specific models aimed at various genres (music, theatre, dance, film, literature, visual arts, etc).

Cue and the National Arts Festival

a. Identify/invite 30-40 senior students (minimum of BA Honours) and academics intent on attending the next festival, and who would be available to write reviews

b. All to complete an online training course in reviewing run by Rhodes University/Kobus Burger

c. All Cue writers are selected only if they have a certificate of competence from one of these course

d. Identify possible mentors to work with writers at NAFEST, to advise and comment on reviews prior to submission

e. All to sign a Code of Conduct to ensure no conflicts of interest in reviewing particular works

f. Festival/Cue to have a website for longer reviews, while Cue, given space limitations, carries shorter ones; the website to be well-advertised (people can access via smartphones easily enough)

Repository of reviews

a. Artslink to be invited to play this role

b. Anyone may submit reviews, categorized according to the production and dates of review so that comparisons may be made

c. A section – possibly – to be made available for only the best reviews, selected by a panel of five, to ensure compliance with “best practice”, to set standards for reviewing, and to celebrate excellence in the field

Annual awards for best reviewing as per existing awards (or additional awards at Fleur du Cap, Naledi, Ovations)

Annual gatherings

Reviewers, practitioners and trainers to meet in annual seminars in Gauteng and Western Cape at least to reflect on improvements/state of sector, exchange ideas, engage constructively, and plan on strategic interventions as necessary.

  1. Coordination

To be driven by a committee comprising representatives of the key producing festivals (National Arts Festival, ABSA KKNK, Clover Aardklop), training institutions and online platforms where review/arts journalism training takes place, SA Critics, funding partners.


 Consideration should be given to

  1. Having separate awards for productions that supported by institutions (productions – and I have had some of these – supported by a subsidized institution will invariably have better production values than most independent theatre pieces on the Fringe – is it really fair to compare them as equals?)
  2. Having separate awards or somehow acknowledging differences between works that have run before the Festival and works that premiere at the Festival (the Festival talks of “premieres” but means works that come to the festival for the first time, even if they have premiered elsewhere. Works that have had a season or two before the Festival are in better shape and thus stand better chances of being rewarded than works which have an audience and all the technical elements in play for the first time at the Festival. Works that have had prior seasons can be evaluated at their first performance, while works that premiere at the Festival should only be evaluated on their second, or preferably, third performance)


Use it, lose it.  Am done, and outa here.


Mike van Graan


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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