HOW do you fit 100 adults in a classroom designed for 30 schoolchildren? Where do the number of scarves and trenchcoats equal the number of aloes in bloom? If you’re in the Eastern Cape, you’ll know the answer. It’s an experience all on its own, is the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. The poky little town transforms every last available room, basement and attic into some kind of theatre, art exhibition or musical venue. It’s a benchmark festival for local and international artists to launch their work and attracts a diverse South African crowd.
Performers and artists must surely be inspired here. It’s a place to network with other artists and organisers, strut your own stuff and get educated on what other people around the country are thinking about and showcasing. It’s been happening since 1974. In 2006, over 141 000 people attended the festival, which consisted of 620 events and 2 064 presentations on offer. This year’s festival seems to indicate an increase on these numbers.
My festival begins on Friday night at 10.30 pm. At 10.15 pm, there is no-one on the street outside the Beethoven Hall, where the band Grassroots is performing. And then, at 10.20 pm, 50 people appear out of nowhere. (Herein lies the basic idea: book shows back to back and check out as much as you can while you’re at the festival.) We – the audience – climb a staircase that looks about 300 years old and huddle into a room on the second floor. Cameras flank the chairs in the audience. “Tonight is being filmed as a DVD production,” a voice over the PA system announces, “so feel free to shout and cheer as much as you want.”
For me, the drawcard of this bizarre little show is Concord Nkabinde, who is playing bass. Winner of the 2006 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for jazz, he’s one of those familiar South African faces. Grassroots put forth a sound submerged somewhere between African and Caribbean influence. The music is great – but it’s not a show. Steel pan player Dave Reynolds weaves his way to the front of the stage to take the mic from singer Siya Makuzeni in between every song, and I keep wondering why she didn’t just do the job herself.
While the main programme usually attracts audiences, it’s the fringe festival that always gets people talking, especially those interested in local productions. With 83 drama productions in the line-up, ranging from serious to comic, the fringe drama programme is like a mini novella.
One of the shows on the fringe is Faces for Radio, written and performed by my friend James Aitchison and local Maritzburg performer Michael Inglis.
It’s good to see James again, living in Grahamstown and chasing his dream of making a living out of performing. From a biased and unbiased point of view, the show is, conceptually, one of the superior offerings on the fringe this year.
It’s an ambitious acting duo in which Inglis and Aitchison perform the radio comedy on stage, while the audience is privy to the strained relationship of the characters behind the microphone.
Later, over coffee, James admits that he and Inglis need to work on the relationship of the characters behind the microphone. But after only 10 days of rehearsal, it’s a pretty entertaining piece of theatre.
It’s about seven degrees on the streets of Grahamstown on Saturday night and the Long Hall is a popular hangout for a hot home-cooked meal and a glass of wine, before my wife and I make our way to another fringe offering – Andrew Buckland’s Crapshoot. It’s an experimental piece of … well, the name says it all.
Backed by a three-piece jazz band, Buckland’s performance is clever in places but random for most of the time, as Buckland enters from the back of the room, performs some random movements, nearly plays the trumpet, talks about vegetable abuse and liar fighting. Then he gets interrupted on his cellphone and leaves. Some call it “art”, I call it a slap-together. It may have been better to watch his new solo piece Voetsek!”, which premieres at the festival this year.
After a day at the festival, roaming the streets and chatting to different people, there are a number of buzzwords – three of which are “Tin Bucket Drum”. Sunday’s afternoon show sees Ntando Cele narrating the story of the little drummer girl. This young actress is mesmerising, portraying a range of interesting characters across age and gender with delightful clarity.
The show is clever, using silhouettes to good effect as Cele narrates. Undoubtedly, it’s a hidden gem of this year’s festival.
Being a sucker for the acoustic guitar and a good live musical performance, I make our final stop of the festival at the Protea Hotel to watch Fly Paper Jet – Travelling Salesmen. Billed as a nu folk/jazz duo, Lance and Josh take the stage dressed as newspaper boys out of the forties era. Their show is immediately infectious.
“We represent a larger company and are here to sell our product,” says Lance, as Josh gets up and walks down the aisle with a tacky suitcase full of their new album, “Let’s Go Back To The Carnival”. It’s an hour of intelligent tunes, unique and completely accessible, and I’m relieved o find musicians who put an effort into performing a show. It’s personally therapeutic, and a great way to round off a far-too-brief but completely enjoyable Grahamstown experience.