The National Arts Festival has been in the custodianship of executive director Lynette Marais for the past 20 years. She can retire now with peace of mind and her legacy intact. The event is in excellent shape. From a logistical point of view it is one of the most efficiently run festivals in the world. Besides the 500-odd shows starting on time, the festival is bigger than ever, financially secure and poised for greater things.
Marais’s job is daunting. The festival is run by a skeleton staff that has to micromanage every detail, while balancing the bigger picture. Teamwork gets them through.
‘You feel like an octopus and everybody is pulling one of your legs. And you know octopuses have got only little brains,” says Marais.
‘I know what it is to stand on that stage and I know how the artist relies on having that support. The confidence that there is somebody there and they have you in the palm of their hand and they will get you through it. I have always tried to make it good, easy and pleasant for the artists.”
Marais is looking forward ‘to not having the stress I have carried for however many years. I will help my friends and do everything I can, but it will be a relief knowing I’m not carrying the can.”
Fortunately for all involved, the succession has been well managed by the board. Ismail Mahomed, who takes over the reins, is in the office with Marais for this year’s festival.
‘Are we looking for change?” I ask Mahomed.
‘I think change is inevitable by the very nature of the arts,” he says. ‘The way we generate new kinds of audiences. We have to be at the pivot of making things happen. I think the expectation in the arts community is that with any kind of change in management there will be a change in direction.”
Mahomed is trying to encourage artists and stakeholders in the festival to be vocal and ‘kick our butts”.
‘We as management need to go into meetings informed by the aspirations of the arts community so that we direct change to meet those expectations. There has to be open and honest debate with management throughout the year.”
The impression created by Mahomed and the newly appointed chief executive Tony Lankester is that the festival is beginning to be seen as a national resource for the artistic community of South Africa. This year sees the launch of Hands On! Masks Off! — a programme of workshops, discussion forums, networking opportunities and seminars for artists run by the doyens of the industry.
‘It’s fine to say we need to develop new audiences, but as an arts community we must take responsibility for growing those audiences. The approach we are taking with this year’s festival is: let’s first skill the practitioners so that the practitioners can be partners with us in developing new audiences,” says Mahomed.
‘The main festival has developed strongly, but I think we need to look at how we meet the challenges of the independent theatre sector, which is who largely comes to the festival hoping that someone will see their work and take it further.”
Having participated in the festival in various capacities for 23 years, Mahomed feels ‘I have paid my dues”. His approach should reassure artists that the festival is still in good hands. He sees himself as ‘a passionate artist who wants to do things and a manager who has to give consideration to a whole range of logistics. I am somehow able to look at things through both lenses. I can empathise with artists as I have come the route the majority of artists have come.”
The invitation is open and genuine and the arts community should respond.