There is less of a vibe,” was a phrase heard so much it may as well have been the National Arts Festival’s tagline. Punters and performers alike couldn’t quite put their fingers on it, although everyone was fine-tuning a theory.
A day in, before the start of a sold-out Zenzi Makeba Lee show at Saint’s Bistro, a festival veteran offered his speculation to this neophyte.
“It could be that the jazz is programmed tighter at the back end of the schedule,” he said, “so the hordes are probably still coming. Also, the demarcations have been moved further uptown, creating a more exclusionary feel.” He was referring to the Village Green market being moved in 2009 from its traditional “downtown” base in Grahamstown to a larger space on the Rhodes University campus.
Talk of smaller attendance numbers seemed to increase with each subsiding night.
In the first show I attended, Andy Narell, backed by a five-piece band that included the charismatic Louis Mhlanga on guitar, tried to give a glimpse of steel pan culture to a deeply appreciative and reverent audience. By reverent I don’t mean silent. This was jazz as both intellectual music and party soundtrack, with each mood giving way to the next. But as the aisle became a dancefloor, it only seemed to heighten the eyesore of empty seats in the spacious DSG Hall.
At the Thomas Pringle Hall at the Monument, featured artist Neo Muyanga’s inspired Solid(T)Ary played to a fraction of the venue’s capacity. By contrast, The Soil’s Friday-night slot at the Guy Butler Theatre was a heaving, ecstatic ocean of endorphins.
This is why I’m more likely to buy into comedian Stuart Taylor’s point about structural issues, as opposed to the economy, being responsible for attendance problems.
“Everything just seemed to happen very late this year,” he said after wrapping up the fourth of five shows at the Bowling Club. “So you’ve got that field where you’ve got all those [amusement park] rides … The rides arrived last night [Sunday night]. Or there is no beer garden at the Village Green.
“The beer tent [has traditionally] caused a lot of nontheatre punters to flock to the Village Green. You could come up to those people … Some uncle from East London, he’s not gonna go and watch ballet, he’s not gonna go watch drama. He’s just having a good time. You say: ‘Hey, I’m doing a comedy show,’ and he’s like: ‘OK, ja, I’ll come.’ And that was our audience … Let’s just say I’m finding parking a lot easier this year and that is indicative of a drop in numbers.”
Taylor says there is still an incentive for an established artist like himself to make the trip, even though being on Fringe means he has to pay his own production costs. “I walk out of here with a fairly polished product,” he says from a backstage dressing room. “I’m paying for the stage time but some comedian who is coming here for the first time, having played to much smaller houses, I think that’s where you are gonna see some downturn.”
The audience conundrum is perhaps heightened by the fact that from a programming point of view, the festival seems to be gaining at the midriff. “I think it’s big in terms of the [performing] groups that are here,” says Johannesburg-based Drama For Life member Lehlohonolo Dube.
“But in terms of the previous shows that I have been to, we are a bit lacking [audience wise]. There are literally artists who get just enough just to come here and perform their show, but they can’t really engage with the festival. I feel this year the festival has offered more of a platform to community groups, and most of them are first-timers who have brought strong material that should be given … more consideration in terms of finance.”
Others pointed out the lack of university-age patrons, but shows like Thandazile Radebe’s intense and bruising dance piece Sabela disproved this demographic theory. In a sense, the audience banter afterwards, with the younger (and mostly black) patrons finding its strident tone resonant and the older (and paler) patrons stung by its “didacticism”, suggests that curation is hardly the problem.
The festival’s structural design, seemingly complacent with its mimicking of apartheid geography, was an eyesore to a beginner such as myself.
Festival chief executive Tony Lankester said that it’s difficult to talk about overall attendance numbers until the event is over. Although he admitted the lack of National Lottery Commission funding had had an impact, he was adamant that “we are still staging the festival we wanted to stage”.
Due to new Lottery funding regulations, which stipulate a “cooling-off period” where organisations can’t apply for funding for 18 months after receiving a grant, the festival was unable to obtain the R10‑million (a third of its budget) that it usually receives from this source. Fortunately, the Eastern Cape premier’s office stepped in with a R9‑million lifeline.
“It was slightly disconcerting in terms of our planning, and it leaves some of the stuff until the last minute, but it is not the first time that it has happened and we have had to do things late,” he said.
Lankester said the first weekend traditionally focuses on the classical arts such as ballet and orchestral music, with the second weekend being “the party weekend with the big music shows”. But this year, because of the late school holidays, this has been reversed and “has slightly skewed our year-on-year ticket sales comparison”.
“A lot of the comments you might hear from traders … they might be feeling the effects of the recession. If you come to the festival and you have a fixed amount of money, you are having to make choices,” said Lankester.
And what about the absence of the popular beer tent? He said a change in the Eastern Cape Liquor Board’s application processes (from 40 days to 40 working days) meant that the deadline was missed by a few days, a predicament they could not negotiate their way out of. He added, however, that liquor outlets were still spread throughout the festival.