Ringing endorsement for arts as Grahamstown National Arts Festival grows

BY ANNE TAYLOR - JULY 15, 2015

The popularity of Grahamstown’s National Arts Festival has been reaffirmed with the release of this year’s attendance figures, which show a “significant” increase in attendance in 2015. This increase comes despite expectations that attendance might flatten after last year’s bumper 40th birthday programme.

“The total number of tickets issued increased to 241 116, representing 6.9% growth over 2014. Even more heartening is that, within this number, there are more paid-for tickets than ever before with the rand value of tickets bought for Festival shows up by 18%,” Tony Lankester, the Festival’s CEO, said.

“While the Festival continues to offer great value and plenty of free entertainment, audiences are showing that they respond to quality work positively, and are prepared to put their money where their passion is – even in a tough economic climate. This augers well for the arts sector, and is a ringing endorsement for the talent and hard work of our artists.”

On the Main programme, Jazz and Theatre each accounted for roughly one third of sales, with the remaining third being split between Dance, Comedy, Music and some of the niche genres.

“The quickest selling show was Irish Comedian Dylan Moran, whose three performances in the Guy Butler Theatre sold out faster than any show we’ve seen in recent years. We also had a massive response to Thandiswa MazwaiBeatenbergRay Phiri and MiCasa, as well as to Chester Missing and Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Theatre, Christiaan Olwagen’s A Doll’s House,” Lankester said.

“The list of Main productions that had sold out houses is long – but includes Three Blind Mice, the Baxter Theatre’s remake of Barney Simon’s Born in the RSA and Pieter Dirk Uys’ A Part Hate, A Part Love. It was also great to see former Victoria Girls High School Head Girl Nomfundo Xaluva perform to a sold-out crowd on the Standard Bank Jazz Festival stage,” Lankester said.

Both the Symphony Concert and the Gala Concert also played to packed houses.

Artistic Director Ismail Mahomed said that he was delighted with the response to the programme on offer. “Audiences are responding well to both fresh approaches to classic works (HamletA Doll’s HouseBorn in the RSA) and exciting new work (Three Blind MiceA Voice I Cannot Silence),” he said.

Mahomed also noted the success of some of the international work and collaborations on the programme – notably The Ayrshire Fiddle OrchestraThe Dog Days are Over and Red Earth Revisited.

Comedy and Theatre continue to dominate the massive Fringe programme, accounting for 38.1% and 25.2% of total Fringe sales respectively.

“If you scan the list of top productions on the Fringe it is still dominated by Comedy with great performances by Loyiso Gola, Rob van Vuuren in WhatWhat and a series of top-performing productions from the Followspot Collective (Big Boys IIBig Girlsand Bon Soir),” Mahomed said. Theatre and Dance held its own, however, with Tobacco And The Harmful Effects Thereof;BlueWe Didn’t Come To Hell For The Croissants and Woza Albert! all doing well both critically and at the box office.

Lankester pointed to the Festival’s agreement with the National Lottery as a key driver of the success of the Fringe.

“Through this partnership we are able to keep the Fringe stage open to all to participate, with a very low economic barrier to entry and with no curation or selection taking place. This makes it the country’s biggest and most democratic stage, and saw around 300 productions and 50 visual artists make the trip to Grahamstown,” he said.

“The Fringe is very competitive and, once again, we saw productions that combined excellent work with solid marketing doing the best. This can be a tough but a very useful experience for young theatre practitioners.”

Behind the numbers, Lankester points to a number of other features of this year’s Festival that organisers are proud of. These include:

      • Growth in the number of tickets sold online and through the Festival’s mobile app, which accounted for 22% of all sales this year.
      • The introduction of a free “Festival Hopper” service, run by a local taxi operator, to move festivalgoers between venues more efficiently.
      • The staging of two works (Waltz and Waterline) from Grahamstown community-based companies supported by the Festival’s ‘Creative City’ partnership with the European Union, both of which won
        Standard Bank Ovation Awards.
      • The 28 visiting international producers who used the Festival as a “shopping ground” to look for work to tour to their Festivals and institutions.
      • Productions from artists emanating from more than 30 countries on the programme – including Angola, Belgium, Senegal, Spain, India, Ireland, the Netherlands, Canada, Colombia, Benin and Zimbabwe.
      • Employment of more than 400 freelance and contract staff, predominantly from the ranks of the unemployed in Grahamstown and student interns, to work across the event in different capacities.

“We now get down to planning the 2016 Festival, which will run from 30 June until 11 July 2016,” Lankester concluded.

“This year will be a tough act to follow, but we’re confident we can rise to the challenge!”

Image: Dancers perform in Amalangabi WoMgido in Grahamstown's City Hall. (Photo: CuePix / Jane Berg)