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Grahamstown National Arts Festival

Nobody Move!

by Bartlett, images Retha Ferguson / 12.07.2011

Grahamstown, Eastern Cape. Frontier Country. Or so the shitty brown tourist road signs tell us – part of some misguided, misspent, local government marketing wankfest that happened a few years back.  A needless reminder of the region’s colonial history, when the truth is that the last colonial outpost is still very much alive and well today in the form of Rhodes University.

And so to the National Arts Festival, where art and poverty guts it out in the bitter mid-winter cold of the City of Saints. Ten days of hit-and-miss theatre and obligatory hedonism. Where hopes, dreams and ideas collide. Where spirits are broken.

Smoking a fat joint on the frosty lawn of a rented Grahamstown home with two well known comedians, at ten in the morning, on the first day of festival, because that’s how you survive around here. These guys have heard and seen it all: actors performing to empty houses, stalls not making a single sale, accommodation plans gone horribly wrong, relationships ended badly. You name it, shit goes down opening day.

Conversation roams from the framed photo of the strangely provocative ten-year-old girl playing in a mud pit sitting above the piano in the entrance hall, to whether they are sado-masochists or short-term memory loss sufferers for finding themselves here again. As pot-smoking artists, the truth is somewhere in between.

But the truth is also that unless your idea of a jol is a hard-earned beer at Crab’s Creek after a marathon through what’s left of Knysna’s forest, or standing on the beach in J-Bay with binoculars, trying to knob touch Kelly Slater when he comes out the surf, then sweating it out to swap germs with strangers at the Grahamstown festival is still your best bet.

This is the third year that the festival is under new management, with ex-SAFM big cheese Tony Lankaster taking up the reins as CEO. So what’s different? For starters, the Village Green  – home to the market – has relocated to Rhodes University’s “Great Field”, situated in the heart of campus. This would be great were it not for the fact that the students are on holiday and so there’s zero vibe on campus, save for the Campus Security patrolmen looking important. Not so great.

Grahamstown National Arts Festival

No one in charge will ever admit it, but moving the market inside Sir Cecil John’s academic fortress was done to keep impoverished local blacks at bay so that the rich white tourists feel safe enough to open their wallets and spend their dosh on local and imported crafts. Keeping a pocketful of R2 coins for the army of car guards just wasn’t working for the well-meaning white folk anymore and the natives were getting hungrier, if not more restless.

For the first time in decades, the market was cancelled on one of the days this year – owing to the Great Field flooding. With evacuation warnings in the nearby town of St Francis and snowstorms flooding East London’s Vincent Park mall at the same time, we can cut Tony and his organizing committee some slack in this regard. But not when it comes to the power outtages. Haven’t those homeys heard of backup generators? Let me drop this last anecdote as a parting shot, a closing salvo from this year’s frontier frontlines…

Grahamstown National Arts Festival

OK, so Standard Bank pulled out of sponsoring the whole shindig back in the late 90s and ever since then the talk has been about the festival’s inexorably depraved downward spiral. The bone that the big banking dogs did throw G Town’s way was the Standard Bank Young Artist’s Awards (SBYAA), which is a national PR stint that shows face with the sponsorship of Festival productions.

So it’s the opening night of fest and I’m kicking it in the Rhodes Theatre, watching the premiere of SBYAA winner Neill Coppen’s Abnormal Load. The play is about the struggles of  a small town in KZN: reconciling its Anglo Boer heritage with the demands of modern day. Like what has the past ever done for us? A bunch of Rorke’s Drift community actors are trying to decide who’s going to play who in their annual pageant, and there’s beef because a black dude is nominated to play a white war hero.

I can embellish about the big cast, lavish costumes and set – as a SBYAA winner is wont to splash out on – but I doubt you give a shit. You’re already entertaining yourself with your iPhone or Blackberry, so what do you need art for anyway? Exactly. Just what I was thinking as I wrestled for the armrest with some fat, cultured prick.

Grahamstown National Arts Festival

To the chase: we’re all there. The struggling actors who’ve travelled from afar, and toiled for their art. The faithful audience, praying for something that’ll rival the last good flick they rented from DVD Nouveau. We’re 45 minutes into the performance and the actors are staging a climb up a koppie in full battle regalia. It’s like we’re all fighting for something. And then – BOOM – the lights go out.

“NOBODY MOVE!” A desperate cry from the sound and lighting box. “I repeat. NOBODY MOVE!.” An increasingly panic-stricken woman makes her way to the aisle, declaring “Everybody, I am the venue manager. We have had a power failure. I need everyone to remain calm and in their seats until either the power comes back on, or we can figure out a safe evacuation plan. Because if anybody gets up and moves now, there’ll just be a stampede. So, please, NOBODY MOVE! Now… does anyone have a torch?”

A full ten minutes goes by. Cellphones and self-importance spring back to life. Enter stage right, out of the pitch darkness, our now hysterical venue manager. Like a bad scary movie, with torch in hand she turns it on, lighting her horror-stricken face. Realizing that she is now very much the centre of attention, she turns the torch away from her face, casting a light across the stage. And there, much to their chagrin and my amusement (for what is art for, but this?) are the noble cast of actors, still frozen in their battle poses, committed in their struggle, to the bitter end.

*All images © Retha Ferguson.
**Bartlett is a regular contributor to The Big Issue.

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