FRINGE VENUES: Into community, into independence

AMAZING … School kids freak out with happiness after Kwathi ke Kaloku which showed at Zolani Centre today.

WE grew up with the slogan “What about the workers?” but Cape Town Fringe (CTF) has been repeatedly regaled with the demand: “What about the townships?”

Pretty much one and the same in the broader picture, but Fringe 2017, in its fourth rendition, has returned with a new strategy to decentralise away from City Hall and into small, independent venues.

It’s an out there strategy and possibly a response to the ideological long drops dug for the Eastern Cape-housed National Arts Festival by its urban detractors.

For a rural-based festival to enter this cosmopolitan millieu is outrageous, and NAF has had to do so with sensitivity, savvy and a bit of behind-the-scenes FU-resilience born of 44 years of hosting the national arts showcase in Grahamstown. The Fringe has found traction but it’s still a big gamble.

SIMPLY EFFICIENT: NAF executive producer Ashraf Johaardien (centre) with Cape Town Fringe staff, from left bottom, Noma Nduna and Siya Bunu, both running the box office, and (back,) Kate Davies, the festival manager and Akhona Daweti, the box office manager.

Instead of paying big rent in the city bowl, the CTF  festival has veered off from the centreline and into the communities.

The German Club, its new headquarters, is one starting point. With its old clubby smell of beer and smokes, its dark woods and German print table-cloth covered tables, it is earthy, gutteral, clean and simple.

Front of house is two rows of basic bench-like tables, where we find Noma Nduna and Siya Bunu running the box office with festival manager Kate Davies peering over at the screens.

Against the back wall, with a sharp cut and a sassy little curl, is a man tikking away at a lap top. That’s the main oke, NAF and CTF executive producer Ashraf Johaardien. Well okay then. He seems to be enjoying himself.

He leaps up, happy to set the scene: Firstly, applications to get onto the Fringe have soared to 300 of which 103 were given the nod to go for it. Last year 80 shows were offered.

Next obsession: getting audiences. NAF has partnered with 13 venues of differing degrees of infrastructure and capacity.

Some are cooking, such as the Alex Bar in town, but it’s edgy stuff. Says NAF technical director Nicci Spalding: “They needed dimmers so we gave them some.”

In Rosebank, Alma Cafe needed some fresh musos. They were knocking on the Fringe door, so NAF hooked them all up. Cool, a kiff new line up of Jesse and the Jameses, and Bam Bam Brown.

Audiences, says Ashraf, need to be aligned to creative spaces in the community.

“We need to help artists connect to audiences. Now that there is a critical mass of venues, it’s a win at every level.”

This, he says, is where NAF has placed its “bet”.

So what about the workers in the townships? Critter cruised to Zolani Sport and Recreation Centre, one of three CTF is backing as venues.

No excuse to get there umlungu. Google Maps aunty takes you down the N2 to  just beyond the airport where you will take exit 18 to Nyanga. Turn right over the freeway and down Ntlangano for a few hundred metres, curve left into Sitbandatu Avenue and there is Zolani, in a blaze of colour and art. If you miss it, your shades were shot through with minority fear.

Parking is safe, security is visible, but hey, it’s better beyond that fence: tshisa nyama sizzling, bright bags of onions and oranges hang from stalls, colourful cloth, honking taxis, robots are yield signs. Harsh stories, but the people’s response is dynamic, urgent and exuberant.

In the venue are 130 uniformed kids, most clutching little brown bags of treats, and filling the space with wall-to-wall buzz.

ZOLANI MAKOVER: Theatre technicians (from left) trainee Livie Ncanywa, technical director Nicci Spalding and senior NAF technician Gladman Balintulo who have upgraded Zolani theatre over the last two weeks.

They’ve just experienced Sindiwe “Nomabali” Magona’s majestic and magical Xhosa story telling show Kwathi ke Kaloku performed to indigenous music played by the United Nations of Africa band.

Some elasticity with the timing of the show – the artists went for it slightly earlier than scheduled leaving one teacher grumpy, but the place was already packed by 9am and, says venue manager Thami Mbongo,so they took a safety decision to get the show on the road. There are still four shows to go though.

Pierre Nelson of non-profit Cape Town Music Academy, which produced the show, says not to worry, the show will carry on to play in more CTF venues in the townships.

Sindiwe, Bongani Sotshononda and the band are taking these Cape Town Xhosa kids back to roots, to an ancient culture using traditional sounds, words and art.

Nicci is interrupted in the now-empty venue. There is that large, draped stage with lights and black boards now so familiar at NAF venues.

Don’t take it for granted, she says. She and her crew of five have pumped resources into the space in the last few weeks.

What was devoid of infrastructure is now a usable theatre with black flooring, there are masking flats (big, moveable black boards), curtain rails have been fixed and draped, and beyond that, toilets have been repaired, unblocked, painted, tiled, and leaks have been fixed. “We did some plumbing, she says. Wifi has been bolstered.

There’s a list of work done, resources put in, but perhaps the most important lies in the training offered to Livie Ncanywa, 24, a Magnet Theatre physical theatre peformer who has gone into the theatre tech.

His trainer today is Gladman Balintulo, senior technician for NAF, and a veteran of 20 or more festivals, so many he can’t remember.

He has been driving Livie and a colleague up and down the ladders, through the desk, focusing lights, rigging, patiently grooming, teaching, passing on years of experience.

Livie is on it. He grew up across the Kei in Dutywa, and moved to Nyanga after Grade 4.

Gladman grew up in Nyanga, “in this theatre”, but has family in Dutywa.

He says of his trainees: “We need to give people a chance to learn, to get experience.”

Livie says the imput of Gladman and Nicci represents a radical shift.

Local theatre and arts groups are in need of technical support which lifts talent into a sharper, better theatrical focus.

Nicci says they idea is to put in infrastructure which will sustain theatre after NAF has departed, the theatre all-year-round idea, but it will also be available for next year’s CTF.

Smart, nifty ideas have turned Zolani into a dance venue too. She has gone for more stage width, and dance mats.

She talks about how they scouted for venues, mainly looking at the needs of local arts groups, and then planning how to meet those needs to create theatrical spaces which would produce great shows and grow audiences in communities.

Nicci understands how infrastructure is integral to creating sustainable theatre, setting the platform for work which is valuable, and valued, where ticket sales trump the free show, where artists earn money and audiences walk away with art inside to be mulled over, measured and treasured.

She and her team are busy investing hundreds of thousands into theatre spaces that need stuff, which gives a focus on nine venues.

Another smart hack which has come with the decentralisation gamble, is that of “touring”; some shows will play at Zolani, then move on to play at Makukhanye Art Room, and on to The Jolly Carp in Retreat. Maybe they will deign to make it to town…

Rest assured, while the traditional, picky town theatre goers ponce about trying to decide which show they will grace, places like Zolani and Makukhanye are set to pump.

Yes, there might be free shows for school kids, but there are a load of sold shows at these venues.

Zolani, for example, has almost 17 different productions to run in the two-week festival period.

So there will be different audiences, different communities, different voices.

But all will be drawn into one thread, art.

Check out the Cape Town Fringe programme here and make your booking.

  • This content was sponsored by the National Arts Festival

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