Expression, Zorg, more expression!

Woke this morning, heaved off two thick blankies, and a duvet and rose, dragging a sheepskin insulator snagged somewhere in my shambolic stumble.

Kettle on, pour a cup of Masterton’s ready-mix chai, creaky fold-out chair, polka dot long table in the courtyard corner.

I hear the rain tanks tinkling, the sun is morphing weirdly as fluffy fridges rumble and scurry along, mist streaming.

Wind nips in, whips up the tablecloth skirting. Must be 12 degrees with wind chill.

Ya-a-a-h! Festival again. Number 31. “Since 1986”, my own personal Tee. 

We arts writers are so broke-ass. Yet a friend has billeted us beautifully in her 1844 home.

Supporting the writers, she says. It has a little tradesman fireplace and we, Steve, Jen and the little curly-haired sprite, settle in front of the fire.

The six-year-old is presented with a long, dark magician’s trommel and it opens onto a world of Lego blocks, which turn into cars, homes, dragons, and whose original child owner is now a 25-year-old mountain-tattooed hunk with a gorgeous partner snuggled by his side in the line at the Dragon Pearl at the Village Green.

She is in black from the toe of her boots to her coat collar with roses on a skirt.

His mom and I agree; they are one of the most beautiful, creative couples at festival. See what Lego and theatre can do!

There is some incredible children’s theatre here, much of it thanks to Assitej, an arts collective started in Paris in the ’60s to create theatre for young audiences, and run for a decade until recently by Saffer Yvette Hardie.

I watch a one-hander show. It’s Cara Roberts, daughter of Going Nowhere Slowly fisherman actor Ian Roberts.

It’s all about a little boy and his dad reimagining junk into giant, gripping pantheons.

Of course, there is ultimately loss, and this is how modern children’s theatre can go, not as dire as Hans and Gretel, but it is profound life education.

The kids seemed happy with that, but Gerald, in his late sixties and dad of two grown up daughters, was utterly choked at the end.

My child is beside me. Theatre and performance trained at UCT, watching her 26th festival, in her 28th year.

She and her sister ran around the old Village Green across the road from our house. I see them in their flowery frocks having a riot.

Now look at her all grown up. She played with those Lego pieces too!

After the show we swap arts bollocks, and move on.

Festival too has moved on. It celebrates its 50th next year. Talk about mythical mists roiling over the escarpment, who will ever be able to characterise the National Arts Festival?

I know where it came from, the mind of poet Guy Butler, who pioneered the journalism school and drama at Rhodes University in the ’60s.

Saw him once in the lift at the Monument, built with funds raised by my late friend and journalist, Thelma Neville. He looked preoccupied. 

I arrived at a time when the festival was transforming into a struggle platform, and then in the 1995 when people came to party so hard the then-director Lynette Marais, noted with dismay that festinoes were on the streets beating drums and dancing while in the theatres artists performed to empty benches.

I admit to being wary of Lynette; we hacks dared not write speculative stories about who would be coming to fest — would there be more or less? — before it all happening.

Trust me, one dinner party spent being berated by her from first course to dessert was more than enough to nail the message to my forehead.

She was a ballerina, and how I fear those martinets all perfectly aligned and bouncing about like India-rubber balls watching every calorie.

But when I met her she was a slightly intimidating, chain-smoking, skipper.

Her hands firmly on the wheel of what David Bristow called the Monument building, some kind of odd English Nautilus sailing with fortitude into the misty hills of Mountain Drive.

And in that chest was a heart of gold. I would see her on the last Sunday night of the 11-days of amazing and not-so-amazing, in the bleaches watching the final performance of a show she must have been hanging to see. Regardless of her exhaustion, she was there for the artists.

Lynette stayed the course, was it 17 or 19 years from the incredible black and some white protest plays of the ’80s, into the dark, violent, pre-election years and beyond.

How incredible it was to see the ANC government take the Wednesday opening night platform at the Butler theatre in 1995 and use it to fulminate against white colonial conquest and the role of white settlers — on a stage they were funding.

I saw in later years how the government came to love and support the festival, basically they own it now, from the top to community funding.

And yet, they will never really own it beyond using taxpayer’s dough to give us our annual arts fix.

How clever of festival creative director Ismael Mahomed and CEO Tony Lankester to keep Lynette in the basement office to ensure the transference of institutional memory and skill.

We now have a team of women at the helm led by CEO Monika Newton, artistic director Rucera Seethal, and the person who really makes the lights go on, technical director Nicci Spalding and Nobesuthu Rayi who manages partnerships and stakeholder relations.

Newton is candid about the festival having grown smaller, but smarter! More is less, etc.

But allow us to mourn the loss of the arts extravaganza’s boundless past, the fantastic successes, the flops and fiascos!

The so-called “400” journalists (and every student ever wanting a free pass to the arts), the international show buyers, the huge global shows — the fireworks and fantasia, all for “The Benefit of Mr Kite” (see it on YouTube).

And let us mourn the passing of great actors and artists. Here are some that I followed: Jamie Bartlett, David Butler, Graham Weir, James Phillips, and the legendary editor of Cue, Prof Gavin Stewart, the hard nut who did not bow down to the Standard Bank of China. 

I used to wonder, when I was younger in my festival life, why there was such a defined sense of eulogy, elegy, memorialising, at fest.

More than lament, for without lament there would be no sackcloth to tear asunder on stage. Gosh, I miss that.

Now I get it. Festival morphs and turns in time and space, artists and festinoes, geniuses and idiots and the rest between, we all have our day, and then comes the day for us to depart.

Gregory Vuyani Maqoma will have his last show today. Here is what Hardie wrote: “Last night we were in the presence of greatness — ancestral greatness and that of our time. Those who were privileged to watch Gregory Vuyani Maqoma summon and pay homage to his ancestor in Exit/Exist  witnessed what Grotowski described as a ‘holy actor’ — someone who sacrifices themselves, body, voice and spirit, to create moments of transcendence through self-revelation, in one of his last performances.

“The mastery, the humility, the presence, the power of the minutest flicker of a finger, ripple of toes, the exquisite combination of sound and visuals, left all who were privileged to be part of this communal experience of mourning, rage and celebration, transfixed and transformed. Thank you Greg for your incredible work. Your artistic contribution is beyond measure.”

Now that’s what I am trying to talk about!

So what is this gritty essence which keeps the wheels of the unreal turning? Is it the unbreakable desire of humans for expression?

Just that, expression? Is this why there will always be artists and lovers of the arts who come here to see every year what it is that makes us creative, mindful, expressive humans? 

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