Bitchin’ in the kitchen: Steady on

The National Arts Festival. It happened, for the 49th time, and long may it continue to wreak its crazy creative energy on our lives for a near fortnight of each coming year.

On the drive to festival: canola and wheat fields. They’re not there so much to provide food as to make money. Food is just the means to make a profit. This is not the fault of the farmers, who may take pleasure in providing the sustenance on our tables but are forced to work with agri-corporations to survive.

But the aim of farming is to grow food, not to make money. This extends to many things, including arts. We don’t create art to make money, we create art in order to, among other things, communicate. Art exists to express ideas, share experiences. It exists because we seek connection, and we seek connection because we are connected and need to affirm it. There is a reason solitary confinement is classified a torture.

And yet, in order to create art, we need to make money. Farmers have to farm for money and artists have to create art for money because as much as we need food and need connection, the society we have created places money at its apex.

It should not be this way. It doesn’t have to be this way. But it is, and so we compromise: We farm at an industrial scale, which kills the soil and pollutes the water. We create art, but we sell tickets which means the people who might benefit most from the work – the poorest and most marginalised – are excluded. We have festivals that provide an infusion of connection through shared joy and sorrow but they have to be funded by the big businesses that bleed us dry during the rest of the year. Big business that makes a profit by externalising their costs; using what belongs to the commons and not paying for it. Extracting water, polluting air, exploiting labour.

Which bring us to The Agents. As far as we could make out, The Agents was the one play on this year’s Fringe that offered an incisive critique of Capital, and it did so brilliantly. The script with its escalating arc had the menace of a scalpel, the acting was crisp as a work shirt ironed by an underpaid domestic worker, the choreography as tight as synchronised swimmers, great set, and lighting like sun on an English summer’s day. The performance we saw was about as faultless as you can get and received a deserved standing ovation. Every year there is a standout fringe show, and this was it.

It got an Ovation Award. That’s it. Not a Gold Ovation, not a Silver, not even a Bronze. Just an Ovation, along with other plays we saw that deserved an ovation, but were only half as good. These were accomplished, but had nothing new to say. Not in script nor style.

So why?

The other bugbear was print. The lack of it. Nevermind Cue being dumped by Rhodes University five years ago, there’s also the programme, which until 2019 was an archive. Now we have the wonderful inconvenience of scrolling through an online programme of 264 shows over 11 days on our phones. Towards the end, even the millennials were complaining.

One thing about a festival, in a small town with a striking skyline, where everybody meets in expectant queues before, and milling masses not quite ready to leave after, in a country that regularly runs out of electricity, during a manic period of days that involve constant recalculations around shows, sustenance, provisions among water cuts, catching up with people you love; to be scrolling up and down a light-emitting device in the palm of your hand is counter to the entire ethos of interconnection and serendipity that makes a festival festive.

A printed programme is shared. Many people look at at it, sometimes at once. It is passed from hand to hand. It is an object that engenders connection.

It also allows for serendipity. There are many shows listed on a page; while searching for one, your eye is caught by another. Shows are seen in relation to others, your memory is jogged: ‘your friend’s lover’s friend – A – said we should see that one.’ Who knows who will bump into who, or be inspired by, that other show. It helps with the ticket sales too. Voila! The money.

There are many ways to do it. Over-printing highly expensive glossies is not one of them. The tricky bit is deadlines, which the Covid shift to uberdigitalisation has softened considerably, to no-one’s advantage.

Currently, the message is: suck it up, this is the digital age.

Talking of the corporation. The jazz has been tricky since Standard Bank pulled out on a seeming whim just months before festival last year. The now-famed DSG Hall (once it was PJ’s when Smirnoff was shelling out – remember) was sad last year; a naked school hall so devoid of the expected throng that we double-checked our tickets and for a moment doubted our geography. The musicians at the one gig we saw were uninspired. With the exception of Shane Cooper it seemed they were only there because they had committed to the date.

This is year it was different, the action had shifted from the front to round the side, with braziers. Efforts had been made, and Kesivan brought the Big Band. Behind the scenes, the lack of funding was felt, no doubt. But from the front, it was magnificent. All jazz, no banners. Not a one. Sweet relief.

We would have bought albums though, if they were there.

But for all the bitchin’, there was cooking in the kitchen. Ticket sales were more than 50% up on last year. How many that amounts to, is not stated in the press release. NAF is being coy, but what it means is if 100 tickets were sold last year, at least 150 were sold this year.

We can believe it. Many of the shows we saw had respectable audiences, we saw full houses, and not too many that were mostly empty. That speaks to our experience, it may also speak to our choices. Certainly the audience were there for some of the big hitters on what used to be the Main and is now the curated programme, and some on the Fringe: Exit/Exist, Hatched, Castaway, King of Broken Things, The Agents, MearsMombelliNaidoo, Kesivan Naidoo Big Band, What Falling Feels Like.

Important work was staged. Gregory Maqoma’s last dance was a triumph and historic. New technicians found their feet. Festival steadied itself after a near KO. It felt like there are possibilities ahead.

We had a festival. It happened. It was an antidote to totalitarianism. It was good. Perhaps, if our corrupted ruling party by some miracle shuffles into the sunset and we manage to start repairing our broken infrastructure and fulfil the promise of meeting the basic needs of all the people so we can look up from fetching wood and carrying water and dying in a decrepit state health system, festival can reach its former heights again. Maybe once again we can have those post-fest arguments about whether the National Arts Festival has become too big.

Photo caption: Former Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner Jefferson ‘J.Bobs’ Tshabalala auctions his ‘Seen Pha’ brand of clothing during a Sundowner slot at the Monument during the National Arts Festival. Photo: Steve Kretzmann

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