Never mind politics – if you want to see true democracy in action, where professional theatre-makers rub shoulders with school and community groups, the bustling National Lottery Fringe at the National Arts Festival offers a snapshot of the real state of the nation, writes Christina Kennedy

This year, the National Lotteries Commission has come on board as headline sponsor of the Fringe, ensuring a colourful garden of artistic expression can take root and flourish on stages around Grahamstown.

The National Lottery Fringe is where audiences can unearth some genuine theatrical gems – this is where the Festival buzz, the conversation-sparkers, can be found.

The best new Fringe productions – those with the ‘X factor’ – are rewarded with Standard Bank Ovation Awards by a panel of judges. Every day the latest winners are announced in the festival newspaper, Cue.

We can offer some advance tips on what not to miss. You can get fantastic deals – some first performances are free, others are discounted and some offer “buy one, get one free” promotions. And even full-price tickets cost as little as R30 – less than a glass of wine!

Some returning Fringe productions are already armed with the Ovation Awards seal of quality, including We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants, Johnny Boskak is Feeling Funny, Kafka’s Ape, A Man and a Dog, Salt and Whistle Stop.

As for the rest, some intriguing-looking plays deal with topical issues such as “blessers” (sugar daddies), Marikana, gangsterism and the 40th anniversary of the Soweto student uprising.

Among the hot picks is Unfair Lady by indie theatre POPArt, Klara van Wyk’s You Suck: And Other Inescapable Truths and Cheers to Sarajevo by Aimee Goldsmith and Lidija Marelic – about the effects of the Bosnian conflict. The Wits Theatre’s Cenotaph of Dan wa Moriri (with Tony Miyambo) is also a must-see.

Keen on something different? Quintin Wils is presenting the next instalment in his interactive concept that whisks the audience out of theatre and on to the streets of Grahamstown in bRENT: A Mobile Thriller.

Capetonian creativity is everywhere at this year’s fest: look out for Dangled by funnyman Rob van Vuuren; Artscape’s productions Die Glas ennie Draad, Ityala la Mawele, Henrietta With Love and Tefo Paya’s Morwa: The Rising Son; as well as Rust Co-operative’s The Graveyard (by Philip Rademeyer) and Sillage (by Penelope Youngleson). Mike Bartlett’s Olivier Award-winning play Cock is reimagined by Paul Griffiths, who also helms Sweet Phoebe by Michael Gow.

Umsindo Theatre Projects from Umlazi is one of the many community-based theatre groups dealing with relatable issues rooted in the gritty reality of township life. Their production 10 Days in a Shebeen, written by twins Musawenkosi and Bongumusa Shabalala, is a tale of abandonment and greed. Other plays to watch out for are Clues on the Sand by Moagi Modise of the Galeshewe Theatre Organisation in the Northern Cape, and Narrative Dreams, directed by young theatre ace Omphile Molusi.

Namibian theatre-maker Blessing Mbonambi brings Black Dog-White Cat to the Fringe, and why not try out A Presentation About the Herero of Namibia by an acting ensemble from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Bubbling-under talent explodes in Thunzi: Like a Shadow, created by Parktown High School for Girls, which was crowned winner at the Raps one-act play festival. Also look out for Eclipsed (about the Liberian civil war), the winning play at this year’s Festival of Excellence in Dramatic Art festival, courtesy of St Mary’s School in Waverley.

Andrew Simpson is having a busy (and creepy) Festival, with “gothic fairytale” Dracula, Ghost Story and Dreams among his offerings. Naomi van Niekerk’s multimedia play Kontinuum, with sand animation, shadow theatre and music, and Theatre for Africa’s Ebola, starring Hilda Cronje, also hold promise.

For more light-hearted fare, “quarter-life crisis” musical comedy Dragging 30 (with Genna Galloway and Natasha van der Merwe) and Tease! (with Tumi Morake and Vanessa Frost) ought to tickle the funny bone.

Laced with comedy, music, probing drama and an enterprising spirit born out of low budgets but high creativity, this year’s National Lottery Fringe looks set to fizz and pop with a lucky packet of surprises.