New projects and initiatives and the “consistency of delivering great art to our audiences” combined to give this year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown a fresh vibe and energy, and drove a “modest but important” increase in attendance, according to Festival CEO Tony Lankester.

“We’re happy that we managed to show some growth in what continues to be a tough economic climate, and even happier that the work of our artists found favour with both audiences and critics,” he said. The Festival reported overall attendance (a combination of tickets issued and audiences at free events) of 209 677, a 4.5% increase over last year’s figures.

Two key initiatives are credited with providing fresh energy to the iconic 44-year-old event: the launch of the Creativate Digital Arts Festival, and the move of the Standard Bank Village Green craft market to a new venue. This year’s carefully curated programme, together with the wide choice offered to audiences across both the Main and Fringe platforms, also helped drive audiences into the City’s theatres.

Executive Producer Ashraf Johaardien, who is responsible for the artistic programme of the Festival, said the “box office figures are by no means a comprehensive measure when it comes to the role, purpose – or indeed the story – of the National Arts Festival, but they are nevertheless an important key indicator of performance in a given year”.

“The biggest selling productions on the overall Main programme were, once again, the flagship music shows, including AMANDA BLACK, SUZANNE VEGA, and SAMTHING SOWETO,” Johaardien said. “We also saw strong support for Festival staples such as the GALA CONCERT, which was performed by the Eastern Cape Philharmonic Orchestra this year, and the return to the Festival after a four year absence of Cape Town City Ballet, with Robin van Wyk’s classical reworking of ROMEO AND JULIET.”

The other big seller dance production on the Main was the Cape Dance Company’s INTERPLAY, while Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Theatre Jemma Kahn’s THE BORROW PIT led the box office in theatre. Stephen Cohen’s put your heart under you feet, UJ Arts & Culture’s AFRICAN GOTHIC by Reza de Wet (directed by Alby Michaels) and Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Jazz Thandi Ntuli emerged as audience favourites in the results of a post-Festival audience survey.

The strong selection of international work on the programme also found favour with audiences: ALPHONSE (Canada), CHORAL CONNECTIONS (UK), FEMI KOYA (Nigeria) and HAMLET (Switzerland) all featured strongly in box office reports, while the international buskers introduced at the Village Green – from Canada, Sweden, Japan and Australia – were a huge hit.

Turning to the Fringe, Lankester noted the continuing success and growth of the curated venue model, where independent producers select and schedule work to stage in a single venue. “Eight of the top 10 grossing productions were presented in curated venues,” he said, with Cape-based production company Followspot Productions’ venue being responsible for five of those, including the top three productions and the Festival’s biggest-grossing Fringe show, CALIENTE.

“Followspot have got the formula right, consistently delivering productions that hit the right notes with audiences,” Lankester said.

Other strong performers were two other curated venues – Siv Ngesi’s debut selection of work at the Drill Hall (with box office success being enjoyed by comedians Loyiso Gola and Rob van Vuuren, as well as Daniel Richards’ acclaimed performance in THE BEST OF PAY BACK THE CURRY AND STATE FRACTURE; and The Edge, which had Festival favourite and Standard Bank Ovation Award-winning magician Stuart Lightbody as well as other productions that featured in the list of top grossing shows – the much talked-about WOOLWORTHS, written and directed by Juliet Jenkin, and Richard Kaplan’s SELWYN AND GABRIEL (directed by Tara Notcutt). 

Outside of the curated venues, theatre on the Fringe was still strong with Neil Anthony Docking’s REVLON GIRL (directed by Steven Feinstein) and Contagious Theatre’s THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA among the top performers.

“We were interested to note that, on the Fringe, we didn’t see dance emerge as strongly as it had done in previous years,” Lankester said. “This could possibly be attributed to there being a particularly strong dance selection on the Main curated programme this year.”

While the Festival registered a growth in overall attendance, Lankester noted that audiences seemed to be increasingly seeking out “safe bets, good value experiences and free or low-cost entertainment”.

“In the context of shrinking levels of disposable income, audiences are taking fewer risks and being more careful in the choices they make, which is understandable. But if this is a long-term trend it might ultimately affect the sector’s appetite for creating new, edgy work which wouldn’t necessarily be good for the arts,” Lankester said. “Also, 79% of respondents to our post-Festival survey said that seeing new work and discovering new voices and talents was either important or very important to them. There is a gap between that response and what we’re seeing in terms of actual ticket sales, where audiences are gravitating to companies and venues that are known and familiar, with a strong track record.”

Another trend being driven by the broader economy is the tendency for visitors to stay for shorter periods. “We don’t have specific data on the length of stay this year, but our best guess is that the average number of nights spent in Grahamstown is down from where it was in 2016 where the average visit was six nights. We’ll know for sure when we conduct our follow-up in-depth study next year.”

But that aside, it is still the compelling mix of productions and the overall experience that the National Arts Festival offers that audiences seem to find appealing. “Our post-Festival survey showed that the totality of the Festival experience is important to visitors, with the general vibe, the Village Green, exhibitions and Creativate all emerging strongly. But with 90.1% of respondents citing ‘the shows’ as being a highlight of their Festival, it’s clear that live performance is alive and well in South Africa,” Lankester said.

“Our audience loyalty and retention rates are extremely high, with 82% of respondents saying they would return in future years. We are delighted with the response we saw to our new initiatives and the work of our artists,” he concluded.

  • NOTE: The Call for Proposals for 2019 National Arts Festival Main programme is now open. See this link for further details. Deadline for submissions is 15 August 2018.

Main image: Audience at the National Arts Festival / Photo: Michelle Hodgkinson