‘The Festival Has Changed’

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By Frederick Philander GRAHAMSTOWN Rumours are rife among the local community and artists that the annual Grahamstown Arts Festival is allegedly operating on its last legs after 32 years, judging by audience attendances, business opportunities and the cancellations of many current productions. It is a known fact that over the years the festival has become the premium event in Southern Africa and the rest of the African continent, boasting a main festival and a fringe section. Presently there are also foreign theatre and music troupes from a number of other African countries including Ethiopia, Namibia and Zimbabwe, performing against many odds at the festival. “The festival has become very commercialized over the past few years and has lost its magic touch,” said veteran actress Felicity Celento, from Namibia in a roundup survey of Namibian actors currently appearing at the event. She is part of an acting ensemble from two Namibian companies representing the country at the festival, which started last Thursday and ends tomorrow. Vickson Hangula’s company, Homebrewed Productions, staged his play, O9BC: Joseph’s Dilemma until Tuesday and was well received with a positive review in CUE, the official festival newspaper. “An interesting account of the thoughts of Joseph during Mary’s pregnancy. A promising piece – somewhat disappointing execution,” said CUE. Some 15 South African productions have since Monday been completely shut down due to a lack of audience support. Young Namibian playwright and actor, Richard Swartz’s one-person play, Living Hell received a less flattering review from CUE: “A mediocre story about a street child’s unfortunate life and his ambitions to become a teacher.” The third Namibian play, The Porridge Queen, by Committed Artists had until Wednesday not been officially reviewed. To newcomer to the festival, Homebrewed Production actress Senga Brockerhoff, the festival has not satisfied her expectations. “I expected much more from a creative point of view. I am missing a real and proper festive spirit,” Brockerhoff said. According to Celento, admission fees at performances are much higher than had been anticipated. “People cannot afford to pay the entry fees especially those main festival performances, on which the festival largely depends for its own financial and economic survival. Everything, accommodation and transport is exorbitant. The festival’s atmosphere has totally changed from a warm and congenial one to one of morbidity. People are no more socializing the way we used in the past,” Celento said. Georgevis Isaaks, also a veteran visitor to the festival agreed that everything about the festival has changed. “Night life is poor. Only pups afford social gatherings. I am missing the former relaxed atmosphere for which the festival was known. It’s rather disappointing to have noticed that many shows were forced to be shut down due to a lack of audience support. Nowadays it’s too commercial and struggling groups are pitted against the big stars like John Kani and others,” Isaaks said. Playwright Richard Swartz’s view is that the festival setting is an impressive typical British settlement, which can stimulate creativity. “However, I have noticed that communities in the town operate too much in isolation from each other, unlike Namibia where a great deal of inter-mixing is taking place. I love the place and will definitely return next year with another production,” said Swartz with determination. The two Namibian theatre groups’ costs were paid for by the Finnish embassy and the Franco-Namibia Cultural Center. South African playwright Athol Fugard’s latest work, Booitjie and the Oubaas, was yesterday premiered at the festival. *More on the festival next week.