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Curtain comes down on Grahamstown Festival


"We put up a convincing show"

Confessions of a blacklisted woman. Picture: David Ritchie
WITH the curtain on the 2017 showcase of the National Arts Festival finally drawing to a close today, organisers of  the 11 day arts gathering are convinced they put up a convincing showcase despite the challenges it faced.
According to the festival’s chief executive Tony Lankester, the funding the festival received from the Eastern Cape Provincial government to the tune of R17.6 million, allowed the show to go ahead as planned.
“The 2017 National Arts Festival was a success. We did have some turbulence with our funding but the Eastern Cape government stepped up with speed and commitment to fill the gap and the show went on!,” Lankester said.
Initially, the funding crunch had been caused by the National Lottery, previously one of the Festival’s funders, when it changed its funding conditions. This change left the festival with a R10 million shortage.
Lankester said plans are underway to avoid the crunch ahead of the 2018 festival.
With several changes taking place within the festival, a group of concerned citizens have levelled several criticisms against the festival’s organisers. The collective, who’ve branded themselves the ‘Reviving the National Arts Festival Team’ under the leadership of Mark Rose-Christie have raised concerns that the festival is becoming increasingly segregated and is, as a result, losing it’s vibe. In a recent letter sent out to media houses, Rose Christie noted with how venue changes and cutting down in certain aspects disturbed the vibe of the festival.
“As stated in my previous media releases, according to those interviewed last year and this year, people want the “hub” back, which is the old Village Green at Fiddler’s Green, and with only real arts & crafts in a cosy environment where other stallholders can be put up elsewhere; plus the Alley; the mixing of all cultures rather than division, where the current Village Green is more a White folk area and the Cathedral Market more a Black folk area, let alone the current Village Green been described as clinical, only to be made more so with its white coloured tents, and generally without colour in a vast open space that makes it even more impersonal.
“And then, getting the alternative cultures to return and inviting the trance dance crowd; plus allowing one part of the one side of the street to be blocked off to create a buzz at the bottom of High Street, with fairy lights in the trees at night, this area having food stalls and to help connect with the rest of High Street; and the big outdoor performances ending it all off at the top of High Street at the Drostdy Arch – one entire hub and flow”, he said.
In relation to these criticisms, Lankester said the vibe of the festival is still intact and that the decisions to change somethings were practical.
“The Festival vibe is first and foremost in the theatres and on the stages – as it should be for an arts festival. We have had passionate, enthusiastic responses to the programme and the audiences and artists have given it their all,” he said.
“For the most part, the decision to move the Craft Market from The Village Green to Victoria Girls’ High grounds has been met very positively. We feel that the new space will give us the opportunity to significantly improve the market experience and the space is more integrated with the town,” he added.
While final attendance figures have not been finalised, the festival has noted a decline in the number of attendees to the festival, something that they are chalking up to difficult economic times.
This year the festival saw a wide variety of work on display, with classics such as “Gisele” being given an African twist by choreographer Dada Masilo and Greek tragedies such as “The Oresteia” being given a new lease on life through the Tshwane University of Technology as the play “Molora”. Other highlights included “Tau”, the story of a young man embarking on a journey to discover his manhood, himself and his Sesotho culture. The theme of authentic black African stories being told by black writers, directors and performers was one that resonated in many shows. 
According to the Festival’s spokesperson Sascha Polkey, the festival had several sold out shows.
“Some of the sold out shows included “Giselle”, “Sabamnye noMendi”, Zoe Modiga, “Confessions of a Blacklisted Woman”, Msaki’s Platinum B Heart and Benjamin Jephta as well as the Gala Concert – and this year the Symphony Concert also sold out,” she said.
With the Festival’s economic impact being  R94.4 million on Grahamstown and  R377.15 million on the Eastern Cape Province, jobs were also temporarily created directly and indirectly by the festival.
“The 2 700 shows and over 700 productions also helped produce employment for more than 400 freelance and contract staff, predominantly from the ranks of the unemployed in Grahamstown, as well as student interns who work across the event in different capacities,” Polkey said.