National Arts Festival reports a drop in attendance

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Collaboration and innovation the way forward for Festival

THE National Arts Festival, which ended in Grahamstown last Sunday, reported a 10% drop in attendance figures.

Overall Festival attendance was put at 202 643.

Festival CEO Tony Lankester said: “While the drop isn’t pleasant, it isn’t surprising given the current economic climate and the costs associated with making the annual trip to Grahamstown.

“The recession is beginning to bite and South Africans are having to be more careful with their money. On the positive side, the long-term growth trajectory is still positive, with the rolling ten-year attendance up by 37%,” he said.

“The state of the arts is still strong – but as a city and as an event we’re going to have to be a lot smarter in years to come to keep innovating and offering audiences good value.”

Local businesses reported a mixed bag of results, with supermarkets claiming an increase in turnover from last year, and restaurants and bars a decline.

“Those figures tell us a lot about what choices festinos are making,” Lankester said.  “In the past people would come for five or six nights, and eat out every evening. Now we’re seeing people come for three or four nights, and opt to eat at home instead.”

Despite those shifts, executive producer Ashraf Johaardien said he was pleased with the general response to the programme.

“We had a number of sold out shows on the Main and Arena programmes: For the first time in many years The Symphony Concert, featuring the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra was sold out. Smash group The Soil filled our biggest venue two nights in a row, and numerous theatre, dance and performance art works had strong runs – including Dada Masilo’s Giselle, Mamba Republic, Nadia Davids’ mesmerizing What Remains, Tartuffe, Mandla Mbothwe’s Sabamnye noMendi and children’s favourite The Gruffalo. The biggest selling international production was The Pretend Men’s smash Police Cops,” he said.

He also noted that the work by the Standard Bank Young Artist Award winners across all genres was “inspired” and well received by both critics and audiences.

Unsuprisingly, in tough economic times, we saw audiences take fewer risks, gravitating toward the known quantities

Turning to the Fringe, Johaardien noted that, once again, the collective venues demonstrated that innovative marketing coupled with top quality productions are a winning formula. “We saw strong audiences at The Edge, Followspot Productions’ venue and for shows at ExploSIV Productions’ debut venue at Masonic.”

The two biggest grossing shows were both presented by Followspot Productions – the Standard Bank Ovation winning Au Revoir, and Big Boys the Third. The top performing theatre productions were Undermined and A Man and A Dog.

“Unsuprisingly, in tough economic times, we saw audiences take fewer risks, gravitating toward the known quantities – names like Loyiso Gola, Chester Missing, the perennial Raiders franchise and magician Stuart Lightbody enjoyed good runs,” Johaardien said. “That isn’t great news for theatremakers looking to trial new work or for new artists wanting to break through. We’ll have to see how the Festival can help newcomers break into audience consciousness in years to come.”

The Standard Bank Ovation Awards, given to top performing productions on the Fringe, were well received and included a special award for performance to Daniel Richards for his work in State Fracture.

Writing in an open letter to Grahamstown following the Festival, Lankester outlined a number of steps he feels the city needs to take to “recession-proof” the event.

“As a city and business community we need to constantly innovate; seek out opportunities to enhance visitors’ experience; and remain upbeat and positive about the Festival,” Lankester said.

Among the opportunities for small businesses he cited are the planned move of the Village Green craft market next year to a new site “closer to where the bulk of people in Grahamstown live, and on a site where we have the space and flexibility to create a craft market on a par with the best in the world,” he said.

The new market, to be housed at Victoria Girls High School, will be the core of a new “Festival Zone” planned for the CBD that will feature, alongside the stalls, a large children’s play area, beer tent, box office, multiple performance areas, a food court and an “art walk” for lovers of visual art.

“We’ve established a planning committee comprising traders and local business who are already soliciting input and ideas, and we believe the Festival Zone will be an area to be proud of,” Lankester said.

The next edition of the National Arts Festival will be held in Grahamstown from June 28 – July 8 next year.

Arts Festival to move to Victoria Girls playing fields

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