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Using the element of surprise to shift paradigms

Published on 27 February 2018

In an interview by Judith Hartstang for Festival Theaterformen, National Arts Festival Executive Producer Ashraf Johaardien shares why he wants to stretch and challenge audiences

How does one make the performance happen to both the actors and to the audience? How do we go beyond the rigid dichotomy of active performers in the work and passive voyeurs watching from the dark? How do we create a dynamic immersive experience where everybody is fully engaged, participates in the action and has full agency? How do we shift the paradigm? And why would we want to?

A key part of my job is to attract new audiences. In my view, one way of achieving that is by stretching and provoking audiences with works (and experiences) that are not necessarily reflective of, or perhaps a comfortable fit with, the rest of the programme.

But audiences (and boards) have expectations, even if they don’t articulate them. I certainly do. Until I saw a presentation by Simone Aughterlony and Jen Rosenblit called Vse se ujema / Everything Fits In The Room at the Swiss Dance Days in Geneva last year, I had not quite realised just how many. Somewhere between a cooking show and a construction site, Aughterlony and Rosenblit’s piece explores female sexuality, economies of exchange and the female body as a site that speaks to reproduction, abundance and disorder … alongside manifestos, bricks and mortar, a chair, a ladder, witches, skins, spices, wall fixtures… 


Despite my deep-seated need for neat beginnings, middles and endings, I was surprised to find myself moved, stretched and challenged by the powerful conceptual framework of this open-ended piece. It made me question how many things I exclude from my “room” as a result of my own architecture, which is built on a foundation of conventional logic, narrative and meaning.

So I hope that a good number of the works by the creatives selected for this year’s National Arts Festival Main programme will stretch and challenge our audiences in the same way. For me, those programmatic choices speak to growing the audience and the sustainability of arts festivals. This is because festivals are reliant on audiences, otherwise we’re just performing for each other and telling each other stories we already know. Sure, festivals need to retain patrons by giving them what they want – but programming challenging work that is surprising and unexpected is also an important strategy to build and secure an audience for the future.

  • Festival Theaterformen is the producing partner for Mary Watson’s JUNGFRAU directed by Jade Bowers, which will have its world premiere at Theaterformen 2018 in Braunschweig from 7 to 17 June 2018, followed by its South African premiere at this year’s National Arts Festival. For more information please visit
  • Photograph: Jan Potgieter