Despite the icy weather, South Africans are continuing to support the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in their numbers, according to organisers who announced positive growth for the event at its mid-point this week.
“At the half way point we were about 6% ahead of last year’s figures in terms of actual tickets sold, and around 12% ahead in terms of the rand value of those tickets,” Festival CEO Tony Lankester said. “With a massive weekend ahead of us, we’re confident that we will see healthy growth for the Festival in the final tally – which, of course, is very gratifying.”
The Festival programme this year commemorates the 40th anniversary of its founding in 1974, and the response from patrons has been “overwhelming” according to organisers. “A rough count indicates that just over 200 performances at the Festival this year have been sold out,” Lankester said. These include performances by the visiting Geneva Ballet Company, which staged Midsummer Night’s Dream accompanied by the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra, re-boots of Ubu and the Truth Commission and Sylvaine Strike’s smash hit Black and Blue, and the Pieter Toerien-produced Tony-award winning Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike, as well as numerous performances on the Fringe.
“We have also seen audiences gravitate to Fringe hits from previous years, which have returned to Grahamstown – Big Boys 2, Crazy in Love, Gary Thomas, the Snow Goose, Epicene Butcher and Three Little Pigs – as well as brand new productions, including Hamlet! and Bash,” Lankester said. “Audiences are prepared to take some risks with their hard-earned cash, but companies and artists who have developed a reputation over the years remain the big winners in the ticket race.”
Performances from visiting international artists, including Australian beatboxing and musical duo Jamie MacDowell and Tom Thum, the New York production Machine Makes Man and the smash hit from the Prague Fringe, Kafka and Son, have all played to sold out or near capacity houses, with some tickets remaining for the last few performances.
The Standard Bank Ovation Awards had acknowledged an unprecedented 13 Fringe premieres by the half way stage, including South African Music Award nominee Tumi Mogorosi’s Project ELO and former Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner Princess Mhlongo’s Gogo and Big Sister.
Lankester noted that the Main programme, due to the Festival’s anniversary, is notably stronger this year than in previous years and that this will affect the final ticket sales tally.
“I think we will see a bit of a swing toward the Main this year, in response to the anniversary productions and the overall strength of the work on the Main. This, together with the expansion of the Main programme in 2013 to include Solo Theatre work and our featured artist, which in years gone by may have sat on the Fringe, is seeing a difference in the way sales are being reported,” Lankester said. “While we note the shift we don’t think it’s the start of a trend, rather a part of the natural annual ebb and flow between the two programmes. Audiences, mostly, don’t distinguish between the Main and Fringe, and seek out quality work wherever it is,” Lankester said.
The implementation of the Festival’s new ticketing system – acquired from Edinburgh-based company Red 61 – has been deemed a success by organisers, notwithstanding some “inevitable” teething problems.
“The introduction of a system which prints tens of thousands of tickets, and its integration into our website, was always going to present some challenges and inconveniences, but the response to the system has been overwhelmingly positive and we’ve learned a lot which will be incorporated into how we do things in years to come,” Lankester said. 2014 also the introduction of a smart-phone enabled App, which enables visitors to book tickets instantly and find their way around town. “Someone commented on our Facebook page that it was nice to see the Festival modernizing in line with other global festivals – and we have to agree!” Lankester said.
The Festival runs until Sunday 13 July, and ends with a ‘50% Fringe’ day which sees producers slash prices to all performances in a last push to fill theatres. “Of the remaining performances there are several which are completely sold out – such as Lira, Hugh Masekela and Matthew Mole’s performance with Nakhane Toure – but there are thousands of seats still available to hundreds of other performances, spanning theatre, music, comedy, cabaret, dance and more. We look forward to a great closing weekend,” Lankester concluded.