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WITNESS HILTON ARTS FESTIVAL (article first published : 2007-07-12)

It’s almost that time of year again when the annual Witness Hilton Arts Festival comes to the Hilton College outside Pietermaritzburg. Taking place this year from September 14 to 16, it promises a dazzling line-up of cutting-edge drama, comedy, music and cabaret, as well as an enticing array of arts and crafts. The bumper programme features a stellar mix of hot South African performers and artists mostly gleaned from the 2007 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

The festival will once again have strong focus on classical music with an eclectic mix of concerts hosted by Christopher Duigan’s Music Revival featuring a myriad of special guests and soloists. There are invited productions on the Main festival, and a huge selection of productions on the fringe.

One of the highlights is the Australian production of The Stones from the Zeal Theatre in Australia. Written and directed by Stefo Nantsou and Tom Lycos, The Stones is a tour de force of multi-skilled storytelling and high energy physical theatre for teenagers and adults. In April 1996, Zeal relocated to Melbourne where Zeal founder Stefo Nantsou teamed with fellow ex-Sidetrack Theatre member Tom Lycos to produce Zeal’s biggest national and international success.

Since its premiere in 1996, The Stones has been performed in schools, theatres and festivals throughout Australia, Europe, North America and Asia, including seasons at the National Theatre, London and the New Victory Theatre in New York. It has also been translated and performed in over 20 countries and has been awarded a fist full of awards. The Stones is based on a true story of two boys charged with manslaughter after throwing rocks from a freeway overpass and killing a motorist.

Another highlight is Mike van Graan’s new production – Bafana Republic. In the words of Cape Times reviewer Marianne Thamm: “Mike van Graan’s is a welcome new voice in the South African satirical landscape. Better known for his uncompromising and often hilarious newspaper columns and his provocative stage plays, this is his first foray in the satirical boxing ring… Bafana Republic brims, crackles and sparkles with Van Graan’s often outrageous humour and caustic satire…you’ll enjoy a great, subversive night at the theatre.”

The visually evocative and beautifully crafted Jutro – which means “Tomorrow” in Polish - is a play developed through a workshop collaboration between actors Keren Tahor (of etv’s Scandal), James Cunningham, musician Russ Nerwich and director Helen Iskander. It was produced by Daphne Kuhn of the Liberty Theatre on the Square and Lauren Wallett. The Jewish development agency, Tararam, facilitated the development and growth of the play from its conception by Keren Tahor. Jutro is a universal love story set in occupied Poland in the Second World War, and traces the discovery of hope and love in the midst of desolation and destruction.

A similar production team is also responsible for the delicate and whimsical The Travellers which the festival has been trying to get for their programme for the past three years. Another undoubted highlight will be Lisa Bobbert in her new production - Chronicles of a Car Guard. For a glimpse behind the obvious - there will be a series of Thinkfest lectures and discussions on a myriad of interesting and diverse subjects presented by leaders in their respective fields.

For the second year there will be a curated art exhibition at the festival as well as the usual art which is so popular. Karen Bradtke of artSPACE Durban will curate the exhibition to be held in the Normand Dunn Gallery in the Main Theatre building. This year, there will be a focus on local arts and craft with regular arts workshops as part of the festival programme. This will take place at the Art School which is situated next to the Drama Centre. Scrap-booking, bread-making, flute-making and beading workshops will be scheduled into the event programme.

There will be a special focus on food and eating this year with two food areas to choose from. This year festival regular and food buff extraordinaire Terry Sterling and RoyalSechaba Food Services will be responsible for both tents. The usual popular food tent will have hearty meals on offer throughout the day – with breakfast, lunch, supper and late night after show snacks being served … all with good coffee.

There is a smaller separate coffee and gateaux area for those in need of a sweet pick-me-up at any time. There is also an elegant fine dining area called the Courtyard Bistro and Bar which will offer a more sophisticated dining, cocktail and late night experience. Evan Roberts will make sure that there is fabulous entertainment on tap in the fine dining tent with the whose-who of the KZN theatre and cabaret scene taking turns at the piano and mic.

“Contrary to popular belief, the festival does not sell-out overnight!” says Festival Director, Sue Clarence. “Yes, box office business is brisk once booking opens on August 17, but there are inevitably tickets available for all shows. There is often a misconception that there are never any tickets available as they sell out so quickly – that is not the case. However, it is advisable not to delay – as the ‘hot’ tickets do get purchased quickly,” she said. So, make sure you diarise that booking opens on August 17.

The National Lotteries Board has pledged funds towards this year’s festival and has sponsored an intensive theatre management and technical skills development programme for a dozen trainees. The trainees will all be working at the festival as part of the practical component of their course. They are also sponsoring an intensive drama course (co-ordinated by Sue Clarence) and a musical training programme (co-ordinated by Christopher Duigan).

Those requiring accommodation over the festival period are strongly advised to book early at one of the many B&Bs and hotels in the area. Booking kits will be available from selected SPAR Stores in KZN. Kits can also be collected from Exclusive Books (La Lucia, Pavilion, Liberty Mall and Gateway), Adams in Musgrave Centre and town, Cascades Bookshop and the Witness offices in Pietermaritzburg. Also from leading galleries and theatre foyers.

For more information or a full programme and booking kit – visit www.artslink.co.za/hilton or the Hilton Festival hotline on theatre@hiltoncollege.com or phone 033 3830126. Detailed information can be found on www.artslink.co.za/hilton




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