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GRAHAMSTOWN’S FINE AND SUNNY (article first published : 2001-06-28)

The weather in Grahamstown at the moment is beautiful – the sun is shining, festival flags are waving and the patrons are beginning to pour in. The only dampening thought is the horrid idea of a cold front ahead!

But this year I’m not phased. I’m completely prepared, having taken critic Humphrey Tyler’s advice when he once said that to best enjoy the festival you had to “dress like an onion with an open mind.” Lots of layers … and a relaxed attitude.

What’s ahead for the next ten days is exciting, challenging and multi-faceted. Some productions will receive critical acclaim. Others may bomb completely. Some fringe performances will make money, others won’t.

“Whatever happens, we must not let it die”, says director and broadcaster Alan Swerdlow who has been coming to the festival for close on 20 years. ”The festival provides a window into the soul of our nation. We may not like what we see here but it must be seen.

“In terms of the festival’s achievement with regard to the arts world, there have been achievements on so many levels – it offers a platform to young artists to flex their wings and it provides the more experienced writers, performers and directors with the opportunity to explore new ground and to hone their craft. It also provides a springboard to many new initiatives, productions and the aspiration to excellence.”

This is the last year the Standard Bank will be the main sponsor and have naming rights. Next year’s National Arts Festival will still feature Standard Bank as a sponsor but to a much lesser degree.

“The festival must have provided Standard Bank with a great deal,” adds Alan, “as the branding of the festival has become indelibly associated with Standard Bank in the minds of the public, both here and abroad. It also gives a huge corporation a human face, particularly since the festival is closer to the true spirit of patronage rather than a quid pro quo mutual back-scratching.

“The latest study which looked at the impact of the festival revealed that it sustains the economy of what it in fact the poorest province of South Africa. In fact, it generates 10% of the annual gross income. Not bad for a ten-day period!”

There is much negativity in certain circles about the future of the festival in Grahamstown and many Gauteng-ers want to move it to Johannesburg. Apart from the fact that there is a historical reason for the festival to be based here, Grahamstown is located fairly equidistantly to the three major centres of Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg. It’s hardly fair on the other provinces if Johannesburg were to become the home of the festival. At least now everyone has to incur the same amount of travelling.

Besides which, there are 27 years of carefully developed infrastructure here. It’s taken that length of time to determine the most effective way of doing things. To re-locate would take on board a whole new set of criteria and the standard of the festival could not be maintained without enormous cost and a great deal of time.

“We understand that CNN, BBC, Boston Herald, New York Times, Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung plus radio, television and print media from Holland are already here and there’s another major contingent on the way,” continues Alan. “Considering that people may look at this festival as “past it sell by date”, it seems that the international community takes a very different view. Taking into account the costs involved in getting camera crews, technicians and equipment halfway across the world – they obviously think the product is still very fresh and worth covering!

In between rushing around, I shall try to load as much info on the Festivals page. - Caroline Smart




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