Life, etc

Cape Town Fringe: Cape Town’s big theatre binge – but will it leave city with a hangover?

By Marianne Thamm 16 September 2014

Most theatre festivals in the world start small and grow from there. Not the inaugural Cape Town Fringe, which kicks off on 25 September for eleven days with a dizzying array of over 100 productions to be staged in venues across the city. But will Capetonians come out in their droves? By MARIANNE THAMM.

It wouldn’t be Cape Town if there weren’t some hint of controversy and bad blood surrounding the initial announcement that the city would this month host its inaugural Cape Town Fringe festival, partly sponsored by the City of Cape Town and co-partnered with the CEO and the Artistic Director of the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. The festival is set to run for three years, depending on its success.

We are excited to join the likes of New York, Hollywood, Edinburgh, Brighton and Amsterdam in hosting an event of this nature,” Executive Mayor of Cape Town, Patricia de Lille, rather ambitiously trumpeted introducing the jam-packed printed programme.

The city certainly is home to a small but energetic theatre and performance community – many of whom choose not to trek north to work in television – and who produce an astounding body of work annually, much of it original, some of it not always quite stage ready.

Local judges who serve on the Fleur du Cape Theatre Awards usually view around 80 productions annually (a statistic that surprises Gauteng theatre folk). Judges often venture out in driving rain in the city’s bleak winter months to catch a new two-hander in an out-of-the-way venue, some church-come-theatre in a suburb or a tiny black box above a downtown bar.

Much of the work locally is produced independently in smaller venues but a lot is showcased in the city’s two main theatre complexes, Artscape (which is state funded) and The Baxter (which is not). Then there are also the commercial venues, The Theatre on the Bay and The Fugard. The “mainstream” theatre venues are prohibitively expensive and are often out of reach of anyone who isn’t a “name” or who isn’t linked to a production company that has secured patrons or sponsorship.

A lot of the more interesting and original work in Cape Town takes place in settings the professional theatre classes view as “community” theatre and the annual Zabalaza Festival at the Baxter now serves as a showcase for this work, some of which has gone on to enjoy a measure of success.

So it wasn’t going to sit well with some of the city’s hardworking (and fiercely territorial) theatre people that the head honchos of the National Festival of the Arts, CEO Tony Lankester and Artistic Director Ismail Mohamed, had swivelled their gaze southwards and settled on Cape Town as suitable spot for a post-Grahamstown performance jamboree.

There were grumbles about a lack of consultation with the local artistic community and which culminated in a nasty war of words between Mohamed and a particularly prolific local theatre maker, actress, playwright and improviser of note, Megan Furniss.

Why do we need a Cape Town Fringe Festival in the first place? I know my hometown as a place where I spend the whole year making theatre and sukkeling to get an audience to come, dealing with venues, producing work, directing work, performing work and supporting others’ work. That is what we do. All year round. Now the GTown powers are coming and telling us what to do, how to do it and when, in Cape Town. Sorry, no.” Furniss wrote on her blog Megan’s Head.

Furniss did point out that “other festivals have bombed” including UNIMA SA’s celebrated visual performance and puppetry festival “Out The Box”, which ran from 2008 to 2012 before it ran out of funding options. The Suidoosterfees, a largely Afrikaans-language performance festival, has run for eleven years at Artscape and enjoys local support.

A few weeks ago another controversy raged at the fringes of the Fringe when playwright Tsepo wa Mamatu, who had been suspended from WITS after being found guilty of sexual harassment, withdrew his play “At My Grave” after complaints that it was inappropriate. Wa Mamatu, who has relocated to Cape Town, initially offered to engage in a debate with fellow theatre makers but withdrew at the last minute.

One of the biggest challenges that the Cape Town theatre community has had to grapple with for years is how to make performance accessible and affordable to the residents of townships and suburbs that lie beyond the cradle of the city centre and who seldom get to experience the live theatre on offer in the province. There is only one “township” venue that has been made available for The Cape Town Fringe Festival and that is the Guga Sthebe Culture & Art center in Langa, where a lecture will be offered.

Whether theatre exists to simply entertain and distract (and make money in the process) as some of the big musicals that tour Cape Town certainly do, or whether it serves a much more important literary function, is a discussion that will never be resolved. As British playwright David Hare suggested, theatre is like a supermarket. There are rows and rows of cheap, unhealthy products, and then there are the specialist sections and then the delicatessen, where the real “art” happens.

And if government or a city sponsors theatre and “art”, then what is the duty of these sponsors? Do they serve the artists or the market? Do they create jobs? Make money? Help revive an arts economy? Offer entertainment or cultivate a “national” creative voice?

These are all issues that perpetually preoccupy those who find themselves drawn to the arena of professional live performance.

Ultimately there will be only one way to measure the success of the Cape Town Fringe and that will be whether Capetonians, at what promises to be the start of a spectacular summer, are prepared to spend some of it indoors watching theatre and live performance. That, and also whether anyone has enough disposable income to spend in these economically challenging times on live entertainment with few “big name” draw cards on the menu. But that, of course, is the nature of The Fringe.

Mohamed, writing in the 30-page programme, suggests that the Fringe Festival offers an opportunity for independent artists “to stand up for themselves; and to let their work challenge the perception that artsy people working outside of the ‘main’ institutions are a bunch of weenies”. [Really? People thought that? Ed]

Some of the productions on offer have been “tested” at the National Festival of the Arts, while others are newly created or revived local pieces. Performances include theatre, music, dance and comedy. The Fringe Festival “headquarters” will be the Edwardian architectural confection that is the City Hall itself, where “The Fringe Club” will be situated on the top floor. The Club will house a restaurant and bar and is open from 11am. Other venues include the deliciously colonial German Club, the Alexander Bar – the city’s only popular theatre bar, The Crypt at St George’s Cathedral, the Dragon Room and the Galloway Theatre.

Executive Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson, who is also Acting Mayoral Committee Member for Tourism, said that the ticket prices (which range from R55 to R90) as well as the spread of the choice of venues would hopefully appeal to “traditional and non-traditional” theatre-going audiences.

Artists presenting work at the festival were asked to pay a “modest” registration fee and venue hire and would receive the bulk of profit from door takings. The festival itself will carry the responsibility for ticket sales, marketing and setting up the venues.

This is the first time, also, that the city will be taking care of its own ticket sales, circumventing the often opaque operations of the commercial ticket vending merchants.

Festival organisers are of course hoping the crowds – including our fair-weather tourist friends – will be out from 25 September to 5 October, which would mean that the next festival might be able to attract international performers. DM

For the full programme visit http://www.capetownfringe.co.za

Main Pic: Jacques de Silva and Ameera Patel in Whistle Stop, which will be performed at the Cape Town Fringe Festival. (Picture Marius Janse van Rensburg)

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