EXACTLY a year ago, two guests arrived at my door: a friend and his actor daughter. As dinner ended she said she couldn’t go to bed immediately: she needed another run-through of the show she was taking to Grahamstown’s National Arts Festival. Would she like an audience, we asked. And that’s how three people and three dogs gathered round a log fire in our stone barn for a private performance of one of last year’s great fringe hits: The Epicene Butcher and Other Stories for Consenting Adults, starring Jemma Kahn.
Next morning Jemma and I wondered whether other fringe performers, making their annual pilgrimage to the National Arts Festival, might also like to pause in Smithfield. The town, half way between Gauteng and Grahamstown on the N6, is a convenient stop over, and while actors grabbed an extra tech rehearsal, Smithfield would get its very own fees.
We’d have performers showcasing their work to people who might otherwise never see live theatre; children might start to dream about a life in the arts; a deeply rural economy could get a mid-winter boost. Happiness all round.
So now Smithfield’s first Platteland Preview of Grahamstown’s fringe shows is just over a fortnight away. It’s been an extraordinary experience: everything you know about organising events will tell you it’s impossible for a tiny amper karoo village to manage something this big. Maybe that’s true. But what if they worked unbelievably hard, and what if they were given a hand by people all over the cyber world?
From Paris, for example, webmaster Brett offers a weekend of work on our now-fabulous Website. From Durban, artist and journalist Crystelle sees to the stunning design work of our programmes and posters. In Pretoria writer and editor Cecilia helps with social media. From Grahamstown where he’s director of that Grandaddy of festivals, Ismail Mahomed dispenses advice and offers connections that you could wait decades to find on your own.
He’s in Venice the day I weep Facebook tears because sponsors who promised a stage for our main venue have pulled out. With just 20 days before the opening we have a crisis. Mahomed makes magic from a continent away and hours later we’re talking to someone from AfrikaBurn about design issues and possible funding.
Then we chat to actor David Butler. He is opening our festival playing Bram Fischer in the English premiere of The Bram Fischer Waltz. We had thought this an excellent choice for a Free State festival seeing Fischer was a Free Stater and that Bloemfontein’s airport has just been named after him. Now we find there are other good reasons for having Butler on board. He’s more than just a pretty voice and gives us some great advice about stage-building.
Next morning we leave home at 5 am for an unusual shopping trip in Bloemfontein. Hours later our triumphal procession heads back to Smithfield, credit card and bakkie groaning a little under unaccustomed weight. To people who pass us on the road it is just a pile of timber on that flat bed trailer, but to us it’s a stage-in-waiting. Within a day all 10 modules of our 6m x 5m stage are done and the show’s back on the road.
Local farmers are working with private families in the dorp itself offering free accommodation to the performers stopping over in Smithfield, and we’re seeing a community pulling together in a way that makes your heart glad. We have no money for this project but people are donating their time, resources and expertise at no cost, to make sure it happens.
It’s also fabulous to see the excitement in the local high school over their involvement. Kids at this under-resourced and almost completely black school have become drama-obsessed after a recent visit to the theatre in Bloemfontein. They’ve formed a drama and poetry society and they can’t wait for their private performance of the show ear-marked for them – in exchange they are offering to help as gophers during the festival.
This is a moment of celebration in the life of Smithfield, one of the oldest towns in the province. After three difficult years of disruptive construction, roadworks in the dorp itself are virtually complete. The N6 through Smithfield re-opens today – a cause for such relief that there was literally dancing in the streets the night before. How fitting that electronic bookings for the festival open on the same day – at 9am this morning.
It feels like a new era for our little dorp.
* For more on Smithfield’s Platteland Preview go to the festival Website.