We were unmasked as country bumpkins even before the festival started. That moment of truth arrived when actor David Butler pitched a whole day before his first performance. We helped unpack the set from the top of his car, carefully carrying the four walls of the prison cell from which he’d be playing Bram Fischer’s experience of life in jail. We showed Butler the stage we’d made to his design and he said, ‘Between shows your stage manager should wipe down the floor with a damp cloth.’
Stage manager! Damn, I knew I would forget something. That’s the trouble with making a festival in the middle of nowhere. Without painfully meticulous planning you end up with a hole you can’t fill.
Butler knows this only too well. That’s why he routinely arrives a day early for a show, travelling with his own improvised lights and sound, just in case. But not all the other performers, arriving for Smithfield’s first Platteland Preview of Grahamstown’s National Arts Festival over the weekend, were so well prepared.
Take a certain music group from Limpopo, crazy sweethearts and we’d enjoyed talking to them as we negotiated their festival participation. Crew of nine, bringing all their lights and sound with them, they said.
When they arrived, however, almost a day later than expected, there were only four and just one car instead of the two cars and one trailer they’d planned. The other vehicle had broken down; five crew along with all the technical equipment hadn’t pitched. ‘Can’t we just hire some lights and sound,’ they said.
That’s the kind of request that makes you groan though we should be used to it: the overnight guest who needs directions to the jewellery shop so she can buy ear-ring backs or people who reckon they can arrive late Sunday afternoon without a dinner booking and ‘just look around for somewhere nice to eat’. Well actually no. In a dorp with dirt roads, no bank or chemist, you need to say you’re coming or you could find the kitchen closed.
As for hiring lights and sound systems … we just roll our eyes. Strangely though by the time the show started at the Piano Bar in Mafulatshepe that evening, our hip hoppers had found someone who knew someone and a rudimentary sound system had been rigged.
They had other adventures too. Started with locking the keys in their car – there’s no locksmith in town and the nearest is 100 km away. Barely had this problem been resolved when, next morning, I had an anguished call from ‘my’ musicians standing outside the police station: an officer had brought them in, explaining the police had received a complaint that the group were involved in an ATM scam. They should all wait there till the complainant arrived for an ID.
For more than two hours we hung around outside the police station while the complainant, a local woman who operates the stop/go point in the poort outside town, hitched a lift back from Aliwal North where she’d been cancelling her bank cards. Then she took one look at the musicians and said, ‘No, not them. Too tall.’
For many townspeople this weekend festival was a revelation. In my mind I can still see the large man round the corner, his crossed arms resting on his table-tummy, watching one show after another, absolutely engrossed.
And the Grade 11 and 12 learners from the local high school, hotly questioning actor Lolo Malumo about how actors can play characters they dislike.
Or the standing ovation given to Butler for his portrayal of Fischer, the lawyer whose advocacy helped keep Nelson Mandela and his colleagues from the death penalty at the end of the Rivonia Trial, but who was himself sentenced to life imprisonment from which he was never released. And the way some members of that audience, known to have strongly conservative political views, left that show deep in thought, while others had obviously been weeping.
Most magical of all, though, how disparate sections of the town have worked together. Even outside people have caught the vision: the UCT drama student who loved the fest and volunteered to supplement our tech crew next year; the offers to arrange drama workshops for high school students so they’ll get more from the festival in future, and photographic maestro Eric Miller who came from Cape Town and gave us the gift of his time filming the weekend because he too understood the dream ….