All the web’s a stage: National Arts Festival goes virtual

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All the web’s a stage: National Arts Festival goes virtual

But performers are split over the decision to use downloads, streaming and online platforms

Naziziphiwo Buso
National Arts Festival CEO Monica Newton.
'Bold' decision National Arts Festival CEO Monica Newton.
Image: Robyn Davie

The National Arts Festival is going virtual this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic – and performers are in two minds about the innovative decision.

While major events worldwide and in SA have been cancelled in response to the outbreak, the festival is going ahead, but instead of hosting a physical spectacle in Makhanda, it will use downloads, streaming, online platforms and the like to bring its performances to the people.

“From 25 June to 5 July 2020, the National Arts Festival will be going completely virtual for the full 11 days,” the festival organisers said late on Tuesday.

“Going virtual will mean that the festival can continue to support artists and the arts in 2020, by presenting work within a digital space.

“The 2020 National Arts Festival will go down in our history as the first ever virtual edition.” 

Explaining their decision, the organisers said that because of the ban on major events, travel restrictions and recommendations on use of public transport, “our artists and visitors can’t get to Makhanda and we can’t get to them”.

“We don’t want to contribute to the spread of the virus and fully understand that this is a time for isolation,” the organisers said.

They would be engaging directly with “all artists and traders who are currently registered to participate in the 2020 festival”.  

Now that we are going to digital that means that I would now need proper camera people, proper editors, and that means extra costs.
Playwright and actor Xabiso Zweni

Performers who had been expecting to descend on Makhanda said there were positives  – and potential challenges – in having a digital festival.

Port Elizabeth playwright and actor Xabiso Zweni said: “From a creative side one can go wild with going digital, depending on whether you livestream or whether you pre-record.

“When you pre-record you can edit and do major things with your work, especially when you are doing theatre.

“However, this has cost implications – if I was doing a one-man show for the National Arts Festival and I was travelling only by myself then it would be less cost.

“Now that we are going to digital that means that I would now need proper camera people, proper editors, and that means extra costs,” Zweni said.

Comedian Rob van Vuuren, who has attended the National Arts Festival for the past 20 years, said the move was “amazing”.

“It’s a bold and brave decision and I applaud them for their innovative thinking.

“I am keen to see how it would work and what kind of infrastructure that it would need.”

They obviously can’t recreate that atmosphere as we all know the atmosphere is now filled with Covid-19 germs. I think it’s best not to recreate the atmosphere.
Comedian Rob van Vuuren

Asked how the organisers of the festival would recreate the “atmosphere of 11 days of amazing” that usually draws big crowds, Van Vuuren could not resist cracking a joke.

“They obviously can’t recreate that atmosphere as we all know the atmosphere is now filled with Covid-19 germs. I think it’s best not to recreate the atmosphere.

“Our whole entertainment industry is affected by the ban of 100 people and that’s how we make our income, and this digitisation gives us another option and it is something that we should perhaps explore.”

Siv Ngesi, who has attended the festival for the past 13 years as an actor and comedian, said: “Many people are going to suffer, the city is going to suffer.

“This move can either waken it up and have a revival or it could be the beginning of the end.”

Innocent Kayombo, from Zimbabwe, who usually sells his artwork in the streets of Makhanda during the festival, said the spread of the virus was having an adverse effect on artists.

“If this [festival] goes digital it means that no one will be in Makhanda to buy my work – the festival was the only place where I could make money.

“Even here at Camps Bay, where my stand is, it is extremely quiet because of the virus,” he said.