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Thursday, October 4, 2012


(Estelle Sinkins, Sue Clarence and Margaret von Klemperer)

artSMart Editor, Caroline Smart, looks back on the festival’s growth since its inception.

The 2012 Witness Hilton Arts Festival celebrated its 20th anniversary last weekend with another successful event. As always, the weather was unpredictable with rain affecting the crafters on the Saturday, but the true festival spirit remained undeterred and people continued to enjoy the excellent and highly varied programme.

There are always art exhibitions in various venues close to Hilton College but it is gratifying to see the growing number of events outside the campus over festival time. This can only benefit the Hilton area from an economic point of view.

It is time to pause and look back to how it all started. Still at the helm is the highly-efficient festival director Sue Clarence and her hard-working and loyal team. The Witness newspaper came on board as the naming sponsor and Sue Clarence’s relationship with its arts editor took hold on a much stronger footing.

Former Witness Arts Editor, Margaret von Klemperer, and the current Arts Editor, Estelle Sinkins, are fully committed to supporting the festival, even to the extent of spending time at the information desk to advise festival goers on the many questions that arise.

How did it all start?

In July, 1993, I was at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown,” explains Clarence. “It was a cold, windy and wet night, around midnight, when I met up with Geoff Thompson in a queue outside a venue called The Old Gaol ... because that is what the building used to be! Inside its thick cold walls was an erstwhile exercise yard where, we were informed, the gallows used to stand. On this night, however, red wine and curry were being sold. By the time we got to the front of the queue, both options were sold out. Somewhat disheartened, we decided we’d simply have to start our own festival at Hilton. The following morning, I bumped into Geoff again, this time in the cathedral. My first thought was that perhaps we would not even mention the previous evening’s lunatic idea. But no .... !!!”

Margaret von Klemperer picks up the story: “ I remember Sue coming to see me, and me writing a story something along the lines of: “Hilton has better weather than Grahamstown, Hilton is much closer than Grahamstown, and now Hilton is going to have a festival, just like Grahamstown.” It was a bit of journalistic licence back then, but it’s getting there 20 years on. Though not perhaps the weather...!”

Just two months later, with the support of the Witness (then the Natal Witness) and Hilton College, the first festival took place.

“Everything sold out,” says Clarence. “In fact, one production, Frank ‘n’ Stein, starring David Dennis, ran at about 120% of capacity! We had lost count of the resale of tickets on the fast growing black market. I am glad to say things have tightened up since then. In 2011, we ran at about 83% of capacity. This year’s festival figures are approximately the same.

In 1993, there were six productions each having two performances in the Theatre. This year, there were 52 visual artists; 38 productions (mostly performing twice each); 132 crafters; 37 food outlets; 31 schools in Jongosi. Approximately 22,000 people are estimated to have attended the 2012 festival.

The festival working team now numbers 45 under the strong leadership of the indefatigable Doreen Stanley.

Looking back over the highlights, Clarence indicates that these are always Athol Fugard productions. Lowlights representing potentially disastrous experiences that were turned around? Clarence remembers: “Having 500 people in the theatre all seated by 09h55 to see Andrew Buckland in Between The Teeth. His bus had broken down on the Transkei and he had hitched. I was on my way to fetch him at the Hilton hotel. And then ... he said he had to shave before he went on. I said no!!!”

Margaret von Klemperer, who continues to work on The Witness as their Book Editor, adds her memories: “The Witness marketing team was involved, but from Editorial, we never had more than three reviewers working. My highlight was interviewing Athol Fugard. He had just come off stage after a performance of Valley Song, and he made me feel as if I was the one doing him a huge favour, not the other way round. He was completely charming and a delight to interview. What a great guy. Another highlight was watching Michael Richard and Clare Mortimer in KickstArt’s performance of Duet for One a few years ago. Incredibly moving – theatre at it best.

“No reviewer can get away with only good experiences,” von Klemperer continues. “There have been a few duds – which shall remain nameless. I only had one major disaster: I felt weird through the whole festival, really awful on Sunday afternoon when I was back at the office writing reviews, and woke up on Monday morning to find I had German measles!”

The biggest development area would be the Jongosi programme. South African iconic singer and white Zulu, Johnny Clegg, coined the word “Jongosi”, and allowed the festival “to use it” as the umbrella term for a unique youth programme introduced for the first time in 2010. The word comes from the Afrikaans, meaning “jong os” but has been absorbed, along with Clegg, into Zulu culture. It is a celebration of all that is young, new and vibrant. 

The festival’s Jongosi programme embodies the same values. Because the arts are the soul of the nation, the festival wished to create an experience that educates, entertains and expands a young person’s view of the world.

Jongosi aims to ensure that this event is available to those who cannot afford to pay. The objective is to instil the inestimable value of the arts as a nation building tool in the youth and to build a nation of people who support the arts, thus ensuring the continuation of the performance arts in South Africa. A further aim is to introduce the youth to the performance arts in the hope that they might become performers themselves.

Some 31 schools are invited to attend productions or workshops in the first day of the festival. In theory, this programme could be extended to earlier in the week before the festival opening. With funding, schools in lower socio economic areas could participate free of charge.

How has the Festival increased Hilton College’s profile? “It has to be a marketing exercise of note, a gift!!” says Clarence

How has the Festival increased The Witness’s profile? I think it has been important for the Witness, and increasingly so as the festival has grown to become what is probably the major performing arts event in KZN, to be seen to be involved in something which supports the vital (and often beleaguered and ignored) cultural sector,” says von Klemperer. “The festival has done a great deal to put the Midlands area – which is the newspaper’s home turf – back on the Arts map. A reminder to our coastal relations that there is life beyond Kloof!”

Estelle Sinkins, current Arts Editor of the Witness, has the final word. “Since coming on board as Arts Editor, I’ve felt enormously privileged to promote the festival and a highlight for me personally was being able to produce a special pull-out this year which was available in the paper. It is something I hope to build on and will be speaking to marketing to see if we cannot make it bigger and more widely available to festival goers in 2013.

“Among the highlights of the past few years has been watching Dada Masilo’s extraordinary Swan Lake, the development of Neil Coppen’s play Tree Boy from its initial staging in Durban to the complete work at Hilton, featuring Ron Smerczak, Michael Gritten and Luc Haasbroek, and watching mesmerising shows like Duet for One, Butcher Brothers, Pictures of You and many more.

“I also loved interviewing United Kingdom-based duo, Max Webster and Mia Theil Have, about their work with young people on the Hilton College estate to create the colourful street theatre pageant, Carnival under the Rainbow, in 2009, and this year getting the chance to chat to ventriloquist, Paul Zerdin. He was a charming man and far more down to earth than I expected. We even chatted about the best places for him to go running! I have very few lowlights, but have to admit that not every show I’ve seen over the years has lived up to my expectations.

“I think the festival’s biggest area of development has definitely been the schools festival, Jongosi, but I’m concerned that the recent directive from the provincial government about school trips could impact on it. Certainly one school failed to make it to this year’s event for that reason, leaving the actors to play to a third of a house.

“Looking ahead to the festival’s 21st birthday next year, I am confident that Sue Clarence will continue to bring the best shows possible to the Midlands. She has done a sterling job over the years and succeeded in attracting the support of companies like Spar and Grindrod. What we really need, however, is support from the Department of Arts and Culture (nationally or provincially or both), the National Arts Council and the Lottery. Given its importance to the national arts calendar and its huge schools component, it’s scandalous that more funding is not forthcoming from these bodies. If I can help push them to provide funding, then I would happily do so.

“The festival is undoubtedly The Witness’s premier event of the year - our best and brightest light – and long may it continue to shine.”

Next year’s Witness Hilton Arts Festival will take place from September 13 to 15, 2013. For more information visit – Caroline Smart