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Friday, July 3, 2020


(Ismail Mahomed)

Dr Ismail Mahomed is the new Director of UKZN’s Centre for Creative Arts (CCA) in the College of Humanities.

The return to live theatre in 2020 in South Africa may not happen at all; and even if any impresario may want to risk opening up sooner the cards on the table are clear that the production will be an economic loss. Audiences will not be coming in their numbers to allow most productions to even break even.

The successful return to theatres will start to happen only from March when the string of arts festivals commence with their 2021 editions; and this will probably be with the Woordfees in Stellenbosch kicking off the return. Interestingly, this year’s Woordfees festival was concluded just days before President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the National Lockdown.

More than just an exciting and inspiring array of productions that festivals offer they also a dynamic sense of community. Well run festivals are meticulous events at which artists and audiences become joined by both their head spaces, heartstrings and by their hips.

On any single festival day an audience member who goes from one show to the other experiences an array of emotions from being inspired, feeling challenged, left confused, being surprised, allowed to reflect and look at a world through new eyes. A single day at an arts festival raises out consciousness. It deepens our engagement with subjects that we would otherwise shy away from. It makes us take risks on the well known and the unknown. It pushes us into reflection and it pulls us into celebration. Festivals re-awakens us to our own humanity; and it is this single factor that audiences will be searching for after social distancing has deprived us of so much of it. Whilst a single theatre show in a city theatre may offer all of this to us for the night festivals give it to us as medication in hourly doses to speed up our recovery.

In small town festivals such as Stellenbosch (Woordfees), Oudtshoorn (KKBK), Grahamstown (NAF), Potchefstroon (Aardklop), Hilton (Hilton Arts Festival), Bloemfontein (Vryfees) and Nelspruit (Inniebos) the opportunities provided by these festivals for artists and to audiences to bump into each other at coffee shops, guest houses, gallery spaces and other shows is the thread that weaves them back together again.

More than any of the sharing of laughter, fears, hopes, dialogue and re-imagining that takes places in large doses at festivals it is the meticulousness with which festivals also make their security protocols transparent and repetitive that will make audiences feel safe.

Human nature is full of contradictions. Flying in an aeroplane is far more dangerous than sitting in a theatre. A passenger in an aeroplane however is more likely not to pay any attention to the pre-flight announcement. In a theatre, the pre-show announcement and its accompanied dimming of the lights has never ever failed to grab a person’s attention. It is that magical switch that transports a person to distant places faster than any jet can do.

At festivals when that pre-show announcement is repeated and it repeatedly invokes that moment of expectation and excitement it allows the blood to once again flow through our veins. It rushes the air to our heads. It pumps our hearts. It makes us feel alive. In the darkness of that theatre we may become so absorbed in our own experiences of the work on stage but we also become conscious of the breathing around us in the audience ... the gentle sobs, the laughter, the irritation, excitement, awe and what it feels like to be alive; and to be alive with a community that we bump into three or four times a day. Festivals allow us to become a tight community of artists and arts lovers; and in that bond we will realise just how much we have missed each other and need each other too. This meeting together again will be a treaty at which we commit ourselves to each other; and it is from this treaty that our audiences will find the courage, hope, strength, desire and the resources to once again risk coming back to our individual theatres.

It is for this reason why it also makes sense for theatres to consider opening up with a mini-festival rather than mega-seasons. In a mega-season an entire production would have to be quarantined if a member of the cast or crew is infected. In a mini-festival that single production may need to be quarantined but the rest of the mini-festival can still continue after a thorough disinfecting of the spaces. Regular disinfecting of our spaces will become a new norm in our operations. It’s not too big a demand. Theatre has a history for disinfecting our hearts and our minds.

Ismail Mahomed

Centre for Creative Arts, UKZN