Being one of the few Americans at The National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa, I spent quite a bit of time answering the question: “What part of the States are you from?” Whenever I said Washington State, everyone always assumed Washington D.C. So then I had to correct them, saying I was from the West Coast. I’d say, “West Coast Best Coast. East Coast Least Coast. Don’t say that in Boston, or you’ll get shanked.” But even though Grahamstown isn’t on a coast, I think the NAF motto should be “Fest Coast Best Coast.”
South Africa ran from July 3-13 this year. The Festival is loosely broken up into two parts, week one and week two. My first show wasn’t til the 8th, so I didn’t get into Grahamstown until the 4th of July. July 4th is obviously known as the United States’ Day of Independence, but it’s also the anniversary of my grandma’s death, so every year I tried to have a G&T on that date (Gin and Tonic was my grandma’s drink of choice).
I spent a few days trying to get my ducks in a row for my first performance, which actually wasn’t that easy. My biggest obstacle was that the Festival Office had lost my posters. I ordered posters through a company in Port Elizabeth, who delivered them to the Monument (The Settlers Monument houses the National Arts Festival Office), and somehow my posters got lost in the shuffle. It took them a day to find them (and only at my persistent nagging, to the point where I actually just waited in their office and wouldn’t leave without the posters), which meant I had only one day to put them up before my show. Fortunately – sort of – I could only afford 75 posters, so I didn’t have too many to put up.
My first show was on Tuesday the 8th of July, and every artist/production has the opportunity to make their first performance free. I chose to do this for two reasons: the first is that I worked with quite a few people in the township when I lived in Grahamstown in 2011, and I really wanted them to come see my show, but I would have felt bad if they were forking over R50 to come see it. So this way, I could have a guilt-free way of having everyone come see my show. The second reason was because this was my first solo show at Fest, and I needed all the exposure I could get. By having a free first show, people could come see the show risk-free, and if they liked it, they could tell their friends that “It’s ok, this Halfrican! show is actually all right, even though you know nothing about the guy.” And it seemed to work: the first show was full – just a few tickets from “selling out” (can you “sell out” if it’s free?), and I had two other shows that were very well attended. I also had three shows that were not well attended, so it was half-and-half. (I learned from the Festival Finance Office at the end of the week that I actually did pretty well for a first solo-show at Fest. They said it usually takes a few festivals to build up name recognition and an audience.)
So – overall – I was quite pleased with the attendance of my show. The 50-50 score on attendance (3 full shows, three sorta empty shows) was matched by my score in the newspapers. I got one good review and one bad review. They came out the same day as each other, but I didn’t see the positive review until two days after. (And I’m glad I saw the bad one first, not the other way around!) I tried to brush off the negative review, because the reporter not only misquoted me, she also took me out of context. So the validity of her review – in my opinion – was suddenly called into question. Honestly, it’s totally fine if you diss me, but if you’re going to – get your facts straight. I won’t go into the details, because I don’t want to sound butthurt about it, but suffice it to say that I didn’t dwell too long on the negative review, because there was nothing true about the negative things she said about me.
But one of the best parts about the Festival was the chance to see many of my friends. First on the list were my hosts – I stayed with Andrew and Claire Hunter, and their daughter Nicola, for the entire two weeks I was in Grahamstown. Andrew is the Dean of the cathedral in Grahamstown, and that was my home church for me in 2011. Claire is a priest at the cathedral as well, so I got to see the Hunters at least once a week for the year I was living there, if not more. It was great to reunite with them, but honestly, we didn’t see a WHOLE lot of each other because they were running around seeing shows at Fest and I was running around DOING shows at Fest, so it was all a bit hectic. But we did have meals together here and there, and they are just such a lovely family. The only downside is that their eldest daughter Rachel was in England on a gap year, and so I didn’t get to see her this time around. Dumb.
But I got to see other friends like Richard Antrobus, and actor/performer now based in Cape Town, who was back in Grahamstown to do his own one-man show. He was my housemate the year I lived in G-town, and we because quite good friends. It was so great to catch up with him and here how the Cape Town life is treating him. I also got to reunite with friends from NatCaf (short for Naturally Caffeinated) – the improv troupe I started at Rhodes University three years ago. I did a guest appearance with them, and it was so great to be doing improv again!
And, of course, I got to see my good friend Tyson Ngubeni, a comedian now based in Joburg who came down to fest to perform some standup comedy alongside NatCaf’s improv show. But Tyson also opened for me, doing about 5-10 minutes of his own material before I came on. I’m grateful to him for warming up sometimes quite reticent crowds, and it made my job that much easier. He’s a gifted performer, and my only concern in having him open for me was that the audience would like him better!
In all, with six performances, a few guest appearances with NatCaf, and seeing a few shows here and there myself, I had quite the busy Festival. It was a great experience, and I’m quite please for my first go-round here at fest. I’m hoping to return again before long!