Megan's Head

A place where Megan gets off her head.

The Big Fat Cape Town Fringe Festival Elephant in the Room

I have put off writing this post until now because I was a little nervous that certain productions that had put in proposals for the new Cape Town Fringe Festival would be unfairly disadvantaged by whatever association with me. I shouldn’t have worried. They were both turned down anyway. In fact, I only know of 2 productions that were selected and I heard about that before any other announcements were made (no idea how they knew that they had been chosen!), and they were not Cape Town productions.

Ever since I heard about this new, shiny Cape Town Fringe I have had more questions than answers. No, let me express myself a little more clearly, so you get the picture. I have felt rage at its existence, fury at the lack of consultation, disbelief  that the City of Cape Town signed a 3 year contract with the powers that run the Grahamstown festival, and total amazement that other artists and arts media and theatre lovers all thought that this was a good idea.

Here is just some of what pissed (and continues to piss) me off.

1. Why do we need a Cape Town Fringe Festival in the first place? I know my home town as a place where I spend the whole year making theatre and sukkeling to get an audience to come, dealing with venues, producing work, directing work, performing work and supporting others’ work. That is what we do. All year round. Now the GTown powers are coming and telling us what to do, how to do it and when, in Cape Town. Sorry, no.

2. Why a new festival when all others have bombed? We have had Cape Town festivals before that sucked and failed. And winners that failed. Out The Box, a gorgeous festival, died a horrible death when it couldn’t get funding. Infecting the City is already a Cape Town festival.

3. Who has curated this Cape Town Fringe Festival? Ok, so it’s no secret that I have a terrible relationship with the Gtown powers that be. No love lost. But really? The flailing Gtown festival organisers sail into my city and make a festival? Their rules, their ideas, their plans, their choices, their budgets in my city? I get that if I don’t want to do their festival in Gtown I can choose not to, but this city of Cape Town is our stomping ground (me and those unconsulted, unhappy, distrusting and bitter) and we feel betrayed by the City of Cape Town. Why weren’t any of the Cape Town theatre players that I know and respect consulted?

4. Suddenly people who ‘applied’ are getting rejection emails that explain that the work they submitted isn’t representative. Ja. WTF? Explain who decides that. No, don’t. What utter trash.

5. Why would any local artist pay to be part of this? I cannot imagine who would put up the extra costs. Apparently plenty do, and are, if the flood of applications is anything to go by, but I don’t get it. At all.

6. Why is the whole thing so hush hush? Why wouldn’t Zayd Minty (from the City) meet with us to answer our questions? Who did the deal? Who gave the go ahead? Who drew up the budget? Who is paying?

On a personal note, I think I will make a plan to be out of the city then. Stuff your festival and the miserable Eastern Cape sponsored car you drove up in.

PS. I know. I know the backlash is about to whip my sorry arse. Hasn’t killed me yet, and shutting up never made me friends anyway.

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11 Comments

  1. i like this one megan.
    i think you might be spot on. especially about consultation and stuff [unless there is a story neither of us know about]

  2. With you all the way on this!!!!!! Cape Town theatre makers, wake up and stop behaving like the scavengers that you are be treating as by the Cape Town Fringe. You are so much better than that!

  3. Beilla Gans

    Hey, look at it another way. Maybe “they” consider you so well established in Cape Town that you no longer belong to the “fringes” Tante B

  4. Simon Cooper

    Mike van Graan’s insightful analysis above and Tony Lankester’s response have raised a number of thoughts and questions [with me at least]. I will put these comments up on Mike’s blog and on Megan’s Head because of the references to the Cape Town Fringe.

    Figures & Numbers :
    Mike analyses what the 2014 ticket sales numbers might mean and he makes a number of good points. My thoughts on numbers at this year’s and last year’s Festivals are based more on observation than stats.
    In 2013, one of our well known performers said to me [not in jest] that when one did not have to book a table at the Spur, you know that Grahamstown is empty. While you might dismiss this as just being clever with words, the ease or difficult with which one gets a table or a parking space is a valid indicator of how many people are at the Festival. The 2013 Festival was bleak in this regard and this year’s Festival, while better, never felt like it was full, full. Why should this be? Cost is clearly a factor. I agree with Mike that it is expensive to mount productions at the Festival but equally the cost of attending the Festival is heavy. Accommodation is very expensive, getting there is expensive and it is not difficult to spend R1500 or more on tickets if you spend 7 – 10 days at the Festival. This of course excludes food and the inevitable drink or 3!
    I believe that this had lead to an increase in the number of day-trippers from the surrounding areas [more of this later] and shorter stays for those who come from further afield. This in turn leads, I believe, to more people [given the reported increase in ticket sales] seeing fewer shows which means that fewer producers/performers do well and more do badly as the concentration on popular shows and well known names grows and the others are ignored. It seems that most of the popular shows do better in year 2 than in year 1 and some do even better in year 3 as word spreads through the pool of patrons concentrating on popular shows.
    I am not sure how one combats this other than by looking at your production, as far as the Festival is concerned, as a 3 year project and being brave enough, or perhaps wise enough, to cut your losses when necessary.
    So I agree with Mike that increased ticket sales do not necessarily mean increased prosperity for producers/performers.

    Working on the Fringe :
    Mike spends some time dealing with the cost of putting a piece on the Fringe at the Festival [and here I refer both to pre-performance costs and the costs of getting to and being at the Festival] and he is quite right if perhaps a bit conservative in that regard. But working on the Fringe is not easy – yes, we all go into it knowing that but I do feel that there are areas where the Festival organisers might look to stack the odds a little more in favour of Fringe practitioners – these are my thoughts and I am sure that others who work on the Fringe have many more – well people perhaps now is the time to vocalise those thoughts?
    Let no one think that I am looking for confrontation here – I do not. I seek a co-operation with commitment to improve the Fringe and what it is like to work there.
    1. The Festival advertises itself as “11 days of amaz!ng” – it isn’t; it is about 9.5 days. Most of the first Thursday and just about all of the last Sunday are effectively dead and in any event are mostly free and half-price days respectively – Sunday should be the grand finale of the Festival with people fighting to get tickets for the last performances of shows. OK so you might argue that people like to travel home from the Festival [patrons not performers, I mean] on Sunday to be back at work on Monday and that whatever you do the last Sunday is going to empty. So then why not [a] start on a Wednesday and officially end on Saturday at midnight but make it compulsory for people to perform [if scheduled to perform] on the last Saturday; [b] scrap the free first day and the last half price day; and [c] make the first Wednesday a non-compulsory 2 for 1 day. This means that performers can perform “at home” on the weekend before the Festival, travel Monday, tech Tuesday and start Wednesday.
    2. One way or another the Festival needs to find a way to schedule 11 performances of those productions who ask to perform 11 times during the Festival. This year I asked for 11 performances for all 5 of the productions in which I was involved as a producer and not one was scheduled for 11 performances – rather we were given between 8 and 10 performances. The loss of income from a performance, especially one in the middle or toward the end of the Festival makes a difference and makes it that much more difficult to at least break even.
    3. I believe that the pricing structure of the Festival has to be looked at. In general terms a lot of theatre in South Africa is underpriced. A lot of the Main productions [theatre genre] were priced this year at R65 a ticket – this is of course in a sector where the financial risk to the producers/performers is very considerably less than that borne by Fringe practitioners. If that price was a Fringe ticket price, the net income to the producer / performer would, by my calculation [including service fee and commissions] be about R54 – if Mike’s figure of R70000.00 is correct, this means one has to sell 1297 tickets at the Festival to break even. If you average out at 9 performances over the Festival, that means about 144 tickets per show – more than the capacity of some venues. And that is exacerbated by the failure to schedule a full 11 performances.
    The point is that Fringe prices are kept lower by the Main prices as producers feel that an economically stretched Festino will make prices a major factor in choosing shows [unless it is Raiders of course – tip of the hat to Nic]. Main prices have got to go up radically and allow Fringe prices to start moving toward where they should. If I have it right, most Main prices are set by the Festival organisers and I suggest that R100 per ticket should be the minimum on the Main and that will allow Fringe prices to go to R80 to R95 per ticket.
    4. I can hear the howls already – one the one hand, you say, you bemoan the numbers issue and say cost is a factor and on the other you want to make it more expensive. Vry Fees which has just finished has many ticket prices for drama of over R100; the KKNK – ditto; Aardklop – ditto. Why not the NAF? It may take some time for people to get used to it but without it, maybe the Festival will be adversely affected.
    5. Cue needs to be overhauled – radically. Because Cue does not properly review Fringe productions in any large numbers, most people [I suggest] rely on the 50 word mini-reviews. These are written by students [mainly], a lot of whom are not journalist students or know very little meaningful about theatre. Yet these reviews can make or break a production. Cue contents itself with writing about personalities, Main productions and some general stuff, and every now and again, about a Fringe show. 2013 was shocking in this regard but, while I will concede that 2014 was a little better, a lot remains to be done. Word of mouth plays a huge part at the Festival and this is, and needs to be, encouraged by media coverage. Cut out the crappy pictures of this shoe and that scarf, and the irrelevant views of people about what pick up line they are going to use, and devote that space to more Fringe reviews – after all on pure numbers alone 60% to 70% of Cue should deal with Fringe and this should be written by reviewers who know what they are talking about. If other people can see 5 or 6 shows a day, so can reviewers, and what with the IT resources available these days, those reviews can be written and submitted immediately.
    Oh and before the Festival organisers turn around and say ‘Cue is a Rhodes thing and we can’t tell them what to do”, no guys, don’t buy that, you must and do have influence and if you agree with this, I am pretty sure you can persuade them to change.
    6. Some way also has to be found to keep those reviews not only available [i.e yesterday’s news is today fish & chips packaging!] but at the forefront of visibility. That is back to IT – surely a much more visible and a much more publicised site can be created where reviews can be posted and comments made – maybe even [with some moderation] Festival goers could write reviews or their thoughts on productions seen. My feeling is that the IT resource is currently underused and that stuff which can be accessed on phones and tablets needs to be there, and people have to be made aware of it and encouraged to use it. Word of mouth in this day and age includes IT / social media.
    7. Finally in this section a few small things –
    1. the response to technical issues needs some bulking up – this year we had a special at Glennie Hall that was important to the play and that was simply not fixed for a period of about 5 or 6 days despite repeated requests;
    2. running over time : both this year and last we had people before us who just ran longer than the advertised time and, despite dire warnings in the Application form in this regard and requests that it be dealt with, nothing was done;
    3. scheduling : perhaps it might be worthwhile giving producers / performers a venue schedule when the performance schedule is made public, and allow a time to comment on both. I say this from personal experience and in the context that some shows need longer to set up than others, and while we all accept that we get no longer than a hour, scheduling shows that run for 75 mins and even 90 mins before a show that has a complex set up, is not helpful. Maybe the Application form should have a question about how difficult/complex set up will be? I accept that not everyone can be accommodated but maybe some problems can be mitigated;
    4. networking : if you are like me and would love to meet overseas producers / festival people and the like, is it possible to give more than 18 hours notice of a gathering? By that time people like me have already planned the next few days and may not be able to break away on short notice.

    The Cape Town Fringe :
    This has really generated some debate, hasn’t it? I have no intention of inserting myself into the Choritz – Furniss / Mahomed argument [basically because I will probably end up being shouted at by both sides!] but I do want to say this to Ismail : while I understand that Megan might [does] infuriate you, I do feel that your response on Artslink was, in parts, gratuitously and unnecessarily aggressive, rude and demeaning to someone whose voice is listened to in theatre circles and whose views are taken account of. With the greatest respect I do not think it sits well on the Artistic Director of South Africa’s largest Arts Festival to respond publicly to a theatre practitioner in this extreme way.
    That said, back to the Cape Town Fringe. Not a lot has been said [as far as I aware] of the motivation in creating the Cape Town Fringe, and in particular how this is intended to, or might, affect the Grahamstown Festival. I, for one, am holding back on making any decisions about how I feel about the Cape Town Fringe as I want to see how things develop. That it complicates life for at least Cape Town based theatre practitioners is beyond argument in my view.
    Question : why should I, as a Cape Town theatre practitioner, incur the expense of moving people to Grahamstown, accommodating them, moving a set and so on if I can do it in my own City two and a half months later? Well one apparent answer might be that Grahamstown is not curated [i.e you pay your buck and you perform] while the CT Fringe is. So now in January when I have to apply for Grahamstown, I don’t know if I will get into the CT Fringe and if I go to Grahamstown does that prejudice my chances of getting into the CT Fringe?
    Question : what will be the criteria for acceptance at Cape Town ? My 2 applications were declined and this is what was said in the relevant email “The main criteria we applied were around shaping a programme which was balanced across genres, contained a healthy mix of established and new work, and which biases work which hasn’t yet been staged in Cape Town. Those criteria, together with a number of other factors, governed our decision.” This by the way in turning down a 2014 Ovation Award winning production with one 4 week run in Cape Town and accepting a production that has had at lkeats 2 long runs in Cape Town if not 3. Does this then mean that I can’t / shouldn’t produce work in Cape Town until it has been at the Cape Town Fringe ?
    Question : is it the intention to shut down or significantly reduce the Fringe at the Grahamstown Festival in the medium to long term, assuming the CT Fringe takes hold? If that is not the intention, is it a matter of concern to you if that is the result or a result of the CT Fringe taking hold?
    Question : if the intention is not to affect Grahamstown deliberately or otherwise, how do you see the 2 working together from the perspective of [a] producers / performers and [b] timing – applications and so forth and [c] Joe Festival goer [I can hear some people saying – why go to Grahamstown in June if I can go to Cape Town in September!]
    It may be early days but I think we do need some clarity here on at least these issues and I appeal to those running this show, to provide full answers publicly.

  5. My understanding is that there is no relationship whatsoever to work on the fringe at the NAF and the work at the Cape Town Fringe. on the website it simply says there will be space in the programme for those productions on the fringe who won ovation awards. It all feels like very muddy water and that basically your participation in 2 major festivals is in the hands of 1 person which I find HUGELY problematic!!!!!

  6. Thank you Megan and Simon
    This really helps to better understand why there is so much upset in the theatre industry. I’m relieved that there are platforms where all the issues can be surfaced and that w

  7. I confess I’ve been out of touch with the issues of the day and am only just reconnecting with the world of Theatre and the Arts and resuming my responsibilities as a board member of UNIMA SA It seems there is a lot going on, and only some of it good. Thanks to the flurry of posts this week, I’m beginning to understand the complexity of all the issues raised and like Simon says those “running the show” will indeed need to meet the demand for full disclosure and transparency.
    I sincerely hope that this dialogue will open the way for respectful engagement from all the stakeholders so that solutions can be found. Ultimately its the collective obligation of the performing arts community of Cape Town to push forward and drive success and sustainable growth in this sector.

  8. Kris Marais

    Attending the NAF 2014 cost me R11,600. I drove to GT in my own car. And stayed in a res (Ruth First House)

  9. megan

    How many days were you there Kris? And how many shows did you see? And what were they? And why did you choose them?

  10. Tamir Gavin

    I was alarmed to read Ismail Mahomed’s open letter to theatre director Megan Furniss last week.
    A friend alerted me to the open letter, which I read.
    The letter shocked me.
    It is a letter brimming with malice and aggression.

    The letter was a response to Megan’s blog post, enquiring about the legitimacy of a festival director selecting their own work for a new ‘fringe festival’, playing in Cape Town.
    This is a valid question, and that it was met with such hostility only indicates that the festival director has something to hide.
    Questions like this from artists, or the general public, are an important part of artistic discourse. Megan’s question may not have been framed correctly, but the fact remains that it is a valid, appropriate question – May a festival director select their own work, and what are the rules around it?

    Mahomed’s attack on Megan is worrying in the extreme.

    First of all, it shows that the director has no idea of how to behave appropriately.
    To think this thing about a fellow artist is one thing, but to post such abuse in a public forum is unconscionable.
    A festival director’s role is to advise, nurture and support artists; not attack and abuse them.
    That the NAF festival director does not understand this, shows that he does not understand his post.
    It also shows a shocking lack of professionalism and ethical conduct –
    In any developed artistic community elsewhere, a remark like this from someone so high up in a festival’s staff would have that person disbarred and fired.
    You do not attack artists like that in the public forum – YOU SIMPLY DO NOT. It is as simple as that. To not understand that, shows that you are operating in a dysfunctional arts economy, which I suppose South Africa does, sadly.

    What is also worrying is the amount of theatre ‘professionals’ who “liked” his open letter online. People high up in theatre institutions, people of high regard within the arts community, publically showing their support for this unwarranted vitriol, is shocking and distasteful. That so many respected directors, composers and directors agree that it is ok to abuse an artist like this, shows how dysfunctional and unprofessional the arts industry is. It is very eye-opening.

    The entire thing frames the NAF in a poor light.
    The NAF as a whole should do it’s utmost to distance themselves from a person who acts in such an unprofessional, juvenile and thoughtless way.

  11. megan

    Yup Tamir. Exactly.

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