An open letter to Ismail Mohamed, Festival director National Arts Festival

Dear Ismail

In theory I should still be waiting to hear from you whether my proposal for Drive With Me has been accepted onto the main festival for The Grahamstown National Arts Festival 2012. And in fact, I would still be waiting, if I hadn’t spoken out my concerns and frustrations with other friends and artists who have shared with me that they have experienced the same treatment by you over the last few years. Because they have explained how you do things I have given up on the idea of hearing from you, and have accepted an invitation to attend an international improvisation festival in Canberra during the first week of July. So, that is all sorted out. Accept this open letter as my official withdrawal from this year’s festival.

I do however want to take up with you how you do business. I often read on Artslink and Facebook about how you believe artists should be treated, and yet you are entirely comfortable with treating us with a certain distain and disrespect. I don’t get it.

Here is a rough timeline of what happened. I got an inspired and carefully thought out proposal to you well in time for the deadline in August last year. Here it is appropriate to point out that as a theatre maker of many years’ experience I was completely ready for the possibility of rejection. We always are. Instead, I got a phone call from you a little later than the promised time that we would hear, with the good news that my project had been shortlisted. Again, I was encouraged by the possibility but still completely open to the reality that I would not make the final cut. In mid December I got another call from you. This time you offered me a chance for my one-woman show to be part of the brilliant new one-person festival within the festival that you were setting up. You also offered me an Arena deal (where my accommodation, transport and venue hire would be covered by the festival and where we would take a cut of the door). I explained that I had applied to be part of the Main precisely because I wanted to pay for a director, designer etc and did not want to do other fundraising to produce the show. You agreed to get back to me by the end of the month. I got nervous. I sent you a pleading email. Recently I emailed you again. You stalled me again.

Two good friends have told me exactly the same story about how you handled their proposals; one last year and one the year before. Neither of them, after promises and assurances by you, was accepted onto the Main festival. These are two that I know about.

I think that this is a very bad way to do business. The Grahamstown National Festival is a prestigious affair, with an enormous reputation, but you have treated me, and others like me, as if it were a two-bit operation. I am deeply insulted, not that my proposal was not selected, but by how you have handled me, and my situation.

One of the problems is that we all find it difficult to be outspoken and straight with you. You are in a position of power, with an enormous influence on the outcome of our work. Well, I suddenly don’t care. I need to tell you that I think your treatment of me in particular, and others in general, has been entirely unsatisfactory. You need to be called on this. Without our input, proposals and productions there is no festival. You need us as much as we need you.

The rumour mill is rife with the story that you are out of “Grumpytown” as you call it, the minute your contract is up at the end of the year, and that you have already secured another position. If this is the case, please just throw my gorgeous proposal away and I’ll resubmit it to your successor for next year’s festival.

Megan Furniss