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The people of National Arts Festival

The National Arts Festival: That special time of year when the sleepy hollow of Grahamstown is plastered with posters, exchanges air for sawdust, and plays host to a healthy dose of art on the side. Fest never fails to draw a crowd and each new year brings with it a stranger collection of individuals than the last. There are however a few NAF staples you’ll encounter year after year, and you best be prepared when you do. We’ve been in the trenches for some time now and have first hand experience with the various creatures and characters roaming the potholed streets. So, to make sure you know what you’re up against, we’ve compiled a comprehensive list of the people you’ll find at NAF with some handy tips on how to deal with them. Read it well, and stay safe out there.

What lives off vending machine food and wears a media lanyard way past show time?

Ah, the journalists! How can you miss them? They’re those unkempt, rancorous creatures strung out on bad coffee and sugary vending machine food. The journalists always look pissed off, but really they’re just adjusting to the light after spending half of the day inside a dimly lit theatre and the other half behind a computer screen. They’ll act like they hate you, but really they just want a bit of validation. Events like the National Arts Festival glorify the journalistic trade and you’ll often find the journalists still wearing their media lanyards way past show time, chests all puffed out as they fish for comments on their work. “Oh wow, you write on the arts? That must be so difficult. I could never understand everything an artist is trying to say.” The journalists don’t understand it either. They’re just here to see some theatre, have a few drinks and get some praise for their work.

the journalist

The year-round Grahamstownians whose quiet lives you’re grossly interrupting.

Be wary of the locals. You must know that for the remaining 355 days of the year, Grahamstown is a fairly sleepy little city (yes it is a city apparently. Something about having too many churches to be considered a town). The locals are used to a somewhat pastoral life where shops are navigable, traffic jams are near mythical occurrences and apart from the student parties, things are generally quiet. During NAF, when about triple the city’s population storm the area, they are constantly on edge. Perhaps it’s the tap water around these parts, but the locals snap instantly. Really, one wrong look in their direction or an accidental elbow graze in Pick ‘n Pay and you’re done for. I can’t really offer any sound advice as to what to do if you ever find yourself facing the wrath of one of the locals. Just run.

the locals blur zap

If you encounter the kids, just say no.

I may risk sounding far older than I am in saying this, but the kids really aren’t alright. I don’t mean the small ones forced into theatre venues by their art loving parents – they’re just noise pollution really. I’m talking about the high school kids who are either here on a school trip or they’ve convinced their parents to fund a 10-day holiday spent getting cross-eyed under the guise of acquiring some ‘culture’. I once went to a ‘house party’ that ended up being a local boarding school for primary schoolers booked out by about 20 or so high school kids from Jo’burg. The playground was filled with empty booze bottles, the dorm rooms were littered with puke stained clothes and condom wrappers, and the contents of the arts and crafts cupboard were strewn throughout the building-turned-traphouse. I was filled with equal parts fear and nostalgia. The kids are a wily bunch and best avoided at all costs. If offered a sip of their Smirnoff Spin quarts or a pull from their street bought weed and tea leaves mix, say no. They will try to have sex with you.

the kids  

Nothing beats the stamina of the high art lovers.

Oh god, the high art lovers. They’re most often characterised by crusty skin, long, bony fingers that rest atop even bonier knees, and the sour waft of a dry white wine binge. They’re the ones who lived through South Africa’s resistance art heydays, and even though they never made any effort to see it back then, no subsequent art to come out of the country matters to them. Despite their age, the high art lovers boast incredible stamina, often seeing a string of five to six shows a day and making it widely known that they hated all of them. On occasion they will enjoy a spot of ‘raw’ experimental theatre or performance art, but only from the comfort of the back row where they can ‘tut- tut’, clear their throats repeatedly, and loudly ruffle their copies of the festival newspaper.

the high art lover

The struggling vs. established artists (and how to spot them).

Of course this list wouldn’t be complete without the lifeblood of the National Arts Festival – the artists. There are two types of artists, namely the struggling and the established, but they’re all the same really. Both live on the tight end of the economy, but still make sure they’re rarely without a pack of cigarettes and a coffee. In this way they are not unlike the journalists. The struggling artists are easy to spot with their gaunt faces, wild eyes and silver tongues. After a long day spent curled up inside dark theatres, the struggling artists slither out at night to hunt for good press. The more inexperienced of the journalists who wear their press passes out to the pub are most often the ones caught in the coils of the struggling artists. “Ah yessss, I read one of your reviewsss today. You should come and sssee my latest ssshow…” and just like that, the journo is left dazed and confused, holding 18 different flyers and missing a good few smokes. You’ll definitely know the established artists when you see them, but that’s if you ever get the chance. The established artists may have their faces plastered over every single poster and banner around town, but it’s a well-known fact that they don’t walk the streets or frequent the local watering holes like the rest of us. Rumour has it that after their shows, all the established artists reconvene in the basement of the 1820 Settlers Monument where they berate the struggling artists, partake in copious amounts of drunken revelry and pseudo intellectualism, and draw up nefarious plans on how to further monopolise the South African arts scene. Spooky stuff.

the struggling artist vs established artist

Illustrations by Stephanie Simpson. Visit her website or follow her on Instagram.

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