National Arts Festival making stars out of students

By Dave Mann

Andrew Buckland, Rob van Vuuren, Gerald Machona, Richard Antrobus and Genna Gardini are only a few of the Grahamstown names that spring to mind when thinking about the National Arts Festival and the young artists it has seen pass through its doors and move on to become household names over the past 40 years.

With productions from the University of Witswaterstrand, the Waterfront Theatre School, the Tshwane University of Technology, and Grahamstown’s own Rhodes University, this year’s student theatre line up is full of young talent, from all over South Africa and could hold some of the country’s next big names.

Rhodes University Drama graduate, James Cairns, performed at the National Arts Festival for the first time in 1995 in a Rhodes University student production called Myth Palluth directed by Andrew Buckland.

“I had no idea of my career at the time. Careers were things that happened to people who wore ties to work” said Cairns.

Now a well-known theatrical performer and seasoned Festival goer, Cairns says that the National Arts Festival can be a fantastic way for aspirant theatrical performers to experience both the good and bad in the world of performing arts.

“The festival is our conference. We show each other our work and network,” said Cairns.

He added jokingly, “What the festival does for aspiring artists is it shows you how easy it is. And then you do it and you realise how hard it is.”

Solo prepublicity shot 2 copyright Megan Wright

Lea Vivier as the missing daughter in Hannah Lax’s ‘Solo’ which will be performed at this year’s National Arts Festival on the student theatre platform. Photo by Megan Wright.

Rhodes University’s offering to the student theatre programme sees Hannah Lax putting on her physical theatre piece Solo.
Lax has attended festival for the past six years.

She firmly believes in it as a platform for aspiring artists who don’t necessarily have the funds or resources to market themselves, but need exposure and experience in the world of theatre outside of university.

“It’s not simply about making a profit, but rather about allowing new creative voices to emerge. I think that provides an environment where braver creative decisions can be made by artists and more innovative work produced,” said Lax.

“I think that is really fantastic and we need to look towards creating more platforms like that if we want to see the South African theatre industry develop.”

Rhodes alumni and internationally renowned choreographer Acty Tang attributes much of his current status in the theatre world to the National Arts Festival.

“Fest is an incredible platform for developing work, not just for the individual artist like myself, but for the entire community of young artists and performers to develop and push each other forward,” he said.

Be sure to look through the student theatre productions starting on page 60 of the National Arts Festival programme.

You could end up watching the next famous South African artist performing for the first time!

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