How to make a festival in 100 days: A Q&A with the women of the vNAF

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The traditional dance theatre sci-fi musical film, The Cosmic Egg, takes us through an unusual virtual reality journey. (Photo: Still from video)
The traditional dance theatre sci-fi musical film, The Cosmic Egg, takes us through an unusual virtual reality journey. (Photo: Still from video)

Lockdown saw the 46 year old National Arts Festival transition from a programmed live Festival poised to start their marketing cycle to an entirely online Festival from 25 June-31 July 2020. Starting from scratch, with a new CEO and Artistic Director (just weeks into the job), this practically all-women team, tore up the playbook to began all over again with a call to artists to submit completely transitioned work for an online Festival. Then, in just less than 100 days, the Virtual National Arts Festival was built - remotely and on a razor thin deadline. After conceptualizing what the experience would be, they built an ecommerce website to support it, got the arts community and public on board, commissioned and contracted artists, filmed and edited a large proportion of the works, produced their own online show to accompany it and reimagined an online Village Green market and virtual visual arts element. The result was over 270 hours of online arts on a platform that was visited by people across the globe. Was it crazy – absolutely – but now that they’ve caught up on their sleep, the team say that despite wishing they’d done some things differently, they are proud to have pioneered in a time of COVID-19. 

Q: You made the decision very early on to make the shift online. Why did you feel so sure it was the right thing to do? 

Monica Newton (CEO): We decided to go ahead with the online Festival just a few days before lockdown because we felt we had just enough time to make it happen. The writing was on the wall; we knew that it was very likely that the arts were going to be heavily impacted and that we needed to create a new space for ourselves in the online world where we could continue to give a voice to the arts. . 

Nobesuthu Rayi (Executive Producer): But we weren’t actually altogether sure! We were also asking what on earth this thing could look like, it really made our heads hurt to try and imagine how each of the moving parts would work in the online space. We weren’t alone either because some artists and stakeholders had an equally skeptical and bewildered reaction. No one was playing in the space yet so we hadn’t seen any examples to work with. We were working without precedent. 

Q: So where did you start? How did the process work? 

Rucera Seethal (Artist Director): It was clear from the start that in a way this was a starting over, and not a “transferring” to online.  This position, as well as embracing ‘not knowing’, and resolving that we are taking a step into the new with artists, altogether shaped the approach.  From a curation point of view, we opened a call, despite having had an almost complete live programme set for 2020.  However, rather than a call to artists for works or productions we asked for ideas, thinking that from this point we could move forward with artists. Then the long process of reviewing ideas and initiating conversations with artists began. In some cases, also initiating conversations with institutions or organisations to support or drive works. Sometimes facilitating collaborations. Nicci Spalding (Technical Director) and the tech team led us in responding to these ideas and developing digital but also venue and film support for the production of work, as well as designing and developing new platforms for vFRINGE and the Virtual Green.  It was a whirlwind.  In the thick of working with artists, there was a period of about three weeks when I struggled to keep my unread emails below 150, and that was with waking at 3am and sleeping, or rather flopping over, at 11pm.  My legs were even swollen from sitting at the desk for so many hours.  The rate of exchange and creation was mind blowing.  Of course it was beyond exhausting also.  But, we birthed something, and everybody knows birthing is long and hard and rewarding.

Nobesuthu Rayi: We went through all the phases that one goes through where change is the determining factor, we put all our energies into making this festival a success. Doubt would set in at times but there was no turning back, we were too close to the desired destination. We were however missing one of the most important drivers of pulling the Festival together, physical human interaction. We were highly reliant on technology to communicate with each other and that was indeed one of the toughest things we have had to endure. We had our ups and downs as a collective and as individuals. We experienced death, health scares, moving houses and to top it all, some of us had unstable internet connection.

IGAMA? uses Kimberlé Crenshaw's theory of Intersec
IGAMA? uses Kimberlé Crenshaw's theory of Intersectionality to explore the interiority of black womanhood.

Q: How did you convince artists to participate? 

Nicci Spalding: From my perspective they didn’t need much convincing. They needed lots of advice and lots of support but across the board everyone was so excited to be in a creative space that things that would have normally been issues didn’t even make an appearance.

Nobesuthu Rayi: Artists were receiving news about  gigs and festivals being cancelled, some were probably anticipating a cancellation from our end which would have added to their depleting streams of income! When we said we are going virtual they needed a few days to figure out what this meant for the existing work they had or the new ideas they wanted to explore. We received an overwhelming number of applications for the VNAF, close to 500, surpassing the amount of applications we would normally receive for the Main Festival program.

Zikhona Monaheng (Fringe Manager): It was not so much convincing as the ‘how’ part. We had to take them through the process of how it would work online in order for them to reimagine their work. As soon as the grey areas were cleared, the response was overwhelming.

Q: How did you work as a team? And a new team at that? 

Nicci Spalding: The thing about the National Arts Festival is that it is so much bigger than any single person. It seems to find a way to happen no matter what - or whether you are ready or not. I think that having a new team at the helm meant we were able to be even more adaptable to the new environment and not bound by any previous ways of working. That’s not to say it was easy; it was really, really hard. Having done this Festival with this team though makes me look forward to doing another one.

Nobesuthu Rayi: One of the most important elements that kept us going was knowing that the rest of the team had your back and you are never alone, there was something comforting in knowing that. We took a conscious decision to make sure that the centre holds for us to face questions, doubts and genuine concerns from the industry, we were indeed a force.

Dance Artist Mamela Nyamza's Pest Control exposes
Dance Artist Mamela Nyamza's Pest Control exposes the real state of the arts in South Africa.

Q: What were the biggest stumbling blocks to working on such an intense project remotely? 

Nicci Spalding: I found it particularly hard to be isolated from the production team during the planning stages. Meeting up at the end of a difficult day to talk through a problem over beer and pizza at The Rat is not quite the same as tea and sympathy over Zoom. The Festival days were just as long - sometimes longer than in the live festival and not being surrounded by the energy of the huge team that makes the Festival happen, not to mention the buzz that the live audience brings to carry you through, it was rough!

Zikhona Monaheng: Not being able to walk into the tech office for solutions when technology didn’t want to play nicely. 

Q: What was the challenge that you didn’t see coming? 

Nicci Spalding: Lots of people out there are very scared of the internet. They also get very angry very quickly when things don’t work like they think they should, but I think that’s because so many people were so frustrated by the circumstances they were in that sometimes we were their outlet. People were also amazingly kind and supportive though, which helped a lot!

Nobesuthu Rayi: I didn’t realise that audiences wouldn't be able to understand that time was not necessarily a factor in the virtual Festival, a technical glitch did not mean they would not be able to see that production ever again. It took a while for audiences to understand that video on demand work is not time-sensitive.

Q: With #VNAF2020 now behind you, what are you most proud of? What made it all worthwhile? 

Rucera Seethal: The ongoing feedback from artists has been not just positive, but points to what the Festival offered at the time as a kind of beacon in the storm. This is overwhelming.  Also, seeing other festivals and organizations reconfiguring and finding ways to continue to produce and present is continually inspiring.

Nicci Spalding: I’m still amazed that we managed to pull off 8 simultaneous filming locations in four provinces with less than two weeks of planning during a pandemic and a national lockdown. We had one Covid-19 case that was contained to a single person with no onsite transmissions.  The support that we got from institutions like The Market Theatre, the Hilton College Theatre, the Soweto Theatre and Artscape as well as the tenacity of the freelance community makes me enormously proud to be part of the South African arts industry

Nobesuthu Rayi: I am extremely proud of what the team has been able to pull together in such a short space of time.  I had to take a step back and make sense of all the compliments from artists and the audience, at some point I forgot that they could not see the panic and troubleshooting happening every second of every day during the Festival.

Zikhona Monaheng: Super proud of the team for pulling this one off. It was a mammoth task but we made it happen. The amazing support and feedback that we received from the artists, audiences, stakeholders, institutions and sponsors makes it worthwhile. 

A Howl in Makhanda is a semi-autobiographical work about two black and two white South African teenagers at an elite all girls boarding school who break the rules and how the disciplinary board deals with each of them differently.

Q: Looking ahead to 2021, do you think we can expect a live National Arts Festival? 

Rucera Seethal: We have to fight for live. We have to find ways, and we will. We also can’t go back to not having an online or digital element.  So you can expect something of a mix, but connecting to people and place will be imperative.

Nicci Spalding: The arts landscape is going to have to fight hard for survival as the economy recovers. I do think though that audiences and artists will definitely be hungry for a space where they can be together. The time and space bubble that the live Festival creates is an amazing thing and perhaps not having it for a while will make us all appreciate it more when we get it back.

Nobesuthu Rayi: One wishes we could have a live Festival at whatever scale the world would be calling for, for the sake of the Makhanda residents who always look forward to being employed by the Festival every year and simply because we all miss seeing each other and being able to touch and feel the magic of art. 

Monica Newton: As Nicci mentioned, what we face living with Covi-19 is possibly going to be as hard, or even harder, than what we have dealt with under lockdown. The arts and broader events industry have dealt with incredible hardship over the last few months and we, as part of this community, will have to play our part in rebuilding and reimagining all of our festivals. The incredible festival team has already started planning for a live festival with digital and online elements; the show will go on! The most important consideration in whatever we do will be to support the arts to have a voice and a place in society, and to create a space for arts loving audiences to listen and be moved.

The Virtual National Arts Festival is still active as an ongoing platform for artists to promote their work. Visit the VFringe and choose shows on demand to support South African artists online