A post or two back I wrote about the Grahamstown Festival. I kind of cut that post in half because it started to expand into a long retrospective of all the Grahamstown festivals I have ever attended. Since I'm not there and its much on my mind, I want to dwell on this. At the risk of inflicting a long read on you. Miranda said, 'it'll be just the same next year.' Not true. Each festival is subtly different, with its own unique pulse. A different buzz, scandal or theme each year, and I'm always amused by how people attempt to define it before its run is done. "its a strange festival this year isn't it?" or "its kind of flat this year, don't you think?".
True the stock standard fare is much of a muchness. The 'write your name on a grain of rice' man will be there year after year. As will the ubiquitous mats woven from plastic bags and an oversupply of crocheted rasta hats.
But even the 'this year will be my last' naysayers come back year after year, like oysters that just can't help opening when the moon is full.
1992. My first festival. I am a second year drama student and me and the only other girl who isn't keen on being a physical theatre dance slut, Stacy Hardy, have been brewing a play. To be accurate: we have co-written an hour long piece that is set in a mortuary, starring the undertaker and his crew of goodlooking girls that he has kidnapped and is trying to brainwash for his nefarious ends. Its called Cold Storage. Its embarrassing. No more on that. Those of you (you know who you are) who remember any lines (especially that line...)shhhhh. But hey, my first festival, my first play (unless you count the pantomime at Chinzombo when I was 10) my first naked stage appearance... life was great. And the start of a great collaboration with Ms Hardy. Our company is called Venus Fly Trapeze.
1993. Stacy writes, I perform. God and Fetish Engineering, I think it was. I can remember very little of this, except that two of our performers (yes, you know who you are) were having a very active festival at the power station by night and I would hate to know what colours and shapes they saw in the audience that one performance.
1994: I think this was the year I cameo-ed in a couple of plays and forgot to write down one of the show times and simply didn't pitch. oops. ah well. But the festival itself was marked by the headiness of 94 in general. South Africa's colourful rainbow labour pains.
1995: Stacy and I do a double bill. Mine is called Dante and Velvet. Its a love story. Hers is called Nightshade Pornography, and its not anything to do with pornography. By now Venus Fly Trapeze has a flicker of a reputation - you may get nudity. And bad language. But Stacy's piece is all poetic post-feminism and live angle-grinding on stage. Hers was on first. The drunk east cape men expecting a bit of salaciousness got an angle grinder instead. They got mad and walked out. Ours played to a handful of family and friends.
1996: One week before the festival, late at night in the wardrobe making costumes, Stacy and I look at each other nervously, thinking the same thought. Why is everything going so well? We're doing the flagship student production, representing our department on the Student Programme. A beautiful script by Stacy about Rimbaud and Verlaine, stuck on a train... the rain rains, they lose the plot, the dialogue, the knife... Its not the Fringe Program, so we have a real budget for the set and I'm designing and have created a dreamy platform on wheels with a huge perspex sheet of glass, scrawled with lines of dialogue from the script and we've got a little pump that makes real water trickle down the glass on the outside, and of course at the magical moment... it turns to blood.
And its all going so well. And then this terrible, crushing news. Dear Lindy the design supervisor, lecturer, muse and goddess, loses her gorgeous 4-year old son to meningitus. Everything loses its colour overnight. We tell Lindy its ok, go home we'll pick up the pieces. Suddenly we are not designing one show are designing about five. And it all feels horribly frivolous and what-on-earth-for.
1997: Is this the year that Mr Fell gets Dion and me to play husband and wife in that strange little play Planet Machine? Where no-one is acting, we are all for real emoting. Still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Is this the year Dion and I decide that, well, sex sells and so we do a programme of erotica called Bedtime Stories, fully clothed and tastefull. Actually it does rather well, but the problem is we also have this other show, Next Stop Ultra Ubuntu. Ahem. We co-write with my partner Bernd. Lets just say that the successful show paid for this one.
1998: I have no money. I am a post grad student. I can't afford to go to any shows. I decide to read Anna Karenina instead and go to art exhibitions. I skulk around book fairs reading Dambudzo Marechera in between the Tolstoy. I go to the Word fest and read a couple of my short stories to a small gathering of writers. I feel diffident, whatever that means, thats what I feel. I'm a waitress at Die Geel Kaffe. Their cheesecake is the best in town and I get to speak my mind to a very drunk customer coz we have no bloody marys.
1999: Are you mad? How can I possibly perform at the festival. I am the design supervisor, the job Lindy used to have. I am feeding, nurturing scores of students who have their own plays going. And staff members. I put out fires, stitch up hems, delegate scene painting and keep track of students trying to steal the best costumes. The design studio is an alchemists cave of bubbling pots of dye, whirring sewing machines and the high stink of contact glue on polystyrene.
2000. I am not at the Grahamstown festival. I have left Grahamstown after 7 years. I am in Livingstone trying to make the Livingstone festival work.
2001: I am officially employed by the festival. I am ROCCO. ROCCO stands for Radio Operations Communications Control Officer. Rocco is the person who sits in the cold office near stores and directs traffic, sending equipment to all the festival venues via a 5-ton truck, a 10-ton truck, and one runner in a bakkie (a bakkie is a pickup truck for those of who don't know). Every year we swear we will use scooters next year, as traffic is a joke in this sleepy town which swells beyond capacity once a year. The area around the cathedral is swarming with traders and and really the village that pretends its a city becomes one big parking lot.
But I love being Rocco. This is me in my element - putting out fires, preventing train smashes, multi-tasking like an octopus, in short - telling other people what to do, at rapid fire rate.
"Please send 2 janus cables and a fresnel to Princess Alice Hall."
"Blackout crew - you need to get to City Hall before their 2 oclock show, the blackout [black stuff you put on windows to make it dark] has fallen off the top window."
"Cleaning crew - you need to get to Rhodes theatre ASAP please and clean up the stage. They used flour in the last production. Make sure you have plenty of mops."
"Lighting team, lighting team, come in for Rocco. The dimmer rack at Nombulelo hall is playing up. Again.Please get there asap, their show goes on in half an hour"
"Sound, sound team you need to take the cd player at the Masonic lodge and swop it out with the one at Vickys."
"Herbie, Herbie, how are you doing sourcing those 2 sheep hearts for Graeme College? Yael Farber needs 2 sheep hearts for her show. Please tell the butcher we will need two a day. That's two a day until the end of festival. Thanks."
Oh I love it. I don't have the stats to hand, but its truly amazing how many kilometres of cable get used, and how they get by on the minimum amount of equipment, moving amps from venue to venue to fit in with back to back scheduling.
And of course the ladders. The most common request to Rocco from the often young, inexperienced venue managers is for ladders. And Rocco has to keep track of the ladders, see, so they all have names.
"Rocco Rocco. Its the Drill Hall"
"Stand by I'm sorting out another crisis" (Rocco is often on two phones as well as the radio and the intercom to stores)
"I said stand by!"
"But we need a ladder, its urgent, a lighting bar has come down!"[what? how on earth did they manage that?]
"All venues, all venues, please tell Rocco which ladders you have"
"Rocco its Princess Alice we have Hettie but we're doing a turn-around we need her."
"Rocco its the Great Hall we have Doris but we're in a focusing session."
" All venues...?"
Silence. They keep stum about their ladders.
"Black out crew this is Rocco please go past the Drill Hall and lend them your ladder for half an hour."
2003: I'm Rocco again, and this time I have a show on as well, crafted with my old mucker Stacy Hardy. She wrote it, I'm performing. Its called "Terror is not the erotic commodity it used to be." I do the early Rocco shift, get off at 5, sleep for an hour, take handfuls of vitamens and arrive for evening performance, flat out for 10 days. One can only do this once a year.
2004: I'm in Joburg in a job I loathe. I can't go to the festival. Miserable.
2006: I'm Rocco again!! And starting to have a serious identity crisis. Am I an actor? a performer? A tekkie? A playwright? A writer? Somebdy help! Stacy, where are you when I need you? Let's make a play! But we live in different cities now, and have different priorities. I don't know who I am. Have been travelling through Zambia going to ceremonies and immersing myself in festivals that are a far, far cry from this. Festivals with one performance venue, and its in the open, and people stand in one circle, and everybody knows the song.
2007: I'm writing the book about the festivals of Zambia. in Joburg.
2008: I'm sitting with 2000 copies of this book, scratching my head in the hope that I'll become a marketing genius overnight. And dear Stacy has a play on the main festival. She is writing and performing for a piece called Untitled, directed by this year's Standard Bank Young Artist award winner, Jaco Bouwer. And this is the real reason I feel I want to be there now. Stacy. All grown up and on the main programme.
So cheers, Ms Hardy. I hope the show comes to Joburg.
Perhaps next year, the Rocco cabaret that I always planned.
Perhaps next year, this play I'm busy wrestling right now.
Perhaps next year I'll actually get my name engraved on that grain of rice.