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The role of arts festivals in developing and promoting street theatre in South Africa.


Street theatre in the modern sense has its origins in agitprop guerrilla and alternative theatre in America and Europe during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Later in the 1970s the intermingling between street theatre and performance art enhanced the artistic aspects of the genre. The 1980s saw street theatre flourishing as a performance genre, with the forming of professional companies and the establishment of festivals dedicated entirely to street theatre. As Roche (1991, p. 38) observed: 'a cette epoque, en effet, le theatre de rue passe d'une fonction marginale a une fonction culturelle reconnue.' (1)

In South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s street theatre was used as a means to express political views and protest. Because of the clandestine nature of these events, their true extent is difficult to determine:

Very little record of this 'theatre of extremity' has survived, as both actors and audience would erase all evidence about the event as soon as it was over; texts were almost never committed to paper: for its efficacy this theatre relied exclusively on the immediacy and urgency of the context. (Cohen-Cruz 1998, p. 286)

This could also be one of the reasons why in this country the genre did not evolve from political expression to artistic genre, as elsewhere in the world; instead the emergence of street theatre as a performance genre has largely been associated with arts festivals.

Noordman et al. (cited by Vrettos 2006, p. 9) define an arts festival as:
   a cultural event which is repeated for a general public yearly or
   at least with a regular interval, and in which performances of
   theatre, and/or music and/or film are combined in a program which
   takes place on one or more temporary locations, between a clearly
   stated start and finish time.

Vrettos (2006, p. 9) makes the additional point that in several instances 'a festival is enhanced with more forms of arts such as plastic arts and a broader content of visual and performing arts.' This broader content would then by implication include street theatre.

Arts festivals by their very nature draw art lovers and patrons (in the broader sense of the word 'art') who attend several productions and events for intellectual and cultural stimulation and enrichment. But there has been an increase in leisure and social activities at South African arts festivals, which draw occasional visitors who primarily come to experience the atmosphere and spirit of festival, almost like an old-fashioned fair. They spend time visiting merchandise stalls, enjoying the food and drink on offer, and attending one or two shows, often popular music performances. These festival-goers are more likely to 'wander the streets' and thus form a prime target audience for street theatre entertainment.

There is very little mention of street theatre in the literature dealing with South Africa's theatre history. Hauptfleisch (1997, p. 63) observed:
   The strategy in the past has been: anything that does not fall into
   the clear-cut categories is left out of reckoning. Festivals,
   street theatre, ritual dances, communal performances of all kinds
   were ignored and thus never recorded with tools or in ways that
   would make them meaningful to the theatre historian. (emphasis

As far as street theatre is concerned, this situation still persists on the whole and despite growth of the genre in South Africa over the past few decades, it has received minimal scholarly attention. In this article I will focus on four of the major arts festivals in South Africa, (2) tracking the development and the promotion of street theatre as a performance genre at these festivals.

The Arts Alive Festival--Johannesburg (Gauteng province)

This arts festival was started in 1992, hosted initially by the Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council. It is in essence an urban arts festival, drawing its audiences from the city of Johannesburg, as well as Soweto and Alexandra townships. The city is also close to towns on the East Rand and West Rand and the country's capital city, Pretoria, which means that day visitors can easily attend performances and events. The organisers of the festival recognised early on the potential of street theatre and it was the first arts festival to include the genre explicitly in its programme line-up.

The first initiative with regard to street theatre came in 1994, when the Dogtroep company from the Netherlands was invited to hold a workshop for various South African performers, resulting in a street theatre co-production during the festival. The workshop raised awareness and interest in street theatre as a genre and led to the formation of local street groups such as Back Door Initiative (BDI) and Klap Public Performance Company. In 1996 the festival organisers continued their workshop initiative by inviting another street theatre company from the Netherlands, Warner & Consorten, to again conduct a workshop with South African performers, also resulting in a street theatre production at the festival.

In 1997 the festival organisers gave street theatre a prominent place on the programme. A number of street theatre groups, both local and international, performed at various locations in and around Johannesburg, culminating in an International Street Theatre Festival day at the Newmarket Cultural Precinct at the Market Theatre in downtown Johannesburg (Arts Alive International Festival 1997, pp. 6-7). The productions covered a wide spectrum, ranging from storytelling and puppetry, to performance art and acrobatic performances. International performances included the story-based Telling Tales by the Knee-high company from the United Kingdom; an acrobatic and fire-juggling act by Geo's Flaming Stars from Malawi and acrobatic acts by Circus Riddle from Zimbabwe. There were also two co-productions by overseas companies and South African artists, namely a puppetry and object theatre production, A la carte, with the Tam Tam company from the Netherlands and Solstice, with the Archa Theatre from the Czech Republic, which included mask work, puppetry, object theatre and stilt walkers. South African performances included an untitled performance art piece by Brett Bailey and company on the roof of the Market Theatre (Figure 1) and an untitled performance by Back Door Initiative, with non-verbal costumed skits and pyrotechnic effects. I attended all the performances throughout the day and, although audience numbers fluctuated, the productions were well supported and enthusiastically received. I must add that audience members were somewhat perplexed by the performance art production (by Brett Bailey and company) and were more concerned about whether the performers might fall from the roof than trying to make sense of, and appreciate, the performance itself. (3)


In 1998 there were only two street theatre productions at the festival: Strange Cargo by the Knee-high company with performances staged in Soweto and at the Newmarket precinct, and Beyond 2000, a co-production by the Belgian company Wurre Wurre and the Soweto-based Thesele Creative Society, with performances in Soweto and Alexandra and at the Newmarket precinct.

In 1999 the festival hosted the French company Oposito, who staged a spectacular production, Cinematophone, in Soweto and Alexandra. This production took the form of a processional story and featured fantastic costumes, robotic puppets, animal sounds and opera music. Gaston & Pedro, a comedy performance which featured puppets, drawing skills and accordion music by the Green Ginger company from Wales, was sponsored by the festival organisers to stage performances in Soweto, Alexandra and in nearby Randburg (Figure 2). It is interesting to note that the performances in that year were focused on the township areas (apart from one performance at the Randburg Waterfront) with no performances staged at the Newmarket precinct.

In 2000 there were changes in the festival management structure and street theatre regrettably disappeared from the programme. The focus changed to 'music as the dominant form, dance, theatre and art exhibitions precisely in that order of priority' (Majola 2003).

Although the initiative with regard to street theatre lasted for only six years, it has given local street theatre performers the impetus to continue performing, either on their own or in collaboration with other companies. Back Door Initiative (BDI), for example, performed independently at the Standard Bank National Arts festival after attending the 1994 workshop and continued with performances at the Arts Alive festival until 1998. In the ensuing years they performed at various small festivals and some members joined the Creative Inner City Initiative in 2003 (Molteno 1997). Francois Venter attended the first workshop hosted by the Arts Alive festival in 1994, after which he formed the Klap Public Performance Company with fellow workshop participant, Mark O'Donovan, staging street theatre performances in and around Johannesburg. O'Donovan later moved to Cape Town, where he has continued with performances at various arts festivals with the company Odd Enjinears. Venter later formed the street theatre company, Jungle Performance, with three other members, touring the country and performing in public spaces, as well as at various festivals. In 2003 he became the driving force behind the Creative Inner City Initiative (CICI), which provides hands-on training for developing artists in Johannesburg's inner-city. The CICI stage regular street theatre performances in public parks, as well as a yearly carnival street parade, usually coinciding with the Arts Alive Festival.


Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK)--Oudtshoorn (Western Cape province)

This festival (taking place over a week during March and April) was started in 1995. It is, along with the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, what I term a 'residential' festival, in other words, a festival which mainly draws visitors from around the country who book accommodation to stay for several days.

It was primarily established as an Afrikaans-language festival to fill a niche alongside the English-dominated arts festival in Grahamstown. In recent years a number of Flemish and Dutch as well as English productions have been on offer at the festival and organisers are at pains to point out that the festival is not exclusively Afrikaans, although the language dominates at the festival. For the first nine years the festival consisted of a sponsored main festival programme and a fringe festival programme, where performers were responsible for their own costs. In 2004 the distinction between main and fringe productions fell away.

There has been a lack of active promotion of street theatre at this festival, although opportunities in terms of locations have been created. Since 1998 a portion of one of the main streets has been closed to traffic during the festival period to provide a location for what is referred to as 'street arts.' The area has been used for visual art exhibitions, circus art performances, teasers for indoor productions and only minimally for street theatre performances. In addition, there are several grassy areas, as well as a flea-market area, where street theatre performances could be staged. In 1998 the main festival sponsor NASPERS (a major media and publishing group in South Africa) sponsored circus art performers (such as jugglers, unicyclists, stilt-walkers and fire dancers) to show off their skills in the closed-off street area and the flea market area, while at the same time advertising the company (Figure 3). Their performances attracted large appreciative crowds, which indicated that there was audience interest for some form of entertainment on the streets. (4)

In the same year Odd Enjinears staged a street theatre performance, Music Box, as a self-funded project. When I met Mark O'Donovan after the group's last performance, he described the experience as disappointing. 'Playing for the hat,' they had to choose locations where the public congregated, such as the flea-market and food-stall areas, but the intrusive noise of blaring music over sound systems hindered their performance. In addition, spectators were not yet familiar with the genre or the culture of 'paying into the hat.' O'Donovan (1998) felt that festival organisers could have been more supportive of the genre.


In 1999 Ellis Pearson and Bheki Mkhwane (also simply known as Ellis and Bheki) made their first venture into street theatre. Kaboom! was performed in the cordoned-off street area as an experiment, as they had staged the sponsored production indoors in areas outside Oudtshoorn in the run-up to the festival (this performance led to their invitation to perform at the Standard Bank National Arts Festival three months later). I attended two performances and noted that spectator reaction was confusion as to what was happening, whether they were 'allowed' to watch and whether they had to pay--I saw the same reaction later in Grahamstown. Once the show started, the spectators were enthralled by the energetic and interactive performance--as one spectator put it: 'Gee, I like this. They must do this every day and I'll come and watch every day.' (5) I approached the festival director, Karen Meiring, about the festival policy regarding street theatre. She said that, while the festival organisers would welcome street theatre performers, there were at that time no plans to make a concerted effort specifically to woo performers and include this genre in the programme line-up (Meiring 1999).

Over the next few years buskers, company-sponsored circus artists, some puppeteers and the provocateur, Zebulon Dread, made up the street theatre offerings at the festival. It was only in 2003 that a street theatre production was included in the main festival programme, when Urbanthropus was scheduled to be presented by the Swiss company Dat Motus! The production was featured under the section Allerlei (Various) in the official programme (Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees: Feesprogram, 2003, p. 43). No indication was given of dates, times or locations, although patrons were advised to consult the daily festival paper for further information. I was unable to locate a performance and, of the several festival goers consulted, only one said: ' Oh, you mean those funny people climbing up the side of the building?' (De Klerk 2003). Clearer information and better advertisement would have ensured that people who were particularly interested in the street theatre show could have attended a performance.

There have been a few site-specific productions (in a disused power station, an empty house and on the river bank), but street theatre as such remains a minor genre on the festival programme. One should take heart, however, as street theatre in broad terms is recognised as a separate category in the programme line-up. In 2011 there were two productions noted specifically in this category in the festival programme: a large-scale festival parade (the second such parade), White Wings by Close-Act from the Netherlands, in collaboration with local community members and sponsors, and an ambulatory one-person performance by Wiebke Holm-Mikula, Storiesambreel. On the same page of the programme readers were referred to more street theatre and street-art acts, namely sidewalk art and buskers, for whom an area in Queens Lane was put aside (Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees: Feesprogram, 2011, p. 61, pp. 80-81).

While this article was being finalised, the 2012 festival programme was announced. The foreword to the festival pamphlet notes that the festival will present 'ons mees uitgebreide program van straatkuns, -teater en -musiek tot nog toe.' (6) The proposed line-up under the heading Straatteater includes a production, Giant Match, with giant marionettes and masks (which was staged at the NAF in 2010); Volstruise, 100 ostrich marionettes; a production entitled Million Dollar Prize, around the theme of ubuntu; Metamorfose, with stilt dancers (to the beat of African drums), as well as street musicians and pavement art. Many of these will also appear in the Klein Karoo Feesparade, a street parade which will take place in town and also scheduled for the townships areas of Bridgton and Bongolethu (Feesprogram: ABSA KKNK, 2012, p. 30). It is heartening that the festival organisers have finally recognised the genre fully and give it prominence alongside other 'established' genres.

Aardklop Nasionale Kunstefees--Potchefstroom (North West province)

This festival is the youngest of the major South African arts festivals (it runs for 4-6 days at the end of September) and was started in 1998, also initially as an Afrikaans festival, but later included a number of South Africa's eleven indigenous languages. The festival draws visitors who book accommodation for the duration of the festival, but with several towns nearby and even the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria within reasonable driving distance, it also draws a fair number of day visitors.

During the first two years of its existence, living statues, as well as stilt-walkers, jugglers and unicyclists performed in open areas for promotional purposes. The then festival director, Giep van Zyl, was keen to support street theatre as a genre and agreed to performances under my direction by a group of 10 Drama students from Technikon Pretoria (now Tshwane University of Technology) in 2000 to 'test the waters.' Four performances each of two Commedia dell'Arte-style comedies and a confrontational ambulatory sketch, were presented in the public park, which housed the flea-market, food stalls and a beer garden, as well as in the adjoining cordoned-off street. There was keen interest and while the group had received partial private sponsorship, the public, encouraged by 'payment-patter,' contributed enough to cover the costs of food and drink for each student for the two-day period. One problem encountered was the loud music from restaurants close-by. However, at the request of van Zyl, the restaurants agreed to turn down the music during performances. Patrons were quick to enter into the spirit of the ambulatory sketch, with many following the actors and positioning themselves so as to be chosen as the ' victims' in the confrontation.

With the interest in street theatre established, a category was created in 2002 on the programme for street theatre, together with site-specific theatre (ruimtelike teater), and sponsorship made available by the festival organisation specifically for these categories. Three local street-theatre productions were presented in the park and cordoned-off street.

One of the productions was Vullis (Rubbish), produced by the Vleis, Rys & Aartappels company. According to the programme information, the show was to involve two attractive black actors supposedly cleaning up after festival goers, but also strewing around rubbish, which suggested to me the possibility of confrontational street theatre, involving the public in the action. This expectation was fuelled by the note from Vleis, Rys & Aartappels member, Saartjie Botha:

It is likely that festival goers will become involved.... The initial concept is that everything will start off realistically. People should be unsure whether they are really rubbish collectors, or whether it is a show. (Botha 2002, p. 145)

I attended two performances at different locations in the park and found that the show differed from the advertised concept in a number of ways. Two actors, one white and one black, arrived with a wheeled bin. Dressed in a pair of white overalls and gumboots, the black actor could not be mistaken for one of the dedicated rubbish collectors seen in the park, nor for one of the municipal collectors seen on the streets of Potchefstroom. The white actor wore a skirt of plastic carrier bags, a plastic bag as head covering, and white make-up covered his face and shoulders (Figure 4). The show was rather in the vein of performance art, with physical theatre and mime, and presented to the audience without involving the audience directly. It dealt with the issue of garbage and wastefulness and also touched on racial issues. Although the audience appreciated the agility of the performers, there was an air of bewilderment reflected in comments which I overheard. These ranged from mild to rudely disparaging:
   I don't have a clue what they are actually doing.
   Do they call this theatre?
   No, let's leave. It's rubbish about rubbish.
   Are they getting paid for this?
   What the hell is it supposed to be?
   It's [expletive deleted]. I can also put on a [expletive deleted]
   plastic bag and run around in the street with a [expletive deleted]
   pumpkin and call myself a [expletive deleted] actor. (7)

While similar types of street theatre productions had previously been successfully presented at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, this festival is held in a more conservative area of the country and street theatre was at the time less familiar. Perhaps the area selected, in such close proximity to the beer garden, was not the best location for this well-choreographed and symbolic production. On the other hand, a gentle and stylised street-theatre work, Straatgreep, based on movement and imaginative use of lighting and sound, was staged in the closed-off street section during the evenings and drew large appreciative crowds.


Sponsored street theatre productions continued until van Zyl retired as festival director in 2005. The separate category then disappeared from the programme and street theatre, as well as site-specific productions, have to compete with 'formal' theatre productions for funding. Nevertheless, the platform has been created and one or two street theatre performances (including performances by Ellis and Bheki) continue to be seen each year. Following the example set by the National Arts Festival, street theatre outreach and upliftment projects with performers from the nearby Ikageng township, have also been introduced.

The National Arts Festival (8) (NAF)--Grahamstown (Eastern Cape province)

Since its inception in 1974 this event has grown into a major (and was for many years the only) arts festival in South Africa. Held annually during June-July, it runs for between nine and 12 days, with many visitors staying for at least a few days, if not the full duration. The festival consists of a formal main and an informal fringe festival programme. For the main festival programme, artists and companies are invited and sponsored, and the programme includes genres such as drama, dance, opera, film, visual and craft arts, and music. The fringe festival, where individuals or groups join on application and are responsible for their own costs, includes genres such as drama, cabaret, stand-up comedy, children's theatre and music, and also allows for street theatre. For the duration of the festival there is a flea market and food fair with two main areas (the PX village in the city centre and an open area with sports fields, the Village Green), which attract numerous buskers--usually musicians, dancers, jugglers and acrobats. These areas, and the streets linking them, are heavy with pedestrian traffic and, given the congenial atmosphere, they make good locations for ambulatory street-theatre productions and performers who 'play for the hat.' They are not ideal locations for verbal street theatre, however, because of the high level of intrusive noise.

Street theatre before 1996

Before 1996 there had only been occasional manifestations of street theatre at the festival, where artists or groups performed on their own initiative without official festival acknowledgement. They can be regarded as trailblazers and prompts to festival organisers. One example is Back Door Initiative (BDI), which staged performances in 1994 and 1995; this is a self-funded collective (styled along the lines of Welfare State International and The Bread and Puppet Theatre) with fluid membership--people who had attended the workshops arranged by the Arts Alive Festival organisers. Making use of imaginative and elaborate costumes, the shows, which included juggling, stilt-walking, various fire performances and giant puppets, were of the hit-and-run style, with performers suddenly appearing, confronting festival goers and disappearing again (Molteno 1997).

Early initiatives

In 1996 one non-sponsored group performed at the festival. Jungle Performance staged their production One Country, One Picnic at different locations in Grahamstown (Venter 2004). In the same year the festival organisers introduced street theatre to the festival programme by inviting the French street theatre company, Les Pietons, to perform as part of the main programme. While promoted as a street theatre, the production, Les Pietonnes (the title alludes to the all-male cast performing as women), was listed under the Drama section in the programme (Standard Bank National Arts Festival: Souvenir programme, 1996, p. 65). Two performances took place on Church Square in the city centre, while the others took place on the lawn behind the Drostdy Arch--an area which would become a prime street theatre location in ensuing years. This area is ideal for stationary street theatre performances for a number of reasons:

* the area is vast enough to accommodate large productions and crowds of hundreds;

* the well-kept lawns provide audiences with comfortable seating;

* the large administration block which faces onto the lawn acts as a soundboard and helps to amplify the voices of actors not using sound equipment; and

* it is some distance away from the bustle of roads, shops and restaurants, hence actors can perform free from outside interference.

While the last reason is beneficial for sponsored street theatre, it is detrimental for street-theatre performers who rely on 'playing for the hat.' With very little pedestrian traffic, these performers have to rely heavily on media publicity and actively drawing spectators through teasers.

In 1997 the Les Pietons company was invited back for the main programme. In the preceding months they had trained members of the Thesele Creative Society in Soweto in street theatre performance and devised a co-production, Montreuil Soweto, The Meeting (Figure 5). The show centred on a soccer match and was a vibrant physical performance which included mime, dance, acrobatics, comedy and music. Apart from the performance area at the Drostdy Arch, the festival organisers also designated the open area next to Nombulelo Hall in Rhini Township--a few kilometres outside the centre of Grahamstown--as an additional performance area for the production. This was done as an outreach initiative to take the theatrical experience to people who have very little contact with theatre and who do not have the means to attend the festival. The enthusiastic and almost boisterous audience response to the performances indicated that street theatre deserved a place at the festival. (9)

1999 marked the first invitation to an exclusively South African street-theatre group. Ellis Pearson and Bheki Mkhwane (Ellis and Bheki) appeared at the main festival with Kaboom! This was the only official street-theatre production at the festival, although still listed in the Drama category. This show was the first of what would become a trademark recipe for the duo's street-theatre work: stories rooted in Africa, with comedy (particularly physical comedy) as the main ingredient, but also addressing more serious issues.

I attended three performances and audience numbers varied between about 100 and 200. I found that spectators had not yet grasped the concept of street theatre. I often heard questions such as 'What is this?' 'Is this a show?' and 'Can we watch?' Many people also did not know whether it was a full performance (as opposed to a teaser for an indoor performance), whether they had to pay for the performance, or whether they were to sit or stand. (10)

Recognition of the genre

Entering the new millennium, the festival organisers gave important recognition to street theatre with five varied invited shows (two local and three from abroad) for the main festival, categorised for the first time under the separate heading of Street Theatre in the festival programme.


Local performers Ellis and Bheki staged Skadonk (centring on a taxi owner and also addressing the issue of transformation) and a contortionist act, The Rubber Man, was performed by Bolter Ntuli and his son, Khosi.

The French company Les Grooms staged two performances of La Flui te en Chantier. This was an interesting example of street-theatre-on-the-move, where the performance started off on one side of the St Andrew's Design and Technology Centre, moved around the corner to a different part of the building, where a first-floor window was used as performance area and ended on a sports field with the audiences having to follow the action (Figure 6). It was a new experience for South African spectators and one which caused bewilderment--some spectators thought the show had ended after the first act, while it took serious persuasion by the actors to get others to move to the next performance area; yet once the audience grasped the concept of ambulatory performance, they responded enthusiastically to the show. (11)

The Box Woman by the Pinus Ploft Theatre Group from Brazil was performed eight times in the PX village area (Figure 7). The group drew the attention of passersby with their colourful costumes, singing and dancing. Once a crowd had gathered, spectators were told the story of a woman found wandering in the Amazon forest a thousand years ago with a box on her head and they were invited to peer into the box one by one for a 'magical experience.' The experience lasted only a few seconds and consisted of coming face-to-face with the box woman who told each spectator a secret which was not to be revealed. This was a very popular show, attracting huge crowds and long queues formed, waiting to experience the 'magic.' (12)

The Fall of the Archangel Lucifer, by La Compagnia dei Folli from Italy, was performed for one night only outside the 1820 Settlers National Monument. Accompanied by music and a fireworks display, this large-scale spectacle featured actors on stilts and suspended from the roof of the building. Almost an hour before the starting time the stand had filled up, with people continuing to arrive in droves, occupying every available spot on the surrounding lawn, paving, in the street and on the balconies of the Monument. There was a lot of jostling and verbal aggression, when security personnel had to intervene and they also had to prevent spectators from moving into the acting area. (13) Festival director, Lynette Marais, later expressed her satisfaction at the success of the year's street-theatre programme, but acknowledged that the overwhelming audience interest in this performance (estimated at over 1000 spectators) had far exceeded expectations--an aspect which would be taken into account when considering future productions of such a nature (Marais 2000).



Following the success of the previous year, the festival again hosted four street-theatre productions in 2001 and gave prominence to the genre by using an image of Ellis Pearson and Bheki Mkhwane on the official festival poster. Despite the recognition and efforts by the organisers, the important and consistent contribution to the genre by Ellis and Bheki, and the fact that street theatre had become a regular and popular feature at the festival, the following comment demonstrates that street theatre, and by extension, popular entertainment, had not yet been given its due or fully accepted as a legitimate art form:

The 27th edition of the Standard Bank National Arts Festival survived its tacky motif and lived to fight another year. The image used to promote the festival in print adverts, that of Ellis Pearson and Bheki Mkhwane clad in leopard-print vests, is hardly indicative of the fare dished out at this watershed instalment of the country's most important cultural event. (Mabanga 2001, p. 1)

As a result of the problems experienced with crowd control in 2000, the large-scale spectacle, 360 Degrees in the Shade, by Amoros and Augustin from France was staged on the Village Green hockey field, where large crowds were accommodated without problems.

With the withdrawal of Standard Bank as main sponsor, the 2002 festival was scaled down considerably; nevertheless, there were three productions in the Street Theatre category on the main festival programme: one local, one from overseas (Customs in Yunnan, featuring Chinese songs and dances) and one collaboration (Free Birds, with local performers and actors from the Dutch company, Het Waterhuis). The local production was The Hungry, presented by Ellis & Bheki. It was set in the African village of Sinako, and explored clashes between tradition and modernization; between Africa and the West.

New directions

The street-theatre line-up for the 2003 main festival was a mix of international (the spectacle, Lunair, by The Lunatics from the Netherlands) and local; professional and amateur productions, covering different forms of street theatre. By this time fully committed to the street theatre genre, the festival organisers supported a new initiative: street-theatre performances as outreach and upliftment projects. Two productions using the genre as a means of performance expression for children and youths in economically and socially depressed areas in South Africa were sponsored for the main festival. The Art of the Street Project (under the guidance of Alex Sutherland from Rhodes University Drama Department and Ubom! Eastern Cape Drama Company) presented Small Change with children from the Eloxolweni Shelter and the streets of Rhini township, who had been taught skills for several months, resulting in the story of one child being told by means of song, dance, mime and drama. The Story of Awaya was presented on the Village Green hockey field by Mama Afrika Theatre Company, featuring youths from Kliptown, Soweto. The show was created and facilitated by two French street-theatre exponents, Neusa Thomasi (Compagnie des Contraires) and Eric de Saria (Compagnie Phillip Genty).

In 2004 there were no international productions on the main festival programme and the local productions (three were repeat productions by Ellis and Bheki) had a distinctly African flavour. Rain in a Dead Man's Footprints (Jazzart Dance Theatre and Magnet Theatre Company) explored the ancient myths and rituals of the /Xam people through the use of performance, dance, music, fire and puppetry. Cherryco and Tekweni Puppetplays presented African Fables and Pet's Tale, which made use of puppets, masks and mime, to entertain children and adults alike. Short Changed was the second Art of the Street Project sponsored by the festival organisers for the main festival programme. This support for the project continued in the following years with Ex-change (2005), Shot Cut Corner (2006) and Shark (2007).

Festival goers had come to expect street-theatre productions and since 2005 street theatre performances have become a permanent fixture on the festival programme, offering a wide variety in terms of concept, content, performance and participants. The organisers continued to invite productions from abroad, such as Osadia,a performance art show from Spain (2009) and the spectacular Angeli E Demoni by the Progetto Bagliori da Venezia troupe from Italy (2010).

Collaborations between local and overseas performers have included Kruik with South African performer, Dumisile Mqadi and Dutch actor, Paul Kooy from Het Waterhuis (2007); Moliere in Soweto, another collaboration between Soweto Kliptown youths and French exponents, Neusa Thomasi and Eric de Saria (2007); The African Puppet Family, with members from the French company Les Grandes Personnes and youngsters from the Orange Farm settlement in Gauteng (2009). Les Grandes Personnes was also involved, along with artists from Italy, Chile and Burkina Faso, in developing The Giant Match (an African Romeo and Juliet story), with over 100 local artists and performers from various communities in Gauteng (2010). Also on offer in the same year was Amathole, a collaboration between the Dodgy Clutch company from the United Kingdom and artists and performers from the Eastern Cape. This production, which revolved around the relationship between two brothers, was presented as a processional performance with dance, music, song and giant puppets.

Local content has consistently appeared on the programme: in 2005 Ellis Pearson and Bheki Mkhwane took the tsunami which struck Indonesia in December 2004 as their point of departure for a new production, What About Me? (the title was subsequently changed to Wave), and in 2006 Lwazi Xaba joined Ellis and Bheki in The Hungry Heart. This production was again set in Sinako village and dealt with the peoples' hunger--not only for food and water, but also for love and happiness, and on a more sinister note, also a hunger for greed and power. In the same year Rhodes University Drama Department staged Expeditions to the Baobab Tree, a site-specific production as street theatre set in the Botanical Gardens. In 2007 medea-m/other house, a site-specific adaptation of Liz Lochhead's Medea was staged. In 2008 Impisi, with Ellis Pearson and Sdumo Mtshali, featuring animal characters and dealing with the theme of tolerance, and Ariadne's Labyrinth by Inside & Out Theatre and Eden Campus Drama (also using animals as teachers to a young girl) were staged. The Flight of the Lightning Bird--Impundulu, devised by Basil Mills, took spectators on an African storytelling spectacle, incorporating fire and light). Man up a Tree by Ellis Pearson and Sdumo Mtshali was staged in 2010.

It is clear that Ismail Mahomed, who took over as festival director from Lynette Marais in 2009, has continued to build on the initiatives and efforts Marais had put into establishing and promoting the genre at the festival. In a press release in 2010 Mahomed stated:

Street theatre is a vital art form at the National Arts Festival. This year's programme is a colourful celebration which challenges the predefined structures of walls and stages. It offers a place to reinvent the relationships between art and audience, and it will most certainly be the place where the audience gets to perform, dance, sing along and celebrate with the artists. (Art on the Walls and in the Streets 2010, p. 1)

The focus in 2011 was on performance art and spectacle. The Botanical Gardens served once again as a street-theatre location, this time for A Fairies Tale by Fidget Feet Aerial Dance from Ireland. It was a promenade production, in other words the audience followed the ambulatory performance through the gardens. Proyecto 34[degrees]S from Argentina, collaborating with various South African performers, presented Machitun, a spectacle of acrobatics, dance, music and lighting effects. Rounding off the festival was a street parade in a carnival spirit, Move Your Mind, with costumed members from various artistic communities in and around Grahamstown leading the parade in song, dance, acrobatics and general merry-making, inviting visitors to join in. This parade echoes the street parade presented annually at the Arts Alive Festival in Johannesburg.


Street theatre performances outside the festival circuit remain rare in this country and they are generally restricted to special occasions in designated areas (e.g. Heritage or Women's Day celebrations) or performed in privately-owned spaces frequented by tourists, such as the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Waterfront area in Cape Town. Public spaces per se (streets, pedestrian malls, parks) are not utilised for street-theatre performances. One reason is the restrictive municipal by-laws in some towns and cities, but the biggest factor is perhaps the crime rate, which has escalated over the past number of years in the country. On a visit to Cape Town in 19991 found several street-theatre performers (circus artists, musicians, dancers and comedians) in St. George's Mall (a pedestrian precinct in the centre of town, close to a number of tourist attractions). Visiting the city in May 2010, I only found one street musician in the area. Despite a heightened police and security presence and an influx of visitors during the Soccer World Cup in June-July 2010, I again found only the same musician in the precinct--no other street-theatre performers had made use of the opportunity. According to a comedian (Donald) and an illusionist (Zake) at the V&A Waterfront, street performers had migrated there, as they were assured of a constant flow of tourists for audiences, and they and the spectators felt safe because of the visible and adequate presence of security guards. Both had performed in St George's Mall in earlier years and both had been victims of street crime. (14) Until such time as the crime rate (especially street crime) is drastically reduced, arts festivals, which provide private security and engage the local police for added patrols, offer the safest environment for both street theatre performers and spectators. In addition, the relaxed and congenial atmosphere which prevails at arts festivals is conducive to street-theatre performances.

Although street theatre does not feature at the Arts Alive Festival any longer, the festival organisers played a vital role in introducing street-theatre performances, as well as sponsoring workshops for local performers to develop the genre. The National Arts Festival in Grahamstown soon followed suit and has shown its consistent commitment to street theatre by encouraging and supporting it as a recognised genre alongside other more established genres on the main festival programme. Not only have suitable locations been made available for the different types of street theatre, but some of the best productions from abroad have regularly been brought to the festival as examples of the art form and local groups have actively been sought out and encouraged through sponsorships. The two 'Afrikaans' arts festivals continue to provide occasion and location to street-theatre performers and, as mentioned earlier, the KKNK in Oudtshoorn has raised the profile of street theatre in its 2012 programme.

There are a number of smaller arts festivals around the country: Macufe Festival (Mangaung African Cultural Festival) in Bloemfontein; the Suidoosterfees in Cape Town and Innibos (Mbombela, previously Nelspruit) to name only three. While they provide opportunities for street theatre, the genre is not given official recognition nor actively promoted, and in general only buskers and exponents of circus arts, such as jugglers, acrobats and living statues avail themselves of the opportunity. It is hoped that the organisers of these festival will follow the example of the major arts festivals in ensuring the continued strengthening of the genre in the country. 10.1080/10137548.2011.674695


Art on the Walls and in the Streets. 2010. Press release. National Arts Festival.

Arts Alive International Festival. 1997. Programme. Johannesburg.

Botha, S., 2002. Vullis. In: A. Van Zyl, ed. AARDKLOP: Feesgids. Potchefstroom: Aardklop Nasionale Kunstefees, 145.

Cohen-Cruz, J., 1998. Notes toward an unwritten history of anti-Apartheid street Performance. In: J. Cohen-Cruz, ed. Radical street performance. New York: Routledge, 282-288.

De Klerk, M. 2003. Personal conversation with Marie de Klerk, festival goer. Oudtshoorn, 3 April.

Feesprogram: ABSA KKNK. 2012. Pamphlet.

Hauptfleisch, T., 1997. Theatre and society in south Africa: reflections in a fractured mirror. Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik.

Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees: Feesgids. 2003:43. Oudsthoorn.

Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees: Feesgids. 2011:61 & 80-8. Oudsthoorn.

Mabanga, T., 2001. A festival of change. Mail and Guardian online, 5 July, 1-9. Available at:

Majola, B., 2003. City seeks new management for Arts Alive. Available from: http://www.igoli.

Marais, L., 2000. Personal conversation with Lynette Marais, Festival Director of the Standard Bank National Arts Festival. Grahamstown, 7 July.

McNamara, B., 1987. International symposium on popular entertainment as a reflection of National Identity Programme, 2.

Meiring, K., 1999. Personal conversation with Karen Meiring, Festival Director of the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees. Oudtshoorn, 28 March.

Molteno, J., 1997. Personal conversation with John Molteno, member of Back Door Initiative. Johannesburg, 27 September.

O'Donovan, M., 1998. Personal conversation with Mark O'Donovan, street-theatre exponent. Oudtshoorn, 7 April.

Roche, S., 1991. Le Theatre de Rue, d'une pratique artistique a une reflexion sur la notion d'espace public urbain:l' exemple francais. Dissertation. Institut d'etudes politiques, Toulouse.

Standard Bank National Arts Festival. 1996. Souvenir programme, 65 Grahamstown: Grahamstown Foundation.

Standard Bank National Arts Festival. 1999. Souvenir programme, 89 Grahamstown: Grahamstown Foundation.

Standard Bank National Arts Festival. 2000. Souvenir programme, 119-122. Grahamstown: Grahamstown Foundation.

Venter, F., 2004. Personal conversation with Francois Venter, street-theatre exponent. Johannesburg, 26 March.

Vrettos, A., 2006. The economic value of arts and culture festivals. Masters Dissertation. University of Maastricht.


(1.) Loosely translated: During this era street theatre moved from having a marginal function to having a recognised cultural function.

(2.) There are numerous arts and/or cultural festivals in South Africa. These arts festivals were chosen as they are regarded as major festivals in terms of ticket sales, number of productions mounted, and setting and promoting new trends in the world of the arts. In addition, they represent different geographical areas in South Africa, as well as the two major languages associated with arts festivals. (Although the Macufe festival has positioned itself as an African festival, the predominant language is still English.)

(3.) Personal observation, 1997. Arts Alive Festival, Johannesburg, 27 September.

(4.) Personal observation, 1998. Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees, Oudtshoorn, 4-5 April.

(5.) Personal observation, 1999. Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees, Oudtshoorn, 5 April.

(6.) Translation: '... our most extensive programme of street art, [street] theatre and [street] music to date.'

(7.) Personal observation, 2002. Aardklop Nasionale Kunstefees, Potchefstroom, 25 and 27 September.

(8.) Originally known as the Five Roses Festival of the Arts (1974-1983) and then as the Standard Bank National Arts Festival (1984-2001).

(9.) Personal observation, 1997. Standard Bank National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, 4-5 July.

(10.) Personal observation, 1999. Standard Bank National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, 5-7 July.

(11.) Personal observation, 2000. Standard Bank National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, 5 and 7 July.

(12.) Personal observation, 2000. Standard Bank National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, 5-6 July.

(13.) Personal observation, 2000. Standard Bank National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, 7 July.

(14.) Personal conversations with Donald, comedian and Zake, illusionist, 2010. V&A Waterfront, Cape Town, 8 July.

Bett Pacey *

Department of Drama and Film, Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria, South Africa

* Email:
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Author:Pacey, Bett
Publication:South African Theatre Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Nov 1, 2011
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