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With more than 700 performances crammed into 11 days, the National Arts Festival can be overwhelming to frequent and first-time goers. To help you get the most of this year’s festivals, take our advice to help you navigate the fun-filled week that is the National Arts Festival.

Mandla Mlangeni performs with the Amandla Freedom Ensemble at the Jazz Jam at Saints Bistro. Photo by Jane Berg.


1. Book the big shows ahead of time

If you want to watch a production, chances are ten other people do too. To spare yourself the disappointment of missing your favourite production by booking your tickets as soon as possible. It’s best to book online now. Browse the programme and book about two shows maximum for each day that you’re most likely to enjoy. Be on the lookout for more suggestions throughout the Festival. If you do buy online, print them before going to the festival, or make sure you’ll be able to collect them upon arrival at the venue.


2. Look out for Standing Ovation Awards

Standing Ovation Awards are awarded to first-time productions on each day across categories. Overall winners are announced at the end of the festival. The shortlisted winners are announced on Cue Newspaper throughout the festival. Grab a copy of Cue to find winners and get your tickets as soon as possible; remember that tickets might already be sold out. It’s a good approach if you are especially interested in discovering new and unknown artists on the rise.


3. Know the difference between the Fringe and Main programme

The first things to note when browsing through the bible-sized programme are two main sections: the Main programme and the Fringe programme. The main programme features award-winning, renowned and established artists and productions. The Fringe programme hosts upcoming talent with a lot of first-timers. A lot of artists often progress from the Fringe to the main programme through forms of recognition, like the Standing Ovation Awards.

If you look through the Fringe programme, you’ll find various colour codes on the schedules of the programme. The red highlights times and dates when the production is free. This is a strategy for artists who want to spread the word about their work as the Festival begins. The early days of a show might often be free, which is a bonus for people planning on arriving for the earlier part of the festival. The green indicates days when the tickets are going for 50% of the usual price and blue, and blue means you can buy two for the prize of one.


4. Don’t overcommit

With over 700 shows taking place, it’s easy to think of yourself as Bradley Cooper in Limitless and imagine that you can watch five shows in one day. Unfortunately, it’s not that kind of party, and coffee can only do so much to keep you going. Don’t festival yourself out. Two shows a day should suffice. One during the day and one in the evenings. This is to also allow you time for drinks, meeting people and exchanging ideas, shopping, and indulging in all the various food on offer at the markets!


4. Mix up the genres

Step out of your comfort zone a little and try watching something you wouldn’t ordinarily watch. Look out for initiatives such as ThinkFest! which hosts intellectual and often robust engagements about various issues in the country. Talks include conversations on the evolution of various art forms and their role in nation building. There’s also WordFest, where talks on writing are hosted and some poetry readings. Look out for the launch of the annual collection of stories launched at the Festival, Short sharp stories.


5. If all else fails, try comedy

There is a vast array of comedy sessions available at the festival through the Cape Town Comedy Club. The club hosts the likes of Loyiso Gola, Stuart Lewis and Rob Van Vuuren. They host a show every night featuring various comedians with a line-up that changes every other night. It’s a value-for-money show that also offers a good sense of comedy across the country with newcomers bringing out their best and newest jokes.


6. Look out for handmade crafts by locals

The National Arts Festival hosts over 1000 stalls across Grahamstown selling a variety of goods. Items on sale range from crafts, clothes, food, bags, shoes and much more. Most of the items on sale are sold by locally produced and sold by local businesses. So doing your fair share of shopping at the festival means supporting local businesses and local entrepreneurs. It’s worth spending your buck. Look out for new and interesting products, you might just discover the next best thing or unearth hidden gems that we’re all sleeping on.


7. Read Cue daily

Cue was a newspaper that used to be distributed throughout various venues at the festival. It is now produced online and features updates for the Standing Ovation Award Winners, news related to the Festival and events taking place beyond your immediate activities. It’s a nice way of staying abreast of the Festival and not missing out on conversations taking at and about the Festival. Follow for updates.


8. Hydrate!

Drink lots of water throughout the festival to stay hydrated and avoid unnecessary fatigue, cramps and headaches. With all the food and drinking that’s bound to take place, it’s easy to forget drinking water. Just remember that drinking water will help you stay energised, get better sleep and feel less fatigued during and after the festival.


Top 10 performances worth looking out (that you should probably book now):

Click on the links to book the tickets now.

1. The Soil is a South African award winning and double platinum-selling a cappella group. Their music is a blend of contemporary township style and an eclectic mix of urban contemporary, fusing beat box and soul. Look out for their concert at the Festival.

2. Pendo Masote is a 13-year-old violinist who is making his debut at the National Arts Festival. I don’t know that many 14-year-old violinists who are dropping albums, this might the star awaiting your discovery.

3. Rob van Vuuren brings a collection of his best material in a career that has seen him become one of South Africa’s most popular and original comedians.

4. Two-time Emmy-nominated and Comics’ Choice Award-winning Loyiso Gola is one of South Africa’s most loved comedians. Loyiso pushes the envelope with his thought-provoking comedy tackling politics, race, history. At this year’s Festival, he offers Loyiso is Unlearning. He’ll also be taking place in the one-time production, The Very Big Comedy Show, I am willing to bet that tickets for this quickly selling out.

5. A Man and a Dog – winner of a 2015 Silver Standard Bank Ovation Award and nominated for a Fleur du Cap. The play makes use of oral tradition, song, instrumentation and physical theatre to weave together a retelling of our collective family as South Africans.

6. Platinumb Heart is a protest album in progress and a personal musical, poetic inquiry on identity. Msaki and her band The Golden Circle create a sound that combines soulful folk, symphonic movements and African poly-rhythms with portals of improvisation. For this project, they feature poet, Modise Sekgothe. Composer, musician and co-curator of the Pan African Space Station, Neo Muyanga.

7. Justice Dikgang Moseneke, former Chief Justice and author of My own liberator, an intimate autobiography, where he pays homage to the many people and places that have shaped him, and his career that saw him rise as one of the country’s top legal minds. Find him at the National Arts Festival talking at length about his book.

8. Globe-trotting laughter master Stephen K Amos arrives in South Africa for the National Arts Festival with his new show World Famous, following a sell-out world tour.

9. Sabela is an African contemporary dance piece inspired by our names, as human beings. What they mean to us, how they carry us and how we carry them as we journey in life. The piece is choreographed by Thandazile Radebe, an award-winning choreographer, a contemporary dancer and a dance teacher.

10. Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu is set in the height of apartheid when 19-year-old hawker from the streets of Mamelodi, Solomon Mahlangu, faced a daunting trial in which he was hung by the apartheid state for his involvement in the struggle against apartheid. The moving and important film was popular and well received by many South Africans when it was out in cinemas earlier this year. If you missed watching it, you can catch a screening of it at the National Arts Festival.

11. Standard Bank Jazz Festival
This programme is jam-packed with fantastic artists you don’t want to miss out. Ranging from Judith Sephuma, Desmond and the Tutus, The Soil, The Standard Bank National Youth Band (made up of a selection of the top young jazz musicians in the country between the ages of 19 and 25 years) and much much more. It’ll be worth your while popping into any one of the productions that make up the jazz festival.

What are you most looking forward to attending? And what tips do you have for people attending the festival on how to better navigate this big event?

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  • Margaret Fish

    Sadly Cue newspaper is no more. It is being produced online only this year 🙁

    • Tertius Coetzee

      Please bring hard copy Cue back! It is a most useful publication. Its fine to publish it online but the hard copy is an easy read and daily guide to the Festival

    • Welcome Lishivha

      Thank you for the update Margaret, I just updated the information. It’s such a pity, Cue was such a wonderful packaged that kept you up-to-date without having to dig through the many online articles. On the brighter side though, it’s good for the environment and their site seems to have good content that’s up-to-date.