What would it mean to imagine a festival dramaturgically? Can the frenetic, experiential, inherently polyvocal qualities of a festive “vibe” be effectively reproduced on the page? Or does the dramatic mode, with its demand for a singular structural progression, do inherent violence to the multifaceted ways in which festivals perform? These philosophical questions for the theatre intersect with the materiality of a postapartheid South Africa that increasingly understands itself as a festival capital, as a place where “creative cities” form a central focus of current economic policymaking. In this context, my imagined theatre attempts a double-move grounded in the specificity of the tiny dorp of Grahamstown during the annual National Arts Festival.
It begins by converting the theatrical audiences that “take in” festival shows into objects of theatricality, a preparatory move that implicates spectators as participants in the production of the city aesthetic that follows. Articulations of this aesthetic take place in the next two “vistas,” a term which I have chosen over “scenes” because they require no sense of dramatic arc, and because they allude to a kind of futurity untethered from the stringency of the now. Instead of a logical progression of dramatic action, these vistas are self-contained worlds that seamlessly pass into and out of one another through shifting audio-visual aesthetic paradigms (the vistas, in fact, are interchangeable and can be reiterated into infinity).
I based this imagined theatre off three years of ethnographic observation of Grahamstown’s “11 Days of Amazing!” I combined images, people, and stories I recorded during this fieldwork with my own take on pressing civic tensions: the securitization of city space, the neoliberalization of the festival organization, the racialized bifurcation of street arts and theatergoing. Perhaps those who have attended the Grahamstown festival may see something of their experience represented in these grounded details; but, in some ways, the idyllic Grahamstown constructed here, bears little resemblance to the Grahamstown of today—it is utopic, meant in the best sense of the word.
Festinos always seek a mythical “vibe,” a special affect created when art feels exciting and fresh, when diverse performance traditions intersect, when racial and socio-cultural barriers wither away to allow fleeting moments of communality. By momentarily embracing the tyranny of the dramatic form I hope I have created some semblance of the atmospheric qualities of the best moments of today’s festival vibe, while also emplotting an aspirational vision of a vibe yet to come.