With Nothing but silence they turned their bodies away. Picture: Supplied
The 969 Festival is back. This year marks its 14-year milestone, too. Wits Theatre Director Gita Pather sheds light on the festival. She reveals, “I took over as director of the festival when I joined in 2013 and so this is my fourth year. 

The significant changes I made are related to the fact that the festival opens almost immediately after the National Arts Festival closes, instead of a month later. In 2017, it closed on July 9 and we open on the 14th. I think it was a critical intervention allowing schools, etc., who are on holiday to participate as audiences.

“It also means that the performances have considerably more production value because shows are coming straight off one festival into the other. Over the last three years, our audiences numbers have grown exponentially, due to the fact that we release and market our programme six weeks before 969 begins. I also have a no complimentary (except for media) policy because I believe that we need to grow an appreciative paying theatre audience. Producers know that, unlike the National Arts Festival, they can make money at 969.”

Her vision and passion dovetail when it comes to putting together the programme, where diversity is much at the forefront and grooming the next generation.

Pather reveals, “I think that a programme is a reflection of policy and ideology. As a cultural activist, I have fought actively against gatekeepers. I have a particular weakness for young and new talent, as well as a commitment to providing access for women. Another aspect of diversity is celebrated in the actual programme with a range of shows encompassing serious theatre, dance, music, physical theatre, shows for young children as well as comedy. There is something for everyone from a genre point of view, while the demographics of our country are fully represented in the profiles of the directors, writers and performers.”

On the topic, she explains the selection process: “The programme is based on showcasing a cross-section of the shows at the National Arts Festival. It was a more difficult task this year, since the festival was a great deal smaller. I am also hampered by budget and therefore, even if I wanted to bring in more shows from outside Gauteng, transport and accommodation become obstacles. However the bulk of the talent is based in Johannesburg and, by keeping my ear on ground and staying in touch with what artistes are doing, I am able to programme ahead of time, understanding that Joburgers are far more adventurous and open to new experiences and forms of theatre.”

Pather’s artistic eye has also earmarked a few offerings.

She reveals, “Must-sees for me are: Mike van Graan’s new play, Helen of Troyeville; Sonia Radebe’s Sabela; Noise, by the Forgotten Angle Collaborative; Samthing Soweto, Steve Newman and Ashish Joshi; Nijinsky’s War (an ovation winner); and Black, directed by Jade Bowers. I have to say that this is a winning programme and structured so that you can go from one show to another and have a magnificent time.”

As for the shows that defy convention with beautiful results, she shares, “Dada Masilo’s Giselle epitomises the defying of a classic tale retold and re-envisioned in a unique way that actually adds to the original production. Rat Race draws on the pop-up story books that children read as toddlers or when they are learning language and imaginatively translate that for stage.”

Sharing her observations on how youngsters are approaching storytelling on stage, she reveals, “Film and movie techniques are increasingly being used within the theatre; both from a storytelling point of view to sets and the use of multi-media to create pace and atmosphere.

I think it’s inevitable, since younger creatives are highly influenced by the medium of film.”

Lastly, kids are also catered for in the 969 Festival line-up, with Space Rocks as a case in point. Pather notes, “There are a number of shows for children of different ages this year. I have had a children’s theatre component in the past but, unfortunately, it did not do so well.

Hopefully, this year will be different since there are at least five shows specifically targeting children from toddlers to teenagers. 

I absolutely believe that children - all children - should be exposed to the arts because it has a hugely positively developmental impact.”