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Chief executive Monica Newton reflects on successful staging of National Arts Festival 2022 after a break for Covid-19

Monica Newton, the National Arts Festival CEO. Picture: Armand Hough African News Agency (ANA)

Monica Newton, the National Arts Festival CEO. Picture: Armand Hough African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jul 4, 2022

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After the widely successful return of the National Arts Festival (NAF) 2022, Monica Newton and her team are almost ready to hit the ground running again for the 2023 installment of the biggest art event on the continent.

Newton, the CEO of NAF, says she was delighted to welcome the arts and theatre lovers back to the festival’s hometown of Makhanda, to embrace and celebrate the country’s rich talent.

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This year, the festival returned to its traditional full-live format, after two years of hybrid and digital events.

For the past 11 days, Makhanda was filled with great music, breathtaking art exhibitions, exhilarating poetry and dance sessions, riveting theatre performing, layered with interactions and talks around the creative industry, the way forward after Covid and so much more.

“We had modest expectations going into this festival because there were so many unknowns and we were planning with full covid regulations - distancing, masks, capacity,” says Newton as she reflects on some of the highlights and lowlights of the show.

“So we were very aware that this festival was a product of its context. And then, of course, those contexts changed throughout the whole of the festival. So it has been a complicated beast probably the most complicated element actually being the load shedding. We had to change, move, shift in the worst-case scenario, cancel.

“And of course, we never want to do that to an artist or an audience ever.

“Having said that, we developed our own ticketing system this year. So the system that you've been using to see shows is something that we built and within that system is the ability to email ticket holders, to communicate changes,” adds Newton.

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Newton also expressed her gratitude to patrons who came to support the festival.

“Over the past few days we learnt that the audiences are with us, they are supportive, they are tolerant, they are patient.

“As much as artists were so looking forward to performing to live audiences, the audience also missed this experience.

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“So people really have showed up. People in the Eastern Cape showed up for us this year. Really choosing to come, choosing to see more shows, choosing to hang around and be with us and make the festival experience.

“So that's been probably the biggest takeaway for me on how warmly this festival was received and how very pleased everybody is to be back in the live format.”

Newtons adds that the past two years of Covid has, if anything, taught her if not all of us, art appreciation.

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“I think we also have a new appreciation because of what we lost. So we now know what the world looks like without live performances, without artists being able to tell us stories and reflect society back to us in a variety of different ways.

“And I think everybody is just really recognizing that we need to do it together. We need to work together, we need to collaborate. The festival has been incredibly lucky that our partners and sponsors have stayed with us. Standard Bank, Distell, Eastern Cape Province, National Department of Sport, Arts and Culture, and Makana Municipality brought their A-game.”

So what's next for the NAF Team?

“Some rest for a couple of days and then we get back up and start all over again, planning for 2023,” admits Newton.

“The National Arts Festival is a full-time festival company, so we start planning for the next festival almost immediately afterwards but we also have some amazing festivals coming up.

“The Sci-Fest Africa, the National Science Festival from the 7th to the 13th of September.

“And we have the Mandela Bay Arts Festival, a new partnership with Mandela Bay to present a festival in the city of Gqeberha and its surrounds. So yeah, lots of new things on the horizon that we're really looking forward to.

“We had our shortlisted finalists, an incredible group of young women with incredibly powerful stories to tell, for the Distell National Scriptwriting Award joined us, this past weekend.”

Newton explained that the five finalists will go through a process of mentoring and working with those scripts over the next couple of months before the winner is announced.

The winner will then get the opportunity to showcase their new work at the festival next year.

“And then, of course, later in the year we’ll see the Standard Bank Young Artists, the next cohort of incredibly special young artists.

“We'll be announcing a new group who will join us then join the festival in 2023, with their incredible work. And of course, we do keep in touch with the past alumni.

“We always keep an eye on what they do, and how are they’re doing it. And many of them performed at this year’s National Jazz Festival ... so many of them joined us, Kyle Shepherds, Benjamin Jephta.

“We are one big family. We don't see each other all the time but when we get together, it's just a full-on party.”

The National Arts Festival took place at Makhanda from June 23 until July 3.

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