Its one of the most important events on our cultural calendar, yet the writer feels the range of offerings at the National Arts Festival is often mediocre. Picture: Sizwe Ndingane

Despite the huge number of shows, the same names offering the same predictable theatre appear every year, writes Mary Corrigall.

They are dubbed festinos and you can spot them a mile off. Their bodies are concealed behind layers of gear procured from an outdoor or camping store. Knowing that the seats in the crude theatres during the National Arts Festival are hard and cold, they always have a portable cushion in hand.

They usually have a flask containing something warm or a hip flask containing some stiff liquor that will fire up the toes on a cold night. These loyal National Arts Festival-goers approach the annual event in Grahamstown as if it were a sport.

And, in truth, attending this event can be an endurance test – if you take it seriously and tackle the programme head-on, clocking up five performances a day. Some veterans boast they have sat through eight in 24 hours. This is fairly remarkable given many seem to be well into their sixties.

It takes a degree of organisation to master the festival; you need to keep your ear to the ground to discover the hottest ticket, while balancing this with your own research.

The fact that festinos remain a distinctive audience breed at the festival after 40 years is testament to its success, which is most often measured in terms of ticket sales and foot traffic in this quirky Eastern Cape city.

However, I wonder whether it is the predictability of the festival that has ensured their staying power, and whether a new generation will replace them when they shuffle off to the big arts festival in the sky.

Behind closed doors, many major players in the arts believe the festival has grown stale. Some attend only when they are presenting work on it; others do not make the annual pilgrimage because they find the “the mediocrity of the work overwhelming”, as one celebrated director told me last week.

Few are willing to articulate these views publicly for fear of being excluded from the festival in future.

Quantity definitely takes precedence over quality at the festival. Its “2 500 performances a day” slogan confirms this approach, as does the experience of attending. For those of us in the media, or the festinos who sit through five productions a day, it is fairly rare to encounter a moving production that you can recommend.

You can sometimes go for days without seeing anything decent. It is partly luck of the draw; what you have chosen from the programme. Should attending an arts festival be like playing Russian roulette?

The main programme is supposed to present carefully selected work that has been identified as important, yet in recent years the content more than often disappoints – Athol Fugard’s The Blue Iris was a case in point in 2012.

The same names, offering the same predictable theatre, appear year in and year out. Theatregoers and artists should be given a platform to showcase their work and test its cultural currency, but wouldn’t it be better to do so in small theatres, school halls and other makeshift venues before a national festival instead of inflicting raw products yet to be refined on its audiences?

Perhaps not enough of these venues exist, in which case the festival needs to have a hand in galvanising the establishment of such entities, viewing them as testing grounds to support their work.

The crazy quantity of productions could, in some ways, be viewed as compensation for the fact that there is more investment in the theatre and jazz programmes than the offerings in other realms of the arts. The volume of work appears to suggest this is indeed a festival that represents all the arts sectors.

Well, it does and it doesn’t.

The visual arts programme is slightly more interesting this year, with a few more curated shows than usual. But generally it is small and not terribly interesting. The fringe offerings are dominated by what are dubbed Sunday painters who paint figurative works out of sync with current discourses in art.

The contemporary dance programme is also mediocre. You’d be better off attending a dance festival in Joburg or Cape Town if you wanted to know what was hot.

The performance art programme, a new addition, is so insignificant it doesn’t even warrant a mention.

The film programme is strong but this is because it is properly curated by Trevor Steele Taylor, who isolates interesting themes and presents a collection of vintage films that respond to it.

Some might argue the sheer volume of work at the festival is proof our arts community is active, but if our cultural production is to mature and develop, and to grow audiences that patronise the arts all year round, rather than just gravitating towards this annual spectacle, the organisers might do well to reconfigure it into a smaller, tighter, more engaging event with more international flair.

Diversity can still be accommodated, but it needn’t be articulated via an excess of shows, but in divergent approaches to content.

The festival has grown substantially in 40 years, but what has it grown into?

I would venture it has become a large and unwieldy beast that offers a fairly haphazard and uneven view into our cultural landscape. Yes, our cultural production is uneven and varied, but surely the role of a festival is to provide the framing for a more composed purview?

As the largest arts festival, the burden seems to be on trying to be relevant to everyone, ensuring there is something for everyone to see. This has come at the price of becoming irrelevant to those with a discerning eye.

Attending a festival may present a physical endurance test, but it shouldn’t challenge your attention span, too.

* Mary Corrigall is Independent Newspapers’ group arts writer.