Grahamstown Arts Festival Guide

If you need us, we'll be down at the Rat and Parrot, avoiding them.

By Hugh Upsher

So you’re making your way to what some snobs might believe to be the apex of South African culture, congratulations. The last minute accommodation you organised through a friend of a friend is more humble than you imagined and has a Lord of the Rings poster on the wall. It also smells like a mix of incense and damp, but who cares? You’ll realize that most of the shows you were excited about are completely sold out, and you’ll probably be left to accept cheap seats to plays that are as confusing as they are disappointing. There will also be a surprisingly wide variety of toe rings to try on at the market stalls. Here’s a list of who you’ll meet along the way.

The dead-eyed veteran

This is a weary soul who hit their personal glass ceiling for acting many years earlier. They still hold an undying love for the arts, but are quick to give a reality check to any ambitious up-and-comers waiting for their ‘big break’ to happen. They’ll be even quicker to name drop their ‘close’ friends who are now big stars in 7de Laan and Isidingo. Once they have effectively put you in your place, they’ll shamelessly guilt trip you into going to see the play they wrote, directed and star in.

The travelling vagabond

After chatting to this person for ten minutes without them trying to promote some play, you start questioning their presence at the festival. If pressed, they’ll explain a loose story about how they’re helping a friend to sell vintage clothes, but not really. Something tells you that this person recently cut off their dreads, but still keeps one of them in a decorative wooden box for sentimental reasons. They may present a photocopied zine they made, but then go on to explain how it’s the last copy so they unfortunately can’t give it to you. This will most likely be the closest you’ll ever come to meeting a real life gypsy, so make the most of it and ask them if they have a bankie for you.  

The bright-eyed first-timer

Man, this person is positively brimming with lekker vibes. You can just tell that they haven’t been let out the house too often, and all this fresh air is really getting to them. They’ll genuinely want to learn about who you are and what your hopes and dreams are, while wearing a T-shirt they designed and printed all by themselves. They’ll get drunk embarrassingly quick and most probably bring up the family dog on multiple occasions. Make sure to ask their opinions on plays that don’t exist to get a quick gauge of how much bullshit they’re willing to peddle to try impress you.

The lead actor

This sweet, presumably gay actor has that enduring balance of charm and self-deprecation that’ll surely win you over. They were most likely raised in a small Calvinist town, which has resulted in an internal battle where they’re naturally modest, while still yearning to be flamboyant.

The stay-over student

This person ended up milling around not by accident, but more a lack of organized thought. They are on student break and were supposed to head back to Port Elizabeth to see family, but had a minor blow-out with their dad which led to them cancelling the trip out of spite. You may think they would have an interest in theatre, but you’ll be wrong. They are usually second year Journalism students at Rhodes and will find a way to bring up that Hunter S. Thompson is a personal hero of theirs. That said, they’ll be your best bet for a solid drinking buddy at the Rat and Parrot.