Insight: Harnessing the rainbow lining of online- the vNAF (virtual platform of the National Arts Festival, South Africa) -as a vital platform for the live arts sector

The first vNAF- virtual/online National Arts Festival- 2020

In 2020, shortly after South Africa went into lockdown, the National Arts Festival (NAF) announced its intention to host an online/virtual festival, cognisant that it was unlikely that a physical festival would be possible at the festival’s home base in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), Eastern Cape. The 2020 vNAF (virtual NAF) was rolled out – to tremendous success – despite those who didn’t think that a virtual theatre festival was possible. At the time, there was disbelief and downright scepticism from many in the live performance sector who felt that the essence of ‘live’ is multi-dimensional: “How can one then take that and transmute onto a flat screen”, they asked. “Nope- doesn’t work.” Many responded with a blanket refusal: “No- not interested – will wait until we can be live again.”

vNAF – 2021- was supposed to be hybrid but the entire fest was online

Towards the latter part of 2020, theatres were operating at 50% capacity, with a masked audience. In 2021, the NAF started work on a hybrid festival – some live performance- from Makhanda, work available online as live streams and/or video on demand and some live elsewhere in the country. Shortly before NAF 2021, with alarming rates of infections in the pandemic, South Africa went into another lockdown. NAF pulled the live festival and migrated the entire NAF 2021, to NAF Online. Many artists were already in Makhanda and shows were streamed live, in real time. Some of the content was then also made available as video on demand. Many shows were only available as video on demand. In 2021, we saw the emergence of a buoyant and vital Fringe, online. In 2021, the screen came into its own as a medium and not simply as a conduit to present a show. We saw Allegedly, streamed live, from India; a play, on Zoom, performed in real time, during each session []. We saw Mommy mommy – an extraordinary dance theatre piece (South Africa), activating and using the screen as a powerful medium of expression. []

National Festival 2022 – live with a strong NAF Online platform – Curated Programme and Fringe -vFringe on until July 31, 2022

This brings us to NAF 2022, which took place, June 24 to July 3 in Makhanda – as a live festival with a parallel online platform . There was live streaming of some shows on the Curated Programme – ie in conjunction with their live iterations in the theatres. In conjunction, with the live Fringe, there was an Online Fringe platform – (still on – continues until July 31). On the opening day of NAF 2022, it was announced that the mask mandate had been lifted in South Africa and that venues could be ticketed at a hundred percent capacity. This was the opposite of what happened in 2021, when the live festival was cancelled. NAF 2022 was an extraordinary uplifting experience. It was an awakening of the live arts sector at Africa’s biggest arts festival. That is brilliant but in the euphoria of live, I want to talk about what NAF has achieved with NAF Online and why I think that it is a vital platform to build on and develop, as we move forward, out of the pandemic. I believe that Live and Online should sit as parallel platforms, to benefit creatives, producers and the long list of suppliers in the chain.

I am not partial to the term ‘silver lining’, when applied to the pandemic. Tell that to a theatre person who has lost everything – home, car, savings. Uhhm, no. No silver lining in having time with the family, when you have no money. But, undoubtedly, the rise of the online stage has opened up possibilities for the live performance industry.  

Why Online NAF is essential as we move out of pandemic throttling of live performance

As mentioned earlier on, when NAF mooted an online fest, there was a chorus of naysayers from the peanut gallery. They fiercely argued that live cannot be transfigured to the screen. I disagreed and my reviews from 2020 and 2021, stand as testament to my experiences of watching a thrilling array of work. Yes, a lot of theatre work was filmed and meant to be viewed as films of live work and so what? We got to see work and much of it translated well to the film medium. For some the filming of live work was a place holder until work could be staged. I saw Île, written and performed by Sophie Jones, online at vNAF 2021. She filmed her coming of age story in her lounge, at home, with friends and family, I found it a delightful and charming piece, made on a shoestring. For 2022, Joans took Île to the Fringe- live on stage. It was re-worked with Rob van Vuuren in the director’s seat. The show won a Silver Standard Bank Ovation Award. Without the vNAF in 2021, Île, the stage show, may not have happened. It was thrilling to see the iteration on film and then developed for live performance.

At 2021 NAF, I was intrigued by (extra)ordinary, (un)usual, directed by Faeron Wheeler of F Creations – a production company in Cape Town She approached Peter Maliki, an Australian writer and theatre maker with the concept of staging monologues that he wrote, for the virtual stage. She collaborated with theatre actors and used aspects of theatre/stage craft and made a film which was intended for streaming or to be screened in a theatre. She tagged (extra)ordinary, (un)usual “as a hybrid of stage and film.” Here is my review from 2021 The show received a Silver Standard Bank Ovation Award- a worthy recipient for innovation in the straddling stage and screen. Perhaps, we need a term for all of this. How about ‘stagescreen’? extra)ordinary, (un)usual is available at vNAF 2022. Here is the 2022 vNAF booking link:

In 2021, at the vNAF, I was riveted by the heartbreaking and lyrical- The Shack – a seven minute film by Tebogo Chologi.  He won a Gold Standard Bank Ovation Award. Review 2021: Shack was meant to be film and wasn’t intended to be staged. It has won numerous accolades at other festivals.

Île, extra)ordinary, (un)usual and The Shack, are three examples of how NAF Online has provided a vital platform for creatives and how the fest has incubated innovation. NAF Online has been much more than a place holder for live performance- on pause. It has been a space for germination and innovation. Going forward, it would be great to continue to foster new work, on NAF Online. Years ago, a manager in the hotel industry, said to me, that hotel rooms are a disposable commodity. They are empty and not sold. The revenue is gone. One cannot tag live shows as a commodity, sure. But, the point is; once a show is over, then it is over.  One cannot recoup the seats that were not sold. If there is a filmed recording, then perhaps it can be streamed online or used to show festivals and producers, what was staged. In my opinion, a quality film/recording is invaluable. Creatives like Sophie Joans and Fae Wheeler have shown how one can flip between stage and screen – and make them both ‘work’.

Some may use film to record a stage performance and one can see that it is a film of a stage performance and others embrace the screen as a medium in its own right. For vNAF 2022, Jacques Batista made, And Not a Word was Spoken, a dance film (with some dialogue), conceived for the screen and developed around screendance as a medium:  At vNAF 2022, in terms of the immersion in the screen as medium, I was mesmerised by Casted Silhouettes, a poetry and movement film, by Senetisiwe (Ginindza) and Sizo. “I planted a seed of thought… to be safe and comfortable…I stopped looking for homes in people… I want you to know that in me, you will always have hope…”  Visually stirring and breathtaking inspirational words:

In the future, it would be great if we could access shows at other arts festivals on NAF Online and for NAF shows to be made available on online festival platforms, out of Africa.  A round of applause to NAF and NAF Online. As we move out of the pandemic and the throttling of live performance, the boost from the online stage can only benefit artists and the industry.  Filming performance for the screen, takes money and skills. Hopefully, funders will come forward to assist creatives so that they can reach people who not physically present at venues.

Ashanti Tribe: This recording of a concert by Ashanti Tribe is available, as video-on-demand on vNAF 2022, until July 31. Ashanti Tribe is “a movement” initiated by pianist and composer, Nobuhle Ashanti. She is 23 years old and comes from a musical family. She does it all – jazz piano, classical violin, music composition and arrangement. In Dear Mom, Ashanti pays tribute to her mom. Chasing a butterfly – is a tribute to her dad – a composer. She muses: “We are both piano players… the butterfly effect… I love creating and seeing beauty within madness and chaos.” This concert was recorded at the Blue Room in Cape Town and is essential viewing on vNAF 2022. Booking link:

vNAF – virtual National Arts Festival 2022

When: Available until July 31, 2022
Click on the tab: NAF Online. You will see two tabs: 2022 NAF Online and 2022 Fringe.
Click on 2022 Fringe:  

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❇ Featured image: Casted Silhouettes, on at vNAF 2022, until July 31. Screenshot.