Theatre interview: Shakespeare Schools Festival South Africa, exciting online expansion of international footprint, during the global pandemic of Covid: CEO, Kseniya Filinova-Bruton and festival director, Blythe Linger, reflect, in the lead-up to the 2021 on stage festival in Cape Town

What: Shakespeare Schools Festival South Africa (SSFSA) About: Schools perform 30 minute abridged versions of Shakespeare’s plays On stage: Annual on stage festival. Throughout the year: masterclasses, rehearsals, and showcases. The festival went online in 2020, during lockdown Online: SSFSA Open Borders – a new platform [launched early 2021], for youth from around the world to connect online to cast, rehearse and showcase a theatrical performance Website:  Info:  

In 2021, in the 2nd year of the pandemic, with lockdown still in place and despite all the challenges facing live performance; the Shakespeare Schools Festival South Africa (SSFSA) is being presented on stage, in Cape Town at Artscape (April 19-24) and at the Masque, Muizenberg (May 6-8). The year 2021, marks the 11th edition of SSFSA. It is wonderfully positive theatre story, in a time when live performance has been decimated. Founder and CEO, Kseniya Filinova-Bruton and festival director, Blythe Linger talk about how the festival has expanded its international footprint, through its recently launched, online project, Shakespeare Schools Festival, Open Borders. Filinova-Bruton who founded SSFSA, relocated to her home country, Russia, in 2020. Linger, who has been involved with the festival for many years took over as manager and festival director.  As CEO, Filinova-Bruton is steering the festival from Russia, developing its international footprint, reaching new audiences and engaging young theatre makers around the globe.

TheCapeRobyn: In March 2020, the on stage festival was halted by lockdown and the festival had to adapt quickly- online?  

Kseniya Filinova-Bruton: Yes, this is correct. Last year, our second phase of the festival took place online, with a video productions component. We had entries from South Africa, Russia, Estonia and Malawi. This year [2021], we are very excited to return to the physical theatre spaces of Artscape and Masque theatre in Cape Town for the first phase of SSFSA 2021 to give our participants once again the experience the thrill of performing live on professional theatre stages, which cannot be replaced with any form of on line performances. 

TheCapeRobyn: Everything pivoted online?  

Kseniya Filinova-Bruton: We managed to move our training programmes online, using platforms such as Zoom, offering all our usual master classes and workshop content on line, which obviously has its own challenges of certain activities or exercises that would be limited in this format. But there are also benefits of this space, as we managed to expand the reach of our training programmes furthering our international footprint and growth of the festival overall. 

TheCapeRobyn: Was the online expansion on the cards and/or was it a response to Covid?

Blythe Linger: Year on year, certain aspects of the festival have been moving online but I can’t say that I ever imagined that we would have moved the entire festival online as we did in 2020. Covid-19 was the driving factor for this move and although we have experienced many downsides from moving online, we have come into some beautiful opportunities by having to move online. Online we can lift the borders so to speak. We recently launched, Shakespeare Schools Festival, Open Borders. It is a new pilot project and will run throughout the year [2021], online until we manage to find further funding for this program and until we pass through this pandemic. It is a fun-filled online journey, as we connect youth from across the world. SSFSA Open Borders aims to provide a platform for youth from around the world to connect online with a common goal; to cast, rehearse and showcase a theatrical performance. Creating a program of empathy for human good. People naturally want to connect on a deeper level, be challenged, empathise with one another and share their life experiences and inspirations. Who can register? Any individual between the ages of 13 – 18, who can confidently communicate in English. This program is aimed at individual youth who do not have a group or cast but would like to take part in the Shakespeare Schools Festival. More on the festival here:

TheCapeRobyn: The productions at Artscape and the Masque, will be filmed, so that they can be streamed by SSFA. Will additional productions be filmed for Open Borders?

Blythe Linger: Where productions cannot take place in the physical space, they will be recorded and included in the online stream which will be available shortly after the Cape Town festival in April/May. Open Borders will be an online showcase on its own towards the end of this year. We look forward to hopefully returning to a more, ‘near to normal’ environment towards the end of the year, where we will roll out the remainder of our festival year around South Africa, namely Gauteng, Bloemfontein, Port Elizabeth, Kwazulu Natal, George and Makhanda 

TheCapeRobyn: The festival works extensively with under-resourced schools so funding is essential?

Blythe Linger: As you can imagine, finding funding and landing grants is a very difficult process. We have lost a lot of our additional income from our fundraising avenues such as merchandise and ticket sales due to not being able to have an audience in the theatre. This makes our drive to become that much more self-sustainable challenging. We are ever grateful for those supporters and funders who have stuck with us and allowed us to reimagine how we carry out our festival experience. Thanks to BNP Paribas Dream Up Foundation, Shakespeare Society of Southern African, Swiss Philanthropy Foundation, Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport Western Cape and all our donors, sponsors who support us in an individual capacity. Without you, the work that we do would not be possible.

Le Bat School – for learners with hearing challenges- performing, Twelfth Night at the Shakespeare Schools Festival South Africa, 2019. Supplied.

Shakespeare Schools Festival South Africa: Founder and CEO Kseniya Filinova-Bruton and festival director, Blythe Linger at the 2018 festival. Supplied.

✳ Featured image: Chris Hani High School, performing Julius Ceasar at the Shakespeare Schools Festival South Africa, 2019. Supplied.