The first time Ryan Cannell went to the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, he was in the throes of puberty and subject to the dull whims of his parents. Not this time.
It was 1995, and I was hitting puberty. With the sudden appearance of wiry hair in all places compounded by the inability of my voice to remain within a single octave, I felt a confused sense of oppression. It was therefore with enormous joy that I arrived in G-town, free from my parents' suffocating grasp to hang out in this strange little town with my best friend. Thirteen years later it was the same – in some sense, at least.
Our first port of call was the Village Green, the centre of the festival. Nothing had changed. The same multi-tent system, still redolent with the smell of sawdust and Hare Krishna food, was in place under which were a myriad of stalls where people traded their clothes, crystals and didjeridoos, while others bought food and theatre tickets.
While we were puzzling over which shows to see, we heard the grating sounds of a chainsaw and turned around just in time to see a man, with said chainsaw, engaged in a skirmish with a hunchback and a giant. As we were about to find a closer position to get more out of the violence, the hunchback turned to the gathering crowd and in a raspy high pitched voice advertised his show (which turned out to be even crazier than it sounds). That burst the dam. Suddenly our space was flooded by actors trying to force us to see their shows with tactics ranging from simple persuasion to comical threats.
This lead us to Rumpsteak, a one-act, one-man play about a one-evening in a French restaurant, in which the actor became chef, barman, head waiter, and waitress and whose actions were perfectly synchronised with music and sound effects to masterfully bring the non-existent set to life. We saw Photographs of You, where the two actors donned masks, and used body language alone to tell the story of a man unable to let go of the magic of the past and accept the reality of age – brilliantly acted and complimented by an ingenious set that swivelled from frontal view of a living room to ceiling-view of a bed.
Then there was Brother Number, a whacky play about two brothers locked in a room in the Department of Home Affairs because they were the only ones with the special talents to create new identity numbers and barcodes for South Africans – I think a true story. That play featured Rob van Vuuren, of Corne and Twakkie fame, who bravely directed or produced 13 shows at this year's festival, and became the butt of his own jokes in his stand-up comedy show, Rob van Vuuren as Ron van Wuuren, which he ironically wrote in order to vent his frustrations and thereby cope with the burden of bringing 12 shows to Grahamstown.
The most magical aspect of the festival is the fact that everyone is joined by the same purpose. There's nothing weird about stopping someone in the street to ask their opinion about the best things to see or even joining someone sitting alone in a coffee shop because you feel like it.
Certainly, the best spot for this experience is The Long Table, which exists solely for the festival and is simply an old hall cum makeshift restaurant (with long tables, of course). Here, cold festival goers can find a hearty meal (at the end of the slowest queue in existence), a drink, and lots of conversation. After our first experience we were addicted and came back every night for more.
There are plays, music events, dance shows, exhibitions, movies, comedy acts, clown shows, beer tents, pubs, and night clubs; indeed, for a fortnight a year, Grahamstown is the point of confluence of all arts in South Africa. There is everything anyone could ask for. And wiry hair aside, that's why I could have as good a time in 2008 as I did in 1995.