Focus on the Hilton Arts Festival

Sue Clarence, director of the must-do Hilton Arts Festival, now in its 25th year. Picture by Harry Locke.

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BILLY SUTER chats to Durban’s SUE CLARENCE, director of the Hilton Arts Festival at picturesque Hilton College, now in its 25th year as KwaZulu-Natal’s premier arts event.  Offering a feast of theatre, music, art, crafts, food and other fun, the festival runs from September 15 to 17.
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HOW MANY SHOWS HAVE BEEN SECURED FOR THE 2017 HILTON ARTS FESTIVAL – AND WHAT IS THE FLAGSHIP PRODUCTION THIS YEAR?

There are 23 shows confirmed so far, as well as five concerts and seven workshops/lectures. The balance of the programme will be finalised after the end of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown – one of the major “shopping baskets” for Hilton.

The flagship is not yet decided but will be done so in consultation with the major sponsor, Times Media, in the second half of July.

WHAT CRITERIA ARE USED TO SELECT THE ANNUAL FLAGSHIP PRODUCTION?

There are several criteria. It must be the best representation of SA theatre available. It must, preferably, be a South African script; and there must be patent evidence of excellent acting, direction and design (set, costume, lighting and sound) with top-quality production value.

WHAT ARE SOME PRODUCTION HIGHLIGHTS WE CAN EXPECT AT THIS YEAR’S EVENT?

Of the already confirmed, audiences should secure seats for the musival Hedwig and the Angry Inch (a scoop from Cape Town), starring Paul du Toit and Genna Galloway. The original production won a New York Tony Award and this one brings a slew of Fleur du Cap Awards with it.

Also not to be missed are the Lara Foot-directed, Baxter productions, Karoo Moose and The Inconvenience of Wings, both of which are multi-award-winning productions.

These three productions represent three different genres and are a prime example of what the festival strives to achieve as the leading arts event in KwaZulu-Natal.

Comedy lovers will not be disappointed by a wide variety of side-splitting stuff: John van deRuit and Ben Voss in Mamba Republic; three different standup shows headlined by John Vlismas; and the irrepressible 2017 version of Raiders – a show that has been a hit in Grahamstown for nearly 30 years.

Paul du Toit as the title character in the widely acclaimed, award-winning Hedwig and The Angry Inch – a highlight of September’s Hilton Arts Festival. Picture by Pat Bromilow-Downing.

Music lovers are well catered for as well. There are serious concerts in the Chapel; a tribute to the great-war time star, Vera Lynn in A Nightingale Sang; music revues; Ian von Memerty’s Keyboard Killers and a tribute to Paul Simon by The Black Lapels.

Smaller, more experimental theatre will be represented by a collective of managements and will include actors James Cairns and Tarryn Bennett, and work by Jenine Collocot, Tara Notcutt and Peter Mitchell.

Details have still to be finalised but shows include The Old Man and The Sea (remember The Snow Goose?), The Devil and Billy Markham, Making Mandela, After Dark and The Blue Period of Milton van de Spuy. Watch this space

WHO SELECTS SHOWS FOR THE FESTIVAL – IS IT ENTIRELY YOUR BABY? – AND WHAT THINGS ARE TAKEN INTO CONSIDERATION WHEN MAKING CHOICES?

Phew! Quite a complicated question. Over the quarter-century history of the festival I have developed a team of people who assist. I say team rather than committee as I believe that art cannot be committee driven.

see as much as I can in Johannesburg, Cape Town and in Grahamstown as well as, obviously, in KZN.

However, there are trusted people in all these centres who also view productions and report back to me. They are theatre lovers with an eye for quality and a knowledge of theatre and theatre history. They are not people with vested interest in any given production. Suggestions are made, discussions held, productions dissected….

Apart from quality there are several other factors taken into consideration when making the final selection.

Each production must represent quality within its own genre; slapdash, under-rehearsed work damages the industry as the public resents paying to see it.

As many genres as possible must be included, giving the audiences the widest possible selection

Sadly, budget plays an enormous role. In order to attract productions from other provinces they are paid a fee. The risk lies with the festival to sell the seats. I see this as a vital role for the festival: without it there would be extremely few productions that would ever cross the Drakensberg or the Fish River.

A major consideration is the technical aspect of productions. As there are no venues dedicated to a single production, a show requiring a four-day get-in is not a possibility.

Having said that, it has to be noted that without the sponsorship of Black Coffee and DWR, both of which provide staging, lighting, sound …and anything else I ask for … and a crack technical team headed by Michael Broderick, the festival in its current form would be impossible.

I HEAR THERE WILL BE CHANGES TO THE FOOD AND MUSIC ASPECTS OF THE FESTIVAL THIS YEAR. CAN YOU ELABORATE?

Indeed I can! The SAB Festival Marquee (commonly referred to as the Beer Tent) is highly popular and serves as a great hub of the festival. This will continue as normal with the bands that festinos love.

A section of the sprawling craft market at Hilton College during the annual Hilton Arts Festival.

However, the time has come for a quieter, more sedate spot with a “wine bar and jazz” feel. Jackie Cameron, whose food has become a sensation in its own right, has taken on the challenge.

The Bistro will be a fully licenced eatery with music that allows conversation, situated within the Crookes Block. For those not in the know, this is the courtyard that overlooks the Amphitheatre and the Chapel. It will be weather-proof, warm and friendly… and will offer a range of more select foods.

As far as buskers and informal music venues are concerned, a specific selection has been made, giving the youth a chance to perform.

There has been a selection process for which I thank Evan Roberts of Makulu Events for his expertise and guidance.  He has also been instrumental (!) in the selection of music in The Bistro.

This year marks the start of his involvement as the music advisor for the event. I thank Christopher Duigan for many years of fulfilling the same role.

THERE ARE ALSO TO BE SOME CHANGES IN THE ART SECTION THIS YEAR, I BELIEVE?

When the festival began, and for the first 15 years, visual art really took a back seat, and then began to grow in a somewhat haphazard way.  However, the  introduction of the Perspective Exhibition a few years ago put the visual arts onto a roll.

This year there will be approximately 70 artists taking part. In addition there will be a separate exhibition, curated by Allen Kupeta, a man who passionately fosters developmental artists.

Harry Locke’s ongoing photographic exhibition, Festival Portraits, will be worth a visit, as well as the Living Art demonstrations by Tony Durrheim and Grant Wood.

The biggest innovation this year will be the art in the main Centenary Centre (Grindrod Bank Theatre building). In the Normand Dunn Gallery there will be an exhibition entitled A Significant Life – Nelson Mandela. Photography is by Matthew Willman, who was commissioned by The Mandela Foundation for the last 10 years of Madiba’s life to document him. It will be accompanied by lectures.

In the Theatre Foyer, the Italian Embassy, in conjunction with the Dante Aligieri Association, will present an exhibition of Fellini drawings, accompanied by a screening.

World Press Photo will be in the Raymond Slater Library with an international exhibition of photo-journalism and visual storytelling, curated by David Larsen.

Finally, international auctioneers, Strauss & Co, will be running an online auction accompanied by an exhibition of some of the work being auctioned. This will be in The History Room.

WHAT RANGE OF OTHER ATTRACTIONS AND EVENTS CAN VISITORS LOOK FORWARD TO THIS YEAR?

Over and above the theatre, the music, the art, the movies, the lectures, the workshops …do not ever forget the wide range of quality craft and yummy food.

It is an ideal opportunity to do all your festive season shopping in advance. Wrap it all up and then gloat for three months.

Also, never forget the splendid views and magnificent setting the festival enjoys. On a fair weather day …and there are some!…. sit and relax in The Wild Garden, chill, chat to friends, soak up the cultural event of the year in KZN.

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO PEOPLE TO ENCOURAGE THEM TO ATTEND THE HILTON ARTS FESTIVAL?

For the people of KZN, it is the only annual event that brings together such a diverse range of theatre, art and music. With Durban rapidly and sadly becoming a theatre-free zone, if it were not for Hilton, life for passionate theatre goers would be pretty barren.

Art and crafts are everywhere during the Hilton Arts Festival.

Although not everybody will like everything they see, they can be assured that, within given genres, all productions are of the best currently available in SA.

This is unlike other festivals where there is no selection process for Fringe productions and many hours and much money can be spent shifting through amateur, unrehearsed rubbish.

At Hilton this has been done for the audience already. If watching shows is not your thing, remember that entrance to the grounds is free, it is a safe environment and there is plenty to do and see. There is also a lot of free entertainment.

Always remember that art is the soul of the nation. Help us nurture that soul!

THERE SEEMS TO BE A MISCONCEPTION AMONG SOME THAT HILTON COLLEGE MAKES A FORTUNE OUT OF THIS ANNUAL EVENT. CAN YOU EXPLAIN?

Thank you for asking this important question.  Hilton College is the host of the event and a very generous sponsor. The buildings and grounds are lent to the festival, rent free.

The event is a great marketing tool for the college, but not a source of  income. The festival has its own budget and aims to break even.  This includes covering its own salaries.

WHAT DO YOU SAY TO THOSE WHO MOAN THAT TICKET PRICES ARE SOMETIMES CONSIDERED TOO HIGH FOR THE FESTIVAL?

The tickets are expensive and it is an aim of the festival to reduce them. This can only be done through increased cash sponsorship. A rule of thumb to give you an idea: an extra R1.5 million a year would enable us to halve the ticket price.

Other festivals in the country have two distinct advantages over Hilton: they have the cash with which to underwrite the cost of the productions; and they have more days in which to have more performances and, therefore, sell more seats.

It must be remembered that, to attract top-flight productions, they are paid a fee. They are not at the festival at their own risk, but at the risk of the festival itself.

Although I sincerely wish tickets were cheaper, I am proud to say that for the third year in a row, the top price of R199 remains the same. We are hoping to drop some of the R170 seats to R150.

Any interested sponsors out there? Please shout loudly!

YOU HAVE BEEN INVOLVED WITH THE FESTIVAL SINCE INCEPTION – WHAT, FOR YOU, HAVE BEEN THE THREE MOST MEMORABLE PRODUCTIONS OVER THE YEARS?

The first year in itself was the most memorable. The idea was born late one night in Grahamstown, and in eight short weeks there were six productions performing twice each in the theatre.

At that first festivaala there was a beer tent and I made tea on the verandah – a kettle and polystyrene cups.

What was most memorable was that we sold out! Every single seat! This has never happened again. Take note, dear public, it is never sold out completely….

Memorable productions were the two in which Athol Fugard performed himself: Valley Song and The Captain’s Tiger. He was the most humble “star”, never making a fuss, complaining or wanting more than we could provide. When asked if he’d like to have lunch with the VIPs, he declined, saying he had brought his own “cheese sarmies in a brown paper bag”.

For the same reasons of humility and lack of hubris, Dame Janet Suzman was also a pleasure to host.

THERE MUST HAVE BEEN MANY CHALLENGES … THINGS THAT HAVE NOT GONE TO PLAN… OVER THE YEARS. WHAT ARE SOME FESTIVAL MOMENTS  YOU’D PREFER TO FORGET?

There certainly are… like the year Andrew Buckland arrived on the premises only five minutes before curtain-up. The bus had broken down in Umtata, he had hitched back to East London to fly, and had then missed the Hilton transport from Durban airport. He insisted on shaving before going on. We only went up five minutes late!

Inside The Chapel, one of the venues in the picturesque grounds of Hilton College during the Hilton Arts Festival.

Then there was the year that at 8pm on the Friday, with a full theatre for a dance programme (it was Free Flight), there was just no sound coming from the system which had worked a few minutes earlier in the soundcheck.

There was also the year the Israeli ambassador attended and we had to have the bomb squad inspect the property twice a day. T

Things that keep one on one’s toes…

DID YOUR RECENT THEATRE-BINGE TRIP TO LONDON AND NEW YORK HAVE ANY LINK TO THE FESTIVAL AT ALL?

I recently had the privilege of seeing 10 shows in three weeks in New York and London. Although this was entirely a private trip, it certainly put a lot of things in perspective regarding SA theatre and choices made for the Hilton Festival.

In both these places, productions have the luxury of try-outs in the provinces, often for months, before hitting the big-time spots. For this reason, productions are slick, production value high and, consequently, criticism intense.

I saw four musicals and six plays, one of which was a comedy, the rest serious. All were excellent. None of the ten was below par and it is impossible to rate them one against the other.

However, to An American in Paris (in London, having transferred from Broadway), is the closest thing to perfection I have ever seen on a stage.

If you find yourself watching a serious play (Oslo in NY or The Goat in London, for example) budget time to discuss with other audience members afterwards and, hopefully, recover you equilibrium.

A message to SA theatre folks… you are potentially just as good; aim high; avoid any form of amateurism; attention to production value detail is vital; never be under-rehearsed. KickstArt, The Fugard, The Baxter, The Market …take a bow!

WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS AND/OR CONCERNS FOR GROWING AND FUNDING THE HILTON ARTS FESTIVAL?

The festival is unlikely to grow in length of days ,or beyond the gates of Hilton College, as these two factors are part of its success: contained, time-wise and geographically.

I would love to grow the standard of excellence, be able to have at least one dedicated venue, introduce a jazz festival and develop the children’s theatre – they are the future.

In this regard I am extremely grateful for the newly forged partnership with Assitej, the international children’s theatre organisation. They now select and bring quality productions to Hilton. Please support them. Bring your little ones!

Regarding funding … it takes up 90% of my time. I will work ceaselessly to secure the future of this event and its place on the national theatre calendar.

WHERE AND WHEN WERE YOU BORN… AND WHAT THEATRE BACKGROUND DID YOU HAVE BEFORE YOUR INVOLVEMENT WITH THE HILTON ARTS FESTVAL?

I was born in Pretoria last millennium! I fell in love with the theatre aged six,  when I went to see My Fair Lady in Johannesburg. All I remember is that it was very cold, the box of chocolates was lined with velvet and there was a thing called a “revolve” on the stage. But the magic was REAL and it has lasted to this day.

I was fortunate at school to be taught by Elizabeth Hamilton of SABC fame. She and Guy Butler, whose brainchild the Grahamstown festival is and under whom I studied at Rhodes, before becoming close friends, are the two strongest influences in my life.

I studied drama at Rhodes University and then worked briefly for Napac, writing educational programmes, and for Theatre for Africa before beginning my own business and the Hilton Arts Festival.  I also taught A-Level English Literature in England for several years.

YOU ARE A SHOW PRODUCER, MOST NOTABLY OF THE ANNUAL NAUGHTY PANTO IN DURBAN. WHY DID DURBAN NOT HAVE A NAUGHTY PANTO LAST YEAR – AND IS THERE A CHANCE OF GETTING ONE THIS YEAR?

I loved being the producer of the adult panto. Its success lay in its appeal to the corporate festive season market (thank you, Ailsa Windsor!) and the fact that, although it appeared to be dangerously under-rehearsed, it was in fact highly rehearsed (thank you many years of cast and directors).

Art on display at the Hilton Arts Festival.

It was an extremely hands-on job as I never had an up-and-running venue to perform it. I had to create a venue (thank you, Megan Levy) and be its staff.

Once there was no longer a venue available to make it financially worthwhile for me, I decided to hang up my boa and stilettoes.

I explained to the cast and the incredible technical team (remember here, that “get-in week” meant creating a theatre, not only having technical rehearsals) that the straw breaking the camel’s back was the producer and that the concept was viable without a producer. Thomie Holtzhausen ran with it last year at his Stamford Hill venue and will again this year. Support him, please!

WHAT FIVE WORDS BEST DESCRIBE YOU?

This depends who you ask!  I have been told I am an intellectual snob, a world expert at being passive aggressive, and intolerant of second-rate effort. I do not deny.

However, I am also passionate about causes I believe in, people I love – my family and friends in particular. I most often put others’ interests, comforts and needs before my own.

WHAT ARE SOME THINGS ON YOUR BUCKET LIST?

To visit more places of natural beauty in South Africa and spend more time in game reserves. To spend time in Italy and France To visit London annually – it feeds my soul. To study the history of art. To nurture family and friends.

WHAT ARE FIVE THINGS ABOUT YOURSELF (HOWEVER TRIVIAL) THAT PEOPLE ARE UNLIKELY TO KNOW?

NOTHING is more important than my cats. I detest people who are cruel to animals. I am claustrophobic. Ballet is my favourite thing to watch on stage

Also, I am terrified of dentists. When I was compelled to see one in 2012 I had to admit to her that my previous visit had been in 1974.

Craft section at the Hilton Arts Festival, now in its 25th year.

YOUR MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT IN THE PUBLIC EYE?

It takes a great deal to embarrass me – the older I get the harder it is! I did once … in 1993 when The Royal was still The Royal… knock a pot of steaming-hot coffee all over a very elegant lady, sitting in a pristine white suit, in The Royal Hotel Coffee Shop. I was with Ellis Pearson who was full of tomato sauce (aka blood) an dwe had a da- old chick running around on the carpet. All in the name of art…

 

THE MOST FAMOUS PERSON YOU HAVE MET – AND WHO WOULD YOU GIVE GOLD TO MEET?

In August 1993 I was involved in a production of KwaManzi that performed at Balmoral Castle in Scotland by invitation of HM Queen Elizabeth II. She attended with 16 other members of the royal family, all of whom attended a meet-and-greet, informal supper with us afterwards. But that’s another story.

I would give gold to meet Dame Maggie Smith and Barack Obama.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR YEAR SO FAR?

Seeing Bette Midler in Hello Dolly! on Broadway.

WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE ENSCRIBED ON YOUR TOMBSTONE?

Here lies Sue Clarence. She never, for a single solitary second, even wondered what cricket and rugby were.


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