The annual National Arts Festival goes virtual amid corona crisis

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National Arts Festival CEO, Monica Newton (Photo: Robyn Davie)

Amid the current coronavirus pandemic, prohibiting gatherings and forcing South Africans to stay put at home, many arts festivals have had to cancel their events. The organisers of the annual National Arts Festival, set to take place from June to July, however, decided that cancelling the festival was not an option, and have instead decided to turn the festival virtual.

Thus, the 2020 National Arts Festival will go down in our history as the first ever South African virtual festival, taking place from 25 June to 5 July.

Sirqus Alphonse at the 2019 National Arts Festival (Photo: Mark Wessels)

According to festival management, going virtual means the festival can continue to support artists and the arts in 2020 by presenting work within a digital space. In a press release, the festival management stated that artists depend on festivals to “generate an income through selling tickets, getting their work seen and talked about locally and internationally, and networking with their peers”.

Therefore, they decided, rather than cancelling the festival, to “create a new opportunity for artists and audiences alike to celebrate the arts, and to create an accessible platform for artists to share their work”.

Festival CEO, Monica Newton, appointed at the beginning of 2020, sheds more light on how they plan to make this virtual festival a reality.

Monica, because of the current coronavirus crisis, the National Arts Festival management has decided to take the festival online – why did you decide to do this?

The festival plays a very important role in the South African arts ecosystem. It is as much a concentrated performance space for the talents of this country as it is a place where producers, artists, theatre owners and media come together to network and extend the life of creative work in this country. Very importantly, it is also an opportunity for artists to make money.

In light of the devastating cancellations of work as a result of the Covid-19 restrictions, we felt that we needed to soldier on and, in the process, do something new and exciting for both the festival and the arts in South Africa. Fortunately, our window of time allowed us to divert our planning, and so we are working extremely hard in this brave new world to create something we feel audiences will love.

Unfathomable at the National Arts Festival (Photo: Mark Wessels)

This is quite a new concept – how will it work practically? What ideas do you have in mind to make this virtual festival a reality?

We will continue to play the same role we always have, that of platform and curator. The festival will be housed on our website, where you will be able to check in and see what is on offer. There will be a daily programme running for the full duration of what would have been the live festival (25 June–5 July), and each day will feature a mix of elements both free and behind a paywall.

We intend to offer packages for audiences so they can attend more than one show. Part of the programme will be talks and workshops, just like at the normal festival, and there will be a combination of live and pre-recorded elements. Behind the scenes, what you see will be running on various platforms (YouTube, webinar, social media), but it can all be accessed via the VNAF web portal.

Amy Jephta in All Who Pass (Photo: Mark Wessels)

Will the whole festival programme be virtual, or only some of the shows?

Yes, at this point, the whole festival is virtual. We had to make this decision early in order for artists to prepare their work.

Will shows be live or pre-recorded?

There will be a combination of both. We will also need to see what we can work with in terms of restriction on movement. As the freedom to make work improves, so will our ability to make work across a number of formats and ranges.

A scene from DEURnis/Uzwelo (Photo: Mark Wessels)

How will festivalgoers be able to experience this year’s festival? Will they pay to view a show, or pay for a festival ticket?

Festivalgoers will be able to buy passes to see a collection of works. These will be affordable and easy to transact. There will be free elements to the programme, though. 

Jemma Kahn in Cellist with Rabies (Photo: Mark Wessels)

What can festivalgoers expect from this year’s festival, and what highlights can they look forward to?

We think it will be a really interesting festival; our artists are exceptionally creative and adaptable. Our featured artist, Madosini, will be celebrated on film and in some exciting workshops; the Standard Bank Young Artists will be presenting some innovative work; and we will have some great new and original pieces from other artists. We also hope to see more work from the African continent and abroad, which will be really exciting.


Monica Newton was previously head of the Gauteng Department of Sport, Arts, Culture and Recreation, and before that was deputy director-general: arts and culture promotion and development at the national Department of Arts and Culture. Prior to this, she was CEO of the National Arts Council, a statutory body reporting to the Department of Arts and Culture and established to support and develop the arts in South Africa.

  • For more information, visit the National Arts Festival’s website.
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