Fringe interview: playwright Lara Foot on South Africa’s fringe festivals

South African playwright Lara Foot, who has three plays on stage in Edinburgh this August.
South African playwright Lara Foot, who has three plays on stage in Edinburgh this August.
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Promoted by the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In a regular series of interviews to mark World Fringe Day, acts performing at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe share their experiences of other fringes around the world. This week: playwright, director and producer Lara Foot on the fringe scene in her native South Africa

Irvine Welsh is doing it. Zinnie Harris is doing it. So too is Lara Foot. They are an elite group of writers who have not just one but three plays on stage in Edinburgh this August. “It’s a huge privilege for me to be in that situation,” says Foot, a South African playwright, director and producer. And it wouldn’t have happened, she says, were it not for another festival. “I was the featured artist at the Grahamstown arts festival last year. The criteria for that was that I would present one new work and two former works. Because they were put on at the same time, it means they’re all ready to tour.”

Having just finished its ten-day programme for another year, the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown is the major event of its kind in South Africa, with both a main programme and a fringe festival, both administered by the National Arts Festival Office. Foot reckons she must have been 25 times since its foundation in 1974 and regards her attendance as a central pillar of her work. “It has a massive fringe festival and it’s where we all cut our teeth as directors, artists and producers and where we learnt our craft in terms of getting things done and getting seen and noticed,” she says. “It’s hugely significant here.”

Look out, then, this August, for The Inconvenience of Wings, her latest play, about a woman with a bipolar disorder; Karoo Moose, a magical realist tale of a village girl who kills a wild animal more familiar to northern climes; and Tshepang, a harrowing story of child rape.

Her work doesn’t end there, however. As the director of the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town, Foot is bringing three further productions to the Edinburgh Fringe. In addition to Yael Farber’s stunning Mies Julie, which reimagines Strindberg’s Miss Julie in post-apartheid South Africa, she is overseeing the transfer of The Fall, about anti-colonial student demonstrations, and Tobacco, based on a Chekhov short story.

It’s a long way to come with six productions, but Foot knows from experience that a successful festival run can lead to offers from all over the world. “Firstly, you want to be part of world thinking, understanding and connectivity,” she says, recalling that in her 20s she also took six productions to the Grahamstown Fringe. “You also know there’s the possibility of being picked up and starting an international tour, which we’ve done – most famously with Mies Julie which has toured internationally for the last four years.”

Just as she hopes the Baxter Theatre productions will be spotted by international producers visiting Scotland, so she attends similar festivals with a view to discovering new talent for herself. “As the artistic director, I always want to see what’s on at the Fringe, because you’re going to find a gem there,” she says. “There’s going to be something that is different in style and content, or an emerging artist amongst those 1,000 productions that you want to invite to your theatre.”

As well as the National Arts Festival and its fringe, South Africa is home to the Cape Town Fringe Festival (22 September-8 October 2017), a new kid on the block with an emphasis on local productions. “That’s quite a new festival and it’s much smaller,” says Foot. “Most of the work comes from the Grahamstown Festival – maybe ten or 15 of those works come to the Cape Town Festival along with other work from Cape Town.”

Of course, festivals are just as much fun for audiences, the opportunity to see shows in a concentrated period generating a special excitement. “The conversations about which company is putting out the best work are wonderful,” says Foot. “And what’s so exciting for us going to Edinburgh is you meet artists from various countries – on my first trip I saw a play from Poland and was completely blown away because I’d never seen something like that.”

*Karoo Moose – No Fathers is at Assembly George Square Studios, Edinburgh, 3–27 August; The Inconvenience of Wings, Assembly George Square Studios, Edinburgh, 3–27 August; Tshepang, Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh, 3–27 August, www.edfringe.com

*The Edinburgh Festival Fringe was the world’s first Fringe back in 1947. Seventy years later, there are now more than 200 Fringes worldwide. World Fringe Day, on 11 July, marks 70 years since the birth of the Fringe concept, www.worldfringeday.com