SMOKE: Grahamstown Gems

Originally published: 30 July 2003

The Grahamstown Festivals of the early nineties hold a very special place in my memory and heart.

I attended four festivals in a row (and either wrote, directed, or acted in six productions over that time), from 1991-1994, and I had never been to the festival before, nor have I been back since.

So it was a complete slice of life that is particular to a time and place in my life, and despite the fact that I never had money when I went, and was always toiling away on some production, my memories of that time are some of the best from my student days.

It's kinda like a song that you always remember in relation to a specific time in your life, and my sorties to Grahamstown were probably the most significant period of my young adult life.

I entered drama school at UCT in 1991, in my first year out of school, with the burning desire to be an actor/entertainer of sorts. It was a whole new world for me, filled with all sorts of mind-opening experiences, realisations and alcohol.

I was able to seriously express myself and while my expression took the form of behaviour that was not appreciated by the drama school authorities, it was the definitive period of my life, which determined the path I was going to follow.

In my first year I went to the festival with a one-woman show called Belle Bobo - a third-year student was on a trip about her realisations of her sexuality and becoming a woman. I was playing music in the show.

That first trip was pretty much my first "free" period away from home, in a Woodstock-like, carnival atmosphere where people roamed the streets until sunrise, and it was a magical place.

I didn't have money, so I did very little, but some of my drama school buddies were working on other productions and I linked up with them, bumming as much alcohol and cigarettes as I could.

The best part of it was the permanently pissed haze - you would go up to the Monument at ten in the morning and hang around in the foyer, lounging on the floor in the sun and drinking up a storm.

By nightfall you would be pasted but would somehow find a way to keep going until the early hours of the next morning, flitting from venue to venue.

I don't remember much about that first trip, as it all passed by in a blur, but apart from the bog-standard waking up in the High Street gutter not knowing how the hell you got there, and the incessant hiking, it was a reasonably incident-free experience.

In later years that all changed, and all sorts of peculiar situations seemed to arrive whenever I went there.

In 1993 I took the first show I had ever written - a blues musical called Dillinger - to the festival, with a biggish cast and a bag-full of groupies, roadies and general hangers-on, and I have no idea how I survived that festival.

I was staying in a house with 20 other people, and my cast members were a particularly volatile bunch (one was Alex Ferns, who went on to become a serious villain in EastEnders and a major UK star, and another was Adriaan Brand, who later went on to help form the Springbok Nude Girls).

As a result I was trying to juggle my responsibilities to the production (which included pitching up to performances on time and sober, two things that never happened), and cope with the hedonism of our lifestyle.

Our first show was in some Girls High School gymnasium and it played to about 20 people. A good review came out the next day in festival newspaper Cue, and the following night there was a long queue to get in.

We were setting up for the show and discovered that our amplifier wasn't working (someone had done some deal with some shady character to get it, and it wasn't exactly state of the art equipment).

No matter what we tried the amplifier would not work and I had to go outside and explain to a crowd of impatient people that the show had to be cancelled. People were not happy and refunds were changing hands at a rate of knots. Somehow I escaped the fray and went back inside.

I was just in time to see Alex give the amp an almighty whack with a stick out of frustration, and of course it suddenly started working again.

I rushed outside to call everyone back, but it was too late - they had all slunk off into the darkness and my calls echoed around the deserted schoolyard and faded into the night.

The following night the amp was working fine, but midway through the show the set collapsed on the heads of the actors, revealing the band hiding behind, and the audience was treated to the sight of desperate musicians trying to either run and hide, or lift the set back up.

We eventually got it back up, but by then the illusion of a small, Mexican desert bar had been dashed forever.

In between the fun and games of the show we were spending every available spare hour pissed out of our heads. A vivid memory was of Alex running down the road in only his underpants, carrying a stereo cassette deck that was belting out Give It Away Now by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, screaming hysterically with laughter.

Ten minutes before a show that he was starring in was supposed to start.

It was also the festival in which I was attacked by a mad Mama - if you didn't read that story, catch it here.

The following year (the last year I went to Grahamstown) was definitely my weirdest - I took my second musical, Insane, to the festival, and performed in two other shows at the same time, and the whole experience was a blur of surrealism.

All three shows I was doing were very dark - Insane was about a house full of serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and Ed Gein, and the music was pretty twisted; Psychodelic Cowboy And Sister Nun (a Graham Weir creation) was a South African road trip into the bowels of drug land; and Cowboy Mouth is a frenetic Sam Shepard piece, about a loser rock star.

It was all seriously hardcore stuff, and the accompanying behaviour no less so.

One night I found myself in the room of James Phillips (eighties children may remember his band, the Cherry-Faced Lurchers) - he had heard me playing guitar in the room next to him, and came over to invite me and my mate (TV star Terence Bridgett) to come have a doob with him, and jam a little.

There I was - stoned and pissed off my face - playing guitar with an eighties punk icon, while Terence sat on the dresser going: "No man, ah no man", over and over again.

I never saw James again and the following year he was killed in a car accident on his way to perform at the festival.

But my whole Grahamstown experience that year was filled with weird little scenarios like that - disjointed, surreal moments, when time froze for a few hours and the fringes of reality were very, very blurred.

I haven't been back to the festival again, and I don't think I want to. All reports in recent years say that it has become much more sterile, with fewer productions and less tolerance to outrageous behaviour, and I think I like it where it is - safely stored in my memory, to be revisited in a fashion of my choosing.

But I do have moments when I wish I could turn the clock back and have me some more of that.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
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