By BRUCE DENNILL
Joseph Gerassi, Executive Head of Redhill School, is a man who believes in the value of art in education. Four years ago, he came up with the idea of RedFest, an arts festival hosted by the school, and an event that continues to grow and gain traction. This year, the festival takes place on 4 and 5 October (see the programme here), and tickets are available now.
Why is such an event important for non-artists, and what’s involved in convincing them of that fact?
I’ve always been involved in the arts. I’ve seen what it’s done for people – students included – and their confidence. The festival also allows for the development of an important voice for what is happening in society. At our school, one of the things we teach is the importance of having a voice, and how to have one.
This event gives a voice to our students in so many ways. Art is a form of protest, change and reflection, of debate and showing a mirror to society. It teaches kids how to be able to change and of the value of being critical and thinking creatively. It’s a vehicle to look critically at the world around us – a festival like this and education go hand in hand.
What, specifically, are you hoping students and audiences will learn?
The show Born Naked deals with issues of gender fluidity, while Brutal Legacy has rape as one of its themes. Strange Land is the story of Dimitri Tsafendas, the man who killed Hendrik Verwoerd – telling a different history of South Africa. Young people need to express how they feel about these issues, and where they want to go from here.
Much of mainstream theatre is musicals and comedies, which are wonderful, but don’t necessarily reflect us as a nation. Community building through experience is so important. We’ve stopped that in some ways. In more difficult times, hardships have often provided a shared focus, and we can work through things together here.
We’re moving beyond just the plays and productions as well with an African scholars’ programme. On the Friday of Redfest, we’ve invited a number of arts practitioners to talk about arts and its importance, and we’d want to extend that to other schools. Performers will also talk to the kids to give them context for the shows.
And on the Saturday, we want to get our community onto the campus all day with activities beyond the play – we haven’t had enough of that before. It’s a big ask to get people to connect with heavy themes, but if we can do that and then go outside and listen to music or browse some food stalls. We’re also aware that we need to entice young people onto the campus with what speaks to them, offering theatre as something they can look at as part of a bigger experience. We need to grow theatre at and from school level.
The next step is to see if we can for relationships with the Hilton Festival, to see if those productions can come here and vice versa. Schools – here at least – are still seen as safe spaces, where people are happy to see productions as they move around.
There is also the wonderful opportunity for young people to put something on here, produced by Redhill, which is valuable for any creator. And there are lessons about a whole world they can go into after school – art, music, theatre and film.
What role do those who are neither students nor audiences play – school parents, say, or the professionals who present or assist with work during the event?
We’re making progress with the parents. It takes time for people to understand what Redfest is – that they’re not coming here to see house plays!
The impact of having industry professionals involved -in marketing terms, anyway – is not what it should be yet. Sometimes there seems to be a feeling that the school needs to do most of the work in mounting a production, which is not the case. We need people to work harder on that aspect – to be the writer, director and publicist of the show they want to put on.
The risk is all on us – we pay for the lights, sound and all the rest. As the festival becomes larger and longer, these artists will be able to have longer runs and make more money from the platform.
It’d also be good to have a production each from institutions nearby – from Wits, UJ, the Market Theatre and Theatre On the Square, for instance.
How do you make that sort of growth happen – and how necessary is that growth to make a strong statement about being a viable concern?
In Johannesburg, finding sponsors for sports events seems to be easy enough, but there is no critical thinking aspect involved there. A sponsor would allow a festival like this to really find its feet and get behind real issues.
So bedding down a sponsor is the first big deal. We don’t need a huge amount. And we know that Redhill is a private school, so people will believe we have all we need. But the school is not where a sponsor’s money would go. They’d be putting money into the arts – helping to keep ticket prices down and to allow more productions to be put on.
The festival’s growing legacy should hopefully help in this regard?
It should. We’re trying to take kids on a voyage of self-discovery via characters that are not bubblegum or superficial. I hope that, ultimately, all Redhill students will become supporters of the arts, at least in part thanks to their exposure to it and its entrenched values. We have alumni like Lesedi Job and Helena Kriel coming back, showing that success in this field is possible.
Here, relevance is revealed in person – people watch sport and films on TV, but they get taken to the theatre.