Canterbury has a long history of festivals, which dates back to
In 1929, the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, George Bell
established the first Festival, which was closely linked with the
newly formed Friends of Canterbury Cathedral organisation.
Over the next ten years, the Canterbury Festival continued to
flourish with plays commissioned from John Masefield, Laurence
Binyon, Dorothy Sayers, Christopher Fry and notably T.S. Eliot in
1935 with Murder in the Cathedral.
After the interruption of the 1939-45 war years, the Festival
retained its connections with the Cathedral and in 1970, with the
anniversary of Thomas Becket's martyrdom, the Dean and Chapter and
the City Council worked together for the first time to create a
Canterbury Festival. The true renaissance of the Festival came in
1984 when the Canterbury Theatre and Festival Trust campaigned to
build a new theatre and it was decided to hold the first Festival
to co-incide with its opening.
The newly revamped Festival featured all art forms - music,
drama, dance, cinema, literature and visual arts. It lasted for
three weeks and the theme for 1984 was British Art. Highlights
included a performance of Tippett's King Priam by Kent
Opera at the Marlowe Theatre in the presence of the composer
himself; a specially commissioned schools' opera based on the tale
of Dr Syn; Ballet Rambert; Alan Howard in War Music based
on Homer's Iliad and a performance by the Julian Bream
Consort. Also in the 1984, a young Nigel Kennedy appeared with the
Festivals in the rest of the 80s brought such personalities as
Jonathan Miller, V.S. Pritchett, Fay Weldon, Alan Bennett, Richard
Stilgoe and Judi Dench to East Kent.
The 1993 Festival highlighted the 400th anniversary of the death
of Christopher Marlowe, one of Canterbury's most famous and
infamous sons, with a programme full of variations on the theme of
Faust, including a play by Graham Clarke written specially for the
occasion and a performance of Berlioz' The Damnation of
Faust by Canterbury Choral Society. Throughout the 1990s the
Festival continued its commitment to high quality programming as
well as continuing to broaden its appeal.
In 2004 the Festival adopted the title Kent's International Arts
Festival and began to develop relationships with some of its
European neighbours. A celebration of Hungarian culture culminated
in a concert in the Cathedral in the presence of the President of
Hungary when Budapest's Tomkins Choir joined Canterbury Choral
Society in a programme of Magyar Magic. In 2005 the Festival hosted
the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the following
year in a global line up, artists of seventeen different
nationalities were represented.
Also in 2006 the Festival produced its largest commission to
date - Promised Land, a community opera. Set against a
story of the Kent coalmines, and the hops industry, this engaged
120 members of the community for well over a year in its
preparation. The Arts Council said that the production set a new
benchmark for community arts - and a legacy company of participants
(the Really Promising Company) continues to produce new musical
theatre to this day.
From 2007 onwards the Festival began to explore theatre making
in unusual locations. Drive By (a play about young joy
riders) took place in a carpark in Margate, while legendary theatre
company Footsbarn pitched their tent in a beautiful Canterbury
meadow and performed A Midsummer Nights Dream to over one
thousand people. By far the most ambitious project was the
commissioning and producing of Dallas Sweetman by
Sebastian Barry in the nave of Canterbury Cathedral - thus reviving
the tradition of cathedral-based drama from which the Festival was
At the same time as writing the Cathedral play, Barry was
shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Coincidentally the Festival
increased its focus all on things literary, and set up a number of
Book Groups to announce Booker - The Canterbury Verdict.
In 2009 the Festival was asked by Canterbury City Council to
take responsibility for the continuing development of creative
writing and live literature events in the district. Under the title
of The Canterbury Laureate, an exciting year-round programme was
implemented to meet this challenge.
Building on the success of both the Community Opera and the
Cathedral Play, in partnership with Arts Council England and MCMC
Arts, the Festival is producing BLINK, a
major event staged in Margate on 27 August 2011. It is hoped to
follow this with another spectacular outdoor project in 2013.
In 2010 the Festival signed a new 5 year sponsorship with
Canterbury Christ Church University which will involve the Festival
with students, staff and the Governing Body to cement Christ
Church's already strong arts reputation in the county. Part of the
sponsorship is the smart fit-for-purpose Festival Office in Orange
Street, Canterbury - which at last offers the organisation premises
commensurate with its professionalism and ambition.
Festival Director Rosie Turner says, 'Canterbury Festival has a
very distinguished history. It's our job to ensure that its
greatest success is still to come.'