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Canterbury Festival

 

History of the festival

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury has a long history of festivals, which dates back to the 1920s.

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 Philharmonia Orchestra.

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 formed.

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.'