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.
Over the next ten years, the Canterbury Festival flourished 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 the Dean and Chapter and the City Council worked together for the first time to create a civic Canterbury Festival. The Festival in its current form came into being in1984 when the Canterbury Theatre and Festival Trust campaigned to build a new theatre (the “old” Marlowe Theatre) and it was decided to hold a Festival to coincide with its opening. Substantially refurbished in 2012 the “new” Marlowe Theatre remains an important Festival venue.
The Festival programme had a strong classical and choral bias under the inspired leadership of Festival Director and musician Mark Deller. Gradually over the late 80s and into the 90s its content broadened into a balance of national and local performers, and formal concerts with light entertainment in the Festival Club. A wide base of support was developed through the growth of the Festival Friends, Vice Presidents and host of corporate sponsors – many of whom still remain loyal. The Festival developed valuable links with the Arts Council, Kent County Council and Canterbury City Council, and began to reflect the priorities of these important funders in its activity.
In 2003 Rosie Turner succeeded Mark Deller as Festival Director, With a background in international and community arts and arts education in Northern Ireland , Rosie set about overhauling the position of the Festival, increasing its full time staff and taking its turnover to more than £750,000.
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.
In 2010 the Festival signed a new 5 year sponsorship with Canterbury Christ Church University which involved 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 centred on a new Festival Office in Orange Street, which the University purchased and granted to the Festival on a peppercorn rent. Three years later a Festival Foundation fundraising drive assisted by a Small Capital Grant from the Arts Council enabled the Festival to take ownership of the refurbished, environmentally friendly and accessible headquarters – a move which secured a rent and mortgage free future for the organisation.
Seeking to further expand its artistic output and to increase its fundraising capacity, the Festival was delighted in 2013 to receive ACE Catalyst support to enable it to bring a Spiegeltent to Canterbury for the first time. This glamorous temporary venue (an original travelling mirrored tent from the 1920s) immediately became a firm favourite with audiences and offered an evocative home for new art forms including circus, cabaret and family-friendly shows. Over 60% of audiences at the Spiegeltent were new to the Festival and over the next few years it became established at the heart of the programme.
Now a year-round organisation with a full time staff of seven, the Festival’s main focus remains its international programme of two hundred events each autumn however barely a month goes by without either a fundraising event or a ground-breaking community project. The Festival promotes international events occasionally at other times of the year to maintain its profile and to capitalise on the availability of touring artists. When not engaged in mounting performances the team keeps busy applying for funding, hosting student placements, supporting other smaller arts organisations in Kent and planning ever more exciting events for future festivals.