Tunbridge Wells has got talent

Islay O'Hara

Jackie MacNay, of the Tunbridge Wells Arts Festival, encourages aspiring performers of all ages to step into the spotlight

Tell us about the Tunbridge Wells Arts Festival
The event has been running for over 65 years now. It started in 1938 and it’s been an annual event since then, taking place in March. The festival used to feature dance, although it now just has music, speech and drama classes. It used to run over two weeks, although these days it’s one week. The idea is basically to encourage, support and open doors for children in particular to enjoy the arts, although the festival is for all ages really. We get adjudicators from all over the world, who are absolutely brilliant. But although the participants get mark sheets and are awarded first, second and third, we don’t like to make them feel that they’re not as good as the next performer. Some of them need a little bit more encouragement, but it’s always a very interesting festival.

For the last three or four years it’s been held at Kent College, Pembury, and they’ve been wonderful, so we’re hoping to continue there.

What’s your role at the festival?
I’ve been involved for about ten years now and my husband Bill has been doing it even longer, for about 12 years. To start with, my role was as an administrator and it evolved from there. I take care of the food, help with the website and in the past I’ve done some event co-ordination when necessary, if we’ve been short-staffed. Bill takes care of the finance side and will stand in on the day as a door steward, for example, if required.

I’m temporarily acting as the speech and drama advisor. When we start organising the festival, I will find someone to help me write the syllabus and choose the books, verse or other materials that we need, appropriate to the particular age group concerned. Then I’ll send the syllabus out to schools and parents and encourage people to enter. When the entry forms come back, the information will be entered into the programme.

What sort of people enter?
Last year we had a four-year-old girl who entered the speech and drama class, with her five-and-a-half-year-old sister, and she won. She performed one of the poems and was extraordinary, earning a very high mark. There was no fright whatsoever. A few years ago, we had a singer entering who was 83. She’s sadly died, but she used to take part year after year. Parents and grandparents can enter too, as the festival is open to people of any age.

We also have non-competitive classes because a lot of people don’t like the pressure of competing. Last year my husband and another committee member joined in the non-competitive adults section and it was hilarious – they had a quartet with fantastic instruments and they were laughing so much, they couldn’t play. One of the adjudicators was almost in tears. It was such good fun at the end of the festival.

After the festival, we have a gems concert, featuring people who haven’t necessarily won; they’re just a selection of great entrants from music, speech and drama. At the end the trophies that the children have won are handed out and we usually have the Mayor or their assistant there, who will choose the piece or act that they particularly enjoyed. It’s always a really good night.

Is it important to get local children involved in the arts?
Definitely, because we need to encourage them and show them that they’re quite capable of performing. We tell them to do what they feel, listen to their teacher and adjudicator, and really be themselves. It’s absolutely amazing to see what they can do and the way their eyes light up.

For some reason, our entry numbers have gone down in recent years, but people come from all over to take part; they don’t have to live in Tunbridge Wells. A few years ago, a young pianist came here to play when he was about 13, and now he’s in London, performing with one of the top pianists. Some of the kids really are extraordinary.

How is the festival funded?
We’re a charity and the money comes from two main sources. The first is the entry fee for the classes, with a set price for each. The other is people buying programmes and paying to enter to watch the festival. The audiences tend to be mostly parents and grandparents of the performers. We also try to offer advertising in the programme, but it’s proving difficult to find someone to run that, and the people who used to regularly advertise have stopped now.

What about staffing?
We rely completely on volunteers. Including the committee, we have about ten or 12 people helping at the moment. Often I just ask people if they’d like to help and they do. But it’s getting more difficult because mums and dads are working, and at weekends children tend to have clubs or sports activities, or they’d rather go out for the day.

Is finding volunteers your biggest challenge?
Yes, and getting more people to enter the festival. We used to have arts teachers who would bring a lot of entries to us, but that’s gone down over the last few years. There are so many other demands on teachers’ time in other respects, unfortunately.

What are your ambitions for the festival in the future?
Personally, I would love to see it grow and have more people entering, particularly children. I think young people especially learn a lot; they learn to be themselves and show what they can do without feeling silly. When we’re young children, we act this and play that, and the arts keep the imagination going. It’s the teachers that we have to thank as well, because their support is fantastic. The festival is going well, but I’d like to see it grow.

For more information on entering or volunteering at the Tunbridge Wells Arts Festival, please visit www.twaf.org.uk

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