FEATURE: Somerset's community arts fest celebrates its glorious centenary

Somerset County Gazette: THEO and Esme Daniell-Greenhalgh entered into 2013’s Strings Solo class. THEO and Esme Daniell-Greenhalgh entered into 2013’s Strings Solo class.

A FANTASTIC year of performing arts action – that was the dream of the Taunton and Somerset Music, Drama and Dance Festival for its landmark 100th birthday year, 2013.

Stoked by volunteer passion, with the community not just at its heart, but for its brain, lungs, and blood vessels to boot, the achievement was felt all the more.

What’s more, the dream came true. With a record number of entrants across the three key festival elements – Dance, in June, followed by Music and Drama in November, teamed with a concert programme that tested new waters for the Festival’s big 1-0-0.

“To have survived two World Wars and a recession, and totally dependent on volunteers, it’s remarkable,” says Brian Cresswell, the man affectionately dubbed “the visionary” by the team.

Capturing the ethos of the festival’s double-Golden anniversary reign, and its future, Brian says: “It’s not about putting on a concert – it’s a coming together of the community.”

Among its tenets: Shining a light on youngsters’ performance arts efforts – from music and drama to dance and speech; holding opportunity and encouragement above the cut-and-thrust of competition; and promoting creativity as an enjoyable, worthwhile experience in and of itself.

And what a confidence boost it has proved to be, says Mike Chapman, festival treasurer.

“My first contact with the festival was when my very young daughter, then the shiest person you could ever come across, was persuaded by her elocution teacher, Margaret Way (MBE), who was very involved with the festival. Margaret did a fantastic job, and my daughter became a different person as a result.”

Today, the festival seeks to provide something for the Taunton arts scene that “nobody else” will, says Brian.

“It didn’t strike me as that long ago when we had music, drama and arts advisors, provided by the Somerset County Council, who went into schools… now they’re all gone. In a way, the festival is trying to fill that gap of having vision… nobody else is going to do it.”

So just what does the county’s festival seek to ‘do’? To give Somerset’s performers, from the young to the young at heart, a chance to showcase their skills, entering into classes spanning piano, vocal and strings to woodwind, and ensemble playing in Music, and from verse speaking and public speaking, to mime and acting in the Drama.

Performance over, those who take part are then given constructive feedback by expert adjudicators, usually with vast teaching experience.

While there are the gleaming winners’ trophies for the taking, the emphasis here really is on “the taking part”.

For Brian, it was one performance in particular from this year’s showcase concert, that summed it up.

“There was a little girl of seven, who just stood on that platform, lifted her head, and sang Brahms’ ‘Lullaby’. Not only were you reduced to tears, you thought – this is what it’s all about.

“You’re always hopeful that when they grow up they will be positive about the arts.”

Festival veteran of 20 years, former teacher, Anne Cleves, similarly finds young people’s enthusiasm “invigorating”. “I didn’t realise how much I missed teaching until I came back into that atmosphere,” she says.

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