FEATURE: Appeal for help as Sudbury Festival of Performing Arts faces battle for survival
The Sudbury Festival of Performing Arts – which every year gives hundreds of young musicians, dancers and actors the chance to perform and compete – is facing a battle to survive.
Two of its three sections have been cancelled for next year. Dance, the most popular category, will be missing. So will the speech and drama classes.
A shortage of organisers has left the remaining committee members struggling to cope. Only the music section will be held in 2020.
Unless more volunteers come forward the festival, with almost 100 years of history behind it, might be unable to carry on.
Chairman Joan Garden, who with her husband Graeme has been involved for over 40 years, described what had happened as heartbreaking. But while they acknowledge the situation is serious they hope the festival will return to normal in 2021.
The crisis came to a head after several long-time stalwarts, including those who ran dance, and speech and drama, retired or stood down.
Organisation of next year’s pared-down festival will be led by Joan, treasurer Julie Penney, general secretary Isabel Hebden, and new recruit Sue Ayres – ex-Mayor of Sudbury.
Those who run the event describe the joy of watching young performers sing, play, dance and act their hearts out.
They talk with pride of former competitors who have gone on to stardom including Royal Ballet principal character artist Gary Avis, and West End star Kerry Ellis.
The festival is spread over three weeks in March. Most entrants are school age, but there are also adult classes.
Numerous volunteers help out while the event is on. But putting it all together is a year-round job. Adjudicators and venues must be booked, syllabuses planned, entries collated, programmes arranged, and finances sorted.
“We finish one festival and within a few weeks we’re working for the next one,” said Joan.
The event began as the Clare Festival in 1923 and apart from a short break during the war has been held every year since. Clare Competitive Association, which started it, was formed in 1922.
Driving force was Betty Proby - wife of Major Richard Proby MC, a farmer from Hundon who was later made a baronet.
Betty gathered a team of musicians who brought together choirs from around the area to compete.
Lady May, the last private occupant of Clare Priory who died in 1945, was the organisation’s first president.
Alice Wayman, who had studied music and played the organ in Cavendish church, was also involved from the start. Mabel Ryder, mother of charity founder Sue Ryder, became chairman after Mrs Proby moved away.
At first the festival was one day with church and school choirs competing and some piano classes.
After the war instrumental ensembles were added and it grew to three days. School orchestras and solo instrumental classes came later.
Clare primary school head Tom Wells and his wife Joy were chief organisers in the 1950s and ‘60s. A committee was formed in 1973 to ensure it carried on as they got older.
Speech classes were added along the way, and dance first appeared in 1978. By the late 1970s the festival had outgrown its venues and moved to Sudbury – also a more central location – becoming the Clare and Sudbury Festival.
In 1987 it was re-named the Sudbury Festival of Music, Speech and Dance, then in 2010 the Sudbury Festival of Performing Arts.
“It grew during the 1980s and ‘90s,” said Isabel, who has been involved for more than 40 years.
“Young people get the opportunity to perform for an audience, and a friendly adjudication which helps them progress.
“The dance section became the biggest. But now we don’t have enough committee members to run it next year, or speech and drama.
“Even if someone came forward now it would be too much to take on in a short time. The syllabuses go out in September.”
Income generated by dance is vital to keeping the festival afloat, but at the moment finances are fairly robust.
“We’re keeping our heads above water but would only need five bad years and we couldn’t go on,” said Julie who has been treasurer since 2003.
Adjudicators cost nearly £2,000 and they have to pay for venues, which recently have been Ormiston Sudbury Academy, The Delphi Centre and the Quay Theatre.
Accountant Julie, who also leads Sudbury and District Scouts, not only takes care of the money but also does a lot of the other administration.
Joan and Graeme were asked to become festival sponsors when they were running menswear shops in Sudbury. “We said yes not really knowing what it was, and they gave us tickets,” said Joan.
They have been closely connected ever since. “It’s always had a lovely feel about it,” said Graeme who is now president.
“It’s tremendous privilege being involved. It’s a major part of the year for us. The town has benefited so much over the years. What’s happening is tragic.”
Sue discovered more about the festival when she was Mayor, and is now music secretary. “Having seen all the wonderful work they do I felt it was really important to help,” she said.
She is intent on spreading the word not only to find more people willing to get involved, but also encourage schools to enter the music classes in 2020.
Music is close to the heart of retired teacher Sue, who plays the clarinet. “It’s known that if a child is learning a musical instrument all their other grades go up,” she said.
“Young children who go in for the festival can gain so much. I’m planning to visit schools and do some publicity.”
Joan said: “It breaks my heart that the children are going to miss out on dance, speech and drama next year.
“I love seeing youngsters perform, and their faces when they have performed in front of an audience. It’s heart-warming - knowing we’ve worked hard on the committee and seeing the result in front of you.
“Our festival helpers have been terrific, and we hope they will also help us in the future. It’s not just the committee - there are lots of important smaller jobs as well.”
To contact the committee email email@example.com