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Wednesday, 21 February 2018
IN 1994, a group of parents hit upon the idea of organising an annual festival to celebrate the talents of Henley’s young people.
Alfie Hay, who was then head of Trinity Primary School, Janine FitzGerald and Felicity Rutland all wanted to provide an opportunity for children and teenagers to become more involved with the performing arts.
“It was for children of all abilities, all backgrounds and all talents to get together in some way for one week of the year in a festival atmosphere,” says Ms FitzGerald, previously known as Janine Voss and a former mayor of Henley.
“It was not just music and arts, it also encompassed sport and writing, and it was all managed and run voluntarily by mums of the town.”
Today, the Henley Youth Festival is run by more than 60 volunteers and organises workshops in local schools as well as an annual cross-country fun run, competitions and up to five concerts at the Kenton Theatre involving dancing, singing and musicianship.
This year’s festival will run from March 11 to 19 and has chosen “Journeys” as its theme to inspire the children’s creative output.
Annabella Joynes, a 15-year-old student at Gillotts School, says: “The festival brings everybody together.
“You wouldn’t know how talented people are without it. You hear famous musicians and celebrities on the radio all the time but it’s interesting to hear how talented younger people are.”
Last year, Annabella and her school friend Sasha Scott, who is 14, won an award at the festival for making up their own song about horse-riding and friendship, entitled I Can Fly.
After performing their original composition at the festival’s Sing event at the Kenton, they were given the opportunity to record their song professionally at Henwood Studios. Sasha says: “It started out as a school project and we ended up having a lot of fun doing it.
“It was the first time we had made up a song — we had done little bits before but it had never come together. The opportunity to perform it at the festival made it come together.
“The studio was really cool. We were sitting in two different rooms, recording our tracks. It was amazing, a bit scary, but worth it.”
Sasha’s mother, Suzanne Scott, has watched her daughter perform at the festival since she was five, when she made her debut by performing in a dance routine with friends.
“Every time Sasha did a performance, you could always see a leap forward in her confidence,” says Mrs Scott.
Another Gillotts School pupil to experience a confidence boost by taking part in the festival was 11-year-old Abilene Artherton.
Last year, when she was still at Trinity Primary School, she was a winner in the festival’s writing competition, judged by Binfield Heath author Amanda Jennings.
“It was really nice to win and to be told that someone else liked your stories,” she says. “I showed my story to my teacher afterwards and she put it on a display board for others to read. My school friends said ‘that was really good’ and it made me feel more confident about writing.”
Ben Stodolnic, 15, who lives in Henley and attends Langtree School in Woodcote, also benefited from taking part in the 2016 festival.
He was one of four winners in the festival’s young reporter competition, which is supported by the Henley Standard. As part of the contest, he wrote an article about his passion for supercars.
The experience of having his piece published in the newspaper gave Ben the assurance to approach the editor with a proposal.
“I was happy that I won,” recalls Ben. “I got [editor] Simon Bradshaw’s contact details at the time and it was my idea to get in touch, offering to write a column on supercars that you see around Henley.”
Mr Bradshaw was so impressed by Ben’s enthusiasm that he agreed to let him write a monthly column for the newspaper’s Motoring section.
Ben says: “I got more experience of writing for a newspaper and I think Simon agreed to let me do it because he knew me. He trusted that I would write a good column because I had won the competition.” Although the festival runs writing and art competitions, its ethos is determinedly inclusive. Mr Hay, who has remained involved with the festival over the years, says: “It was felt that the youth festival needed to be all-inclusive and not competition-mad. The youth festival is for everyone.”
Deb Artherton, Abilene’s mother and a teacher at Sacred Heart Primary School, says that her school encouraged all its pupils to get involved last year.
While some of the younger children took part in the dancing, pupils from Year 5 performed at Sing with the beat-box artist Randolph Matthews and Year 3 children produced animation work for the art and film competition.
Mrs Artherton says: “We talked about what they had done in assembly. It was also nice to get them all doing something a bit different, like with Abilene and the [Young Shakespeare] workshop. Shakespeare was not something that had been on her radar before.”
Mr Hay, now a retired teacher who composes musicals for children, believes that the festival provides a valuable outlet for the children’s creativity, particularly at a time when the curriculum for primary schools has become more focused on literacy and numeracy.
He says: “Creativity is okay if your parents are that way inclined, but there are a lot of families who miss out on that. With the festival, there is the opportunity creatively for [the children] to express a wider part of themselves.”
Although she’s only eight, Sophia Mason appreciates the benefits of such self-expression.
She says: “I just like singing — it makes me feel happy — and I especially like it when I am on stage and people are listening to me!”
At last year’s festival, Sophia performed Abba’s Slipping Through My Fingers with her friend India
Since then, Sophia has moved to Rupert House School in Bell Street and thinks the confidence she gained from performing helped her to be less shy and to make friends more easily.
Sophia’s mother, Patrycja Szarek, says of her daughter’s performance: “I have never seen her that confident in her life.
“I would say it was her biggest accomplishment as a little girl — from the expression on her face, I knew she understood that.
“We definitely had the feeling that something special had happened that evening.”
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