INTERVIEW: Lewis Smith, Artistic Director of Kenilworth Arts Festival

Lewis Smith, Artistic Director of Kenilworth Arts Festival

  As Kenilworth gears up to welcome a host of famous names from the literary and music world for what is fast becoming one of the largest dedicated arts festivals in the area, I spoke to the Artistic Director of the award-winning Kenilworth Arts Festival, Lewis Smith

  First launched in 2016, the Kenilworth Arts Festival aims to celebrate outstanding new work, and to provide a platform for ideas and stories which offer new ways of seeing the world around us.

  Now in its fourth edition, the Festival will present more than 35 events over ten days in a range of venues around the historic town of Kenilworth, Warwickshire. 

  The Festival brings together award-winning, internationally-acclaimed writers, musicians and visual artists from around the country and beyond, transforming everyday spaces into intimate arts venues, offering one-off live experiences to audiences.

  A programme of literary events will celebrate some of the most inspiring and thought-provoking new fiction and non-fiction books of 2019, giving a platform to the UK’s leading writers and campaigners. The centrepiece will be ‘Talking Shop’, a full weekend (21st-22nd September) of talks, readings and panel discussions, which will cover serious topics such as mental health, race, class and gender, focusing on everything from schizophrenia, to Windrush, to #MeToo.

  Musicians from around the world will bring jazz, classical, acoustic and cinematic music to Kenilworth, which becomes the setting for 2 UK premieres and a one-off UK show. Film screenings, valuing quality over quantity, will be showing 5 of the best films of 2019 so far, and artists will turn Kenilworth into a canvas.

  Workshops will offer hands-on experience and insight from artists, and for families with young children, activities including puppet-making, pinhole photography and access to the multi-sensory Soundplay Dome can be enjoyed.

With a desire to celebrate outstanding, original new work within the contemporary arts at the heart of the programme, Lewis states that “what underpins the festival is a celebration of new work across a broad spectrum of the creative arts, so we focus on offering a platform to artists who are at the forefront of their fields, who have produced some of the finest new work to have been released in the last 12 months, from new editions, to writers, to visual arts”. 

 “The festival is a celebration of new work across a broad spectrum of the creative arts”.

  Boasting a great line-up, with a high standard of performances and events, including a number of UK firsts, Lewis tells us what festival goers can look forward to: “It’s a really diverse and exciting programme this year, with a number of international artists and UK premieres. We’ve got a range of concerts, talks and readings, film screenings, workshops, and art and community events, plus some fantastic family events too, and from the music things, we’ve got a really broad range of leading musicians, including the acclaimed singer-songwriter Nadia Reid, who we’ve been trying to book for some years, so its a complete honour to be able to welcome her to the festival… On the ‘talks and readings’ side of things you’ve got some of the UK’s leading writers and campaigners, including human rights campaigner and Guardian Journalist of the Year Amelia Gentleman”.

“It’s a really diverse and exciting programme this year”.

  This year, the festival will be taking over open spaces in Kenilworth – theatres, churches, bookshops, even streets – transforming Warwickshire’s famous historic town into a world-class stage for arts, music, performance and spoken word. Lewis explains that “Kenilworth as a town doesn’t have a professional arts venue, so one of the ideas behind this is to transform the town into a stage for world class events. We work with a wide variety of different venues, and temporarily transform them into venues for live arts events. We work with bookshops, we work with community theatre, churches, and then we’re holding events in public spaces too such as Abbey Fields, and this year we’re holding a street party as well, so really it’s all about giving local residents an opportunity to see the town in new ways, but it’s also a celebration of the town itself, and a celebration of the different spaces and organisations that exist in the community”. 

“It’s also a celebration of the town itself”. 

  For the first time, the Festival will bring together a collective of 20 artists based in Kenilworth for its ‘Made In Kenilworth: An Exhibition of Kenilworth Artists’. Lewis tells us more about this exciting new initiative: “‘Made In Kenilworth’ is an exhibition put together by a new collection of artists who are all based in Kenilworth, called the ‘Kenilworth Artists’. It’s the first time they are exhibiting as a group, which is wonderful, and it’s a really fantastic opportunity for people to see the brilliant work produced by people in the local community. We often talk about international artists and national figures, but the ‘Made In Kenilworth’ exhibition is proof that there is a wide range of really talented, creative people in the community, so it’s nice to be able to celebrate them”.

“There is a wide range of really talented, creative people in the community”.

  Lewis’ role as Artistic Director of this voluteer-run Festival means that he has to be very adaptable, and take on a wide variety of responsibilities to ensure its success. “It’s a fascinating and varied role for a very small volunteer organisation. My role I suppose is overseeing the overall vision of the festival, but I am more practically involved in the programming of events, and obviously the general direction, working on the visual elements of the festival, supporting with marketing, media, writing and applications, carrying chairs across fields, anything and everything! I’ve certainly learnt some new skills over the last couple of years. My days are very full at the moment, fluctuating between writing, programming, organising, speaking with some of the performers – there’s never a dull moment, that’s for sure!”. 

“There’s never a dull moment!”.

  Aged 27, Lewis is one of the UK’s youngest producers of a festival. We spoke about the importance of supporting young and/or emerging artists, and how the Festival showcases and champions the work of all: “One of the reasons we launched the festival was to try and bridge a gap between university academia and local communities, and so I first got involved whilst a student at Warwick University, and I found it a really brilliant opportunity to actually engage and play a part in the local community I was living in. With university students often there can be a tendency, particularly at campus universities, to not have those opportunities to engage, so we love that through our festivals there are lots of opportunities for students to get involved as both volunteers and as performers, and we think that’s a fantastic way for different arts in the community to meet each other, and to engage and learn from each other.

“The arts landscape at the moment is very exciting”.

  I think the arts landscape at the moment is very exciting, and there are lots and lots of brilliant young musicians and writers and visual artists who we’re about to showcase and champion. We like being able to promote emerging artists, and to give a platform to emerging artists, and of course, emerging doesn’t always mean young, but oftentimes it does. And I think really people, for example Candice Carty-Williams and Rosie Price, two debut novelists, who are both relatively young, Rosie Price is my age, and they’re tapping into really fascinating topics; Rosie Price’s debut novel ‘What Red Was’, really illuminates for the reader the #MeToo movement, for example, and it’s very exciting to hear these voices, and to be able to champion them through our Festival”. 

“We like being able to promote emerging artists, and to give a platform to emerging artists”.

  A Warwickshire University graduate himself, Lewis explores the impact of the Festival upon the town, and discusses why it is important to engage with the local community, and to champion emerging artists: “There are lots of different ways in which we try to have a positive impact on the community. One is the social aspect, to help bolster community spirit, to bring people together, and to help people meet like-minded people in their local community. One is a question of tourism – it’s always surprising and really quite humbling to meet people who have travelled long distances to come to our events, and I know this year we’ve got people coming from as far away as Spain to attend our concerts, which is wonderful, and obviously that has an impact by putting Kenilworth on the map, in some small way, and by bringing people to the town, and by giving people the chance to engage with it. Kenilworth is a kind of place that’s most famous for its castle, or the ruins of the castle. In some ways, the castle is to Kenilworth what Paris is to France, in that people can think of the castle, and visit the castle, but perhaps not always visit other parts of the town, so it’s really nice to showcase a broad spread of Kenilworth itself. And finally it’s an opportunity for local artists to present their work, whether in the ‘Made In Kenilworth’ exhibition, or local performers, local bands – there are a lot of different ways we try to have an impact”.

“Putting Kenilworth on the map”.

  As well as impacting positively upon the local community and its immediate surroundings, the Kenilworth Arts Festival also has a national, even an international, impact, bringing together artists from across the country, and around the world. “It’s brilliant, and it’s one of my favourite aspects of the project really, being able to give performance opportunities to international artists and to present them to a new audience. For example, Pauline Drand, who is a French singer-songwriter, is coming to Kenilworth for her debut UK headline concert, which is also an opportunity then because she’s in the country and because we’ve been able to support her travel and accommodation for a period of time, so she’s then able to find other performance opportunities in the UK, such as in London, and that’s really great because we can help. It’s a strange time for music in some ways, so it’s really nice that we can help support musicians in some small way”. 

“Able to give performance opportunities to international artists and to present them to a new audience”.

  Lewis explains how the Festival has grown since its launch in 2016: “Every year the programme gets bigger and bolder and more diverse. The year we’ve got new strands of the festival – we’ve got film screenings for the first time – and it really is working towards, ideally, becoming a nationally recognised fixture in the arts calendar. We’ve got our fifth anniversary next year, and Coventry 2021 (City of Culture) on the horizon, so there are lots of opportunities to continue growing, in a managed way. We are still a volunteering organisation, so don’t want to push too things too far too quickly, but the main thing is that we’ve seen a very positive response, so to keep trying new things, and keep pushing things further really”. 

“Every year the programme gets bigger and bolder and more diverse”.

  Lewis goes on to explain his vision for the future of the Festival, and what he hopes it will achieve: “Our fifth anniversary is next year, Coventry is the 2021 City of Culture, so there are opportunities there to continue growing, and we are really excited by the opportunities to support new work and commission new work, and that’s something we’re going to try and do more of. And beyond that, who knows?!”.

“There are opportunities there to continue growing”.

The Kenilworth Arts Festival will run in several venues in Kenilworth from 19th September to 28th September 2019.

  Book your tickets now for this fantastic programme of events, one-off gigs, illuminating talks and conversations, awe-inspiring family activities and more!


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