Back in March, the world stopped for all of us when the entire country went into lockdown. Like most industries, the arts had to take a pause. Initially it looked like things would be ‘back to normal’ within 12 weeks or so - far from ideal but manageable. However as we all know, that wasn’t to be and the majority of arts organisations, performers and freelancers are still unable to work in the same way as before.
Birmingham and the West Midlands has a thriving arts sector and is home to some of the most recognisable performing companies, music venues and theatres in the UK. All of these fantastic organisations have been hit hard by the ongoing measures, but in true West Midlands spirit, we all began to pull together to support the many creative minds that call this region home.
In April, sector support organisation Culture Central quickly responded to the situation by creating the West Midlands Culture Response Unit (WMCRU) to coordinate, develop and deliver a response to the COVID-19 crisis in the short, medium and long term for the 100+ arts organisations they represent in the region.
After being approached by a former colleague, I have been a member of the CRU’s communications team since June, working alongside other volunteers from West Midlands arts organisations. The first project I worked on was Midsummer Festival: a 12 hour online event with participants including The Royal Shakespeare Company, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Pentabus Theatre, Motionhouse and ACE Dance and Music. This was the first event of its kind for the region and a real collaborative effort both ‘on and offstage’. The development of this collaborative approach is one of the few positives of the situation we find ourselves in and hopefully this new way of working for organisations in the region has really helped to set a precedent for current and future work. The team have just finished working on a series of three events in late August and September called West Midlands Weekenders which once again looked to showcase the artistry of the region.
There are some fantastic organisations that make up the fabric of the arts and culture scene here in the city, and many of them have some brilliant examples of their approaches to presenting content during the last few months. Local organisation DanceXchange began offering free online dance classes on their social media channels as an alternative to in person sessions, including ballet, vogue, street dance and yoga. Vogue tutor Jason held a class during Midsummer Festival’s closing party, bringing the house down by teaching the audience some fantastic shapes and poses!
Whilst their halls have been closed to the public, Town Hall Symphony Hall have curated and commissioned performances with the best of Brum’s musical talent. Each performance has been broadcast on their Facebook and YouTube channels, and features a variety of artists including BBC Young Jazz Musician 2018 Xhosa Cole, China Moses and Eric Bibb.
As a producing house unable to perform, The Birmingham REP looked for ways to refocus and help, putting out a call for fabrics from the local community which their costume department then turned into PPE gowns and scrubs and machine washable uniform bags for the NHS. The campaign was a huge success with 2,500 machine washable bags being made and distributed across the West Midlands.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has also created the space for artistic inspiration for many in the city. Back in April Birmingham Royal Ballet First Soloist Kit Holder and Soloist Tom Rogers created Alone | Together a dance piece featuring five musicians, six dancers, Assistant Director Marion Tait, and Director Carlos Acosta - all performing in their homes across Birmingham and beyond.
Community Arts organisation Multistory commissioned sixteen artists, poets, photographers and researchers to respond to the moment with their Stories in Isolation digital programme. Responses included poetry, film and photographs that captured the early days of lockdown for local communities and documented how their approaches to everyday life had to quickly change. A highlight of mine from this series is ‘Home Time’ a short poem film by Smethwick filmmaker Bhulla Beghal; featuring his 8 year old nephew Avian, ‘Home Time’ talks about not being able to attend school during lockdown.
With restrictions being slowly lifted, many are now looking ahead to life after lockdown and Birmingham and the West Midlands are no exception. Throughout this time Birmingham based arts consultancy Indigo ltd has been supporting the sector with National Audience Research - After the Interval & Act 2. The research will help inform organisations nationwide of audience attitudes on missing cultural events, booking tickets during lockdown, returning to live cultural events with social distancing, and experiencing culture in different formats.
The RSC began their outdoor Shakespeare Snapshots performances in early August, featuring speeches and sonnets from their postponed productions of The Winter's Tale and The Comedy of Errors. All actors and audience members were socially distanced with room for up to 23 household groups.
On Saturday 5th September, The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra joined by Sir Simon Rattle, Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Roopa Panesar, came together for what is believed to be the first concert with a full orchestra since lockdown. Streamed live at a Birmingham warehouse to ensure social distancing, the concert celebrated the orchestra’s centenary.
In mid-August, Birmingham Royal Ballet and The Birmingham REP announced a brand new creative partnership which included the world premiere socially distanced performances of Lazuli Sky, a brand new piece by choreographer Will Tuckett, commissioned by Director Carlos Acosta. With around 150 tickets on sale to the public for each of the four shows, the entire run sold out in less than 24 hours - showing that audiences are still engaged and keen to get back in the auditorium to take in a live performance.
We don’t know what the future holds for any of us at the moment but what I do know is that Birmingham and the West Midlands will do all it can to ensure that our comeback will be better than ever - but don’t just take my word for it…
Photo by Nicola Salmon (c) RSC 2014 // The Handlebards, The Dell