What’s On recently caught up with Chief Executive & Artistic Director Deborah Kermode, to find out what’s on the cards for the popular venue...

It’s been a tough 12 months for the arts,  as MAC Chief Executive Deborah Kermode is only too well aware. With a phased reopening of the venue planned from the end of May, Deborah and her team have much to consider. Top of the list is the wellbeing of loyal customers and staff...

“Our main aim this summer is to ensure our vulnerable communities feel safe coming back to MAC. Although the government has given us this roadmap, our surveys tell us that people are still quite concerned about everything opening back up again. We want people to get used to coming back to the venue and to feel safe while they do that. We’re trying to be really sensible about it and manage it carefully so that our audience are happy, rather than going for 100% straight away. 

"We’ve had so much support in the pandemic. We’ve had so many kind letters and donations. People cared about us enormously, and I just want to say thank you to them. Even though we’ve been closed as an organisation, people have kept in touch with us so closely. It’s kept our tiny team going. It’s been so, so heartwarming to know that people are waiting for us to come back.”

MAC relaunches with a series of exhibitions from women artists. Womanhood and female experience is a particularly poignant topic in the UK right now - and one close to the hearts of many, including the team at MAC. Debbie Kermode told us more: “Our three exhibitions contain portraits of women, and they’re about women’s experience. At MAC we’re a female-led organisation, and our senior management team is made up of women. We care enormously about representing the women in our community. Firstly, I think that women have been disproportionately hit during the pandemic, so we’ve invited all our artists to update their exhibitions during this period. In two of the three exhibitions there is new work that reflects the chaotic time that we’ve been living in. Women’s Work by Caroline Walker is made up of very large-scale paintings depicting women at work. It’s often about the unseen work women do, whether that’s working in retail, hotels, or cleaning jobs. This is very relevant to the way we live our lives. Women have also been particularly affected by job losses in the pandemic. 

“UKBFTOG: We Are Here is a group show highlighting young female black photographers. It’s about giving people a voice and showcasing their work. At MAC we’re a very open community space, and it’s extremely important that people can share their feelings, experiences and emotions to make sense of the world around them. Our photography exhibitions are always very popular - and I think they will be even more so after lockdown. We’ve seen so many people making sense of the world and taking up photography during this period, whether that’s wandering off on a walk or going into their garden. I think a lot of recent experiences resonate in these exhibitions. 

“Our third exhibition is from Birmingham-born Maxine Walker. She came to prominence in the ’90s and made these very arresting photographic self-portraits wearing different guises and outfits. It’s all about Black women’s experience - and with the Black Lives Matter movement, the photographs feel all the more relevant today. The lovely thing about art is that you can get a different perspective on the same work in every decade. Depending on who you are, where you are at that time, and how you’ve changed, the work feels different to you as well. This exhibition is particularly poignant now and also feels just as fresh and exciting as in the ’90s. It has come in part from the Victoria and Albert Museum. So it’s the first time in about 25 years that the photographs have come back to Birmingham. It’s a very special time for Maxine too, as she also hasn’t seen them since they went to the V&A.”

MAC’s outdoor summer programme includes cinema, family theatre, and a very special live music performance.

“We have this incredible outdoor theatre, which has had a massive facelift during the pandemic,” says Debbie. “People feel much safer outdoors and are more excited by it now too. We’re going to be doing outdoor cinema, children’s theatre, family events, dance shows, and music performances from artists like The Specials. So it’s very eclectic, but that’s the kind of programmes we have! It’s very fun! We’re focusing on music talent and theatre companies from the city, as we really want to give local talent a chance to shine and give them the priority. We want our local artists and performers to be back in front of audiences and getting an income again as soon as possible.

“We also have our summer courses and classes: from yoga to drawing, painting, ceramics, and more. So many people have been desperate to come back to our studios. Those courses will be on sale from 8 May - and we know they’re going to be very popular. MAC is a very sociable place. A lot of people have friendship groups that meet regularly at MAC, and they’ve missed that. 

The venue is looking forward to the future. Slot Machine Theatre returns in the festive season with an adaptation of Nick Butterworth’s One Snowy Night - a show for young children and their families about animals living in a park. But MAC also has one eye firmly on its 60th anniversary in 2022.

“We’re getting on a bit - not quite pensionable!” jokes Debbie. “But we’re still young at heart. We can still wear heels and have a good time! I know a lot of people think of MAC as being like a pair of cosy slippers, but we know how to party too. So we will be having lots of fun in 2022, which I think will extend across the whole city with the Commonwealth Games too. It’s a great time to acknowledge how important we are to Birmingham and its residents. Eighty-two percent of those who visit us are Birmingham residents, and they come often. An anniversary year is an excellent opportunity just to celebrate the success of MAC as we go forward. It’s a fantastic achievement and we’re really excited by it.”

Whilst the digital world has played its part in keeping the arts alive during the pandemic, Debbie knows the importance of getting audiences back into venues.

“For a venue like us with a footfall of about 5,000 people a day, we never really explored the potential of digital until we had to. It’s been fantastic for us. We’ve done the most exciting and innovative online programmes, but that will never replace actually seeing audiences and families in person. To see them connect directly with artists and performers is the bit I’m looking forward to the most, as it’s the absolute best a venue can offer. I’m excited for artists to be back on a stage where they belong. I think over the pandemic we’ve felt everything has been very planned in our lives, but the arts are all about being surprised. I absolutely think the next few years will see the arts scene flourish. Those joyful opportunities to be together and experience something will be absolutely essential. Art and culture will play such an important part in our resilience and recovery going forward, both as individuals and communities.

“I think that creativity has played a vital part in people’s lives during the pandemic - and has been a lifeline really. Look at all the people putting art in their windows, colouring in the NHS rainbows, setting up choirs, and trying new things. People have had a real desire to explore the world around them through art. That idea of participating in the arts, not only with friends and family but just purely for yourself, will play a very important role going forward. In terms of wellbeing, and when exploring vital movements like Black Lives Matter, people have looked to art and their own creativity to help them. This is the kind of role that MAC will continue to play. Because of our courses and workshops, people come to MAC to interact directly with artists and discover something new. It’s about feeling like you can contribute and experience things. I think that will stay with people going forward.”

With the arts set for their comeback, what’s most important to MAC going forward?

“I think that MAC is part of people’s everyday life in Birmingham,” says Debbie. “We’re a space where you will be welcomed, whether you come alone or with family and friends. Inclusivity is incredibly important to us, and we’ve made incredible changes on site to the building. These are things we want to continue going forward to make sure we’re as accessible as possible. Our arts programme itself also has to be inclusive.

We’re at the forefront of this. No matter your background or experiences in the world, you can come to MAC and find a welcoming space where you feel represented. We’re here every day of the year except Christmas Day, and we open out onto this very busy park, so it always feels like a vibrant space. We hope people will keep coming to support us, because we have so many wonderful things to share.”

For information on all events and activities coming up at mac, visit: macbirmingham.co.uk

COMING SOON TO MAC:

TWIRLYWOOS LIVE - Fri 25 - Sun 27 JUNE
This theatrical adventure for younger audiences comes from the producers of The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show and Sarah And Duck Live. Expect mischief, music and delightful puppets.

FROM THE SPECIALS - 2 JULY 
Legendary 2 Tone superstar Neville Staple will be inviting people to dig out their pork-pie hats and dancing shoes this summer, when he performs in MAC’s newly spruced-up outdoor theatre. 
The one-time front man of The Specials, Fun Boy Three and Special Beat will be appearing at the venue in a 75-minute show on 2 July.  

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS - SAT 10 - SUN 11 JULY

Zany funsters Oddsocks make a welcome return with Shakespeare’s much-loved laughter-fest. And actually, by comparison with a number of the bard’s other comedies, this one really does have the capacity to tickle a modern-day audience’s collective funny bone. 
As indeed do Oddsocks, who’ve been touring the Midlands and beyond for 30 years. “Our inclusive approach means that varied communities across the UK are able to engage with theatre,” say the company’s founders and husband-and-wife team, Andy Barrow and Elli Mackenzie. “We aim to tell good stories in a fun, informative way, gently challenging people’s perceptions and the way in which they react to theatre.”