Almost a year since the Covid pandemic forced theatres across the world to close, it seems fitting to look back at how West Midlands arts organisations have worked together to bring high-quality online performances to audiences both locally and globally.

Via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Zoom and company websites, over 1,500 artists and over 100 venues and companies have programmed 2,516 digital events and workshops including - 141 world premieres.  Events included special commissions, community and school engagement, workshops, dance, music, fitness, crafts, conferences, discussions, drama, Q&A’s and virtual festivals.

The West Midlands region is home to some of the country’s most acclaimed arts companies and venues including the Royal Shakespeare Company, Rosie Kay Dance, Black Country Touring, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sampad South Asian Arts and Heritage, Black Country Living Museum,  Arena Theatre Wolverhampton, Birmingham Opera Company, Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre and Herbert Art Gallery, Town Hall Symphony Hall, Birmingham Hippodrome, Ex-cathedra and Warwick Arts Centre, making it one of the largest culture sectors in the country.

Erica Love, Culture Central Director, said: “The last 12 months has been challenging for the industry, but we are proud to have come together online to engage with diverse audiences bringing arts directly into millions of homes. It has also provided opportunities for creatives to continue to develop, and much needed work for freelancers who have been particularly affected. 

As a result of this enormous success, many of the region’s arts organisations will continue their online programme on a permanent basis to run hand in hand alongside live performances in indoor and outdoor spaces.”

Fans of ballet, classical music and performing arts were given a wide choice of world-class online programming including the first live and on demand streaming of Sir Peter Wright’s acclaimed The Nutcracker at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, performed by the UK’s premiere ballet company Birmingham Royal Ballet; Leamington Spa’s Motionhouse who streamed WILD, the daring dance-circus production which explores our relationship with the natural environment; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s (CBSO) spectacular 100th birthday concert presented by Birmingham born actor Adrian Lester, featuring sitar player Roopa Panesar and CBSO’s conductors past and present, including Sir Simon Rattle; as well as online exhibitions, tours and lectures, Birmingham Museums have provided access to thousands of images from the city’s collection freely available to view, download, and use creatively.

Birmingham Royal Ballet Director Carlos Acosta, CBE said One of the things which really stood out to me in this past year was the spirit of collaboration amongst the many West Midlands creatives and organisations. It was so inspiring to see people pulling together, and we ourselves established a brand-new partnership with The REP.

We’ve been working constantly this past year to ensure we keep Birmingham Royal Ballet and the arts in everyone’s minds: from online dance classes, live streams, new collaborations, to my first ever digital commission with Empty Stage just last month. We are working on our plans for the year ahead and can’t wait to welcome audiences back!”

Joanna Patton, Player Chair and Principal Second Clarinet, CBSO, added: “The musicians and staff of the CBSO have been incredible in adapting to new ways of working during the pandemic.  We are about to get the orchestra back into the amazing Symphony Hall (as we did in the Autumn) to record some more digital concerts which we look forward to sharing with everyone. The future is already looking brighter, and we can’t wait to welcome audiences back in person again as soon as we can.”

Further highlights included the first Midsummer Festival, a free one-day festival over 12 hours to mark the Summer Solstice, part of a series of festivals presented by West Midlands Culture Response Unit featuring 100’s of the regions arts organisations; Worcester’s Severn Arts who provided online music lessons for individuals, as well as commissioning  Worcestershire artists to create 8 60 second films streamed online as part of the West Midlands campaign #ItGetsLightFrom here; Shropshire-based Pentabus Theatre who presented a series of Rural Recordings including Here I Belong by Matt Hartley and Crossings by Deirdre Kinahan and, as part of #RSCHomeworkHelp, the Royal Shakespeare Company, based in Stratford-Upon-Avon filmed RSC actors answering questions received from students from all over the world. Subjects included comedy plays, acting and directing. Those taking part included David Tennant, Paapa Essiedu, Niamh Cusack, David Bradley, David Threlfall.

Geraldine Collinge, RSC Director of Creative Placemaking and Public Programmes, added: In these extraordinary times, with the RSC’s theatres closed for the entire year, working with Culture Central and partners across the West Midlands has enabled us to collaborate with new artists and reach existing and new audiences.  Whilst we can’t wait to have live theatre back on our stages in Stratford-upon-Avon, we know that the collaborations we have developed over the last year will continue to enrich our work in the future.”

Festival offerings online over the past twelve months have included DJ sets, wellbeing workshops, live reggae performances and comedy streamed into their living rooms from Almost Jazz Funk & Soul, Sofasonic Festival (UK’s best small festival, The Guardian) and Simmer Lock-down Festival. 

Music continued with The Symphony Orchestra of India’s performance of Beethoven and Sonia Sabri Company who presented a series of specially created short performances by musicians of different ages specially created for Our Firsts under the guidance of world renowned Tabla Maestro and composer Sarvar Sabri.

Sonia Sabri, Artistic Director, Sonia Sabri Company, commented: “As well as streaming live and recorded performances, we have been running regular music and dance workshops online. The workshops have helped us to continue to support professional artists, not only here in the Midlands, but across the UK and worldwide. In fact, our online work has been so successful that we will continue to include this alongside our future live programme of events.”

The arts have reached out online to vulnerable communities: Coventry and Birmingham based Open Theatre Company have run weekly workshops engaging with young people with learning difficulties at a time when they are feeling most isolated; Walsall’s Black Country Touring’s Dial A Story reached people at risk of loneliness when three artists, who had one to one telephone conversations with participants, delivered a bespoke performance in response to their conversation with the caller; Ikon Gallery has stayed connected with families with an introduction to their current exhibition Faster Than Ever followed by an invitation to a workshop in which they created their own artworks, Geese Theatre who have been able to deliver Reach In Out, a project working with people with multiple and complex needs and those in prison; Worcester-based Vamos Theatre who won a BBC Culture in Quarantine commission to screen 20 short films online and on BBC platforms reflecting on loneliness during lockdown and Friction Arts who are one of only ten organisations to be shortlisted for the first national Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch)’s Award for Civic Arts Organisations for its community outreach work in response to the pandemic.

With Coventry City of Culture opening in May and Birmingham hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2022, which includes a 6-month cultural festival, arts and culture in the West Midlands can look forward to taking centre stage.

Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, said: “The way the region’s cultural sector has adapted in the face of the pandemic to move their events online has been incredible, and shows just what a creative and resilient sector we have here in the West Midlands.

The amount of people who have been tuning into these digital events underlines just how important the sector is to residents across the region, and so it is absolutely vital that as we move through the road-map we get the sector the support it needs to reopen safely.”

West Midlands arts organisation will continue to present online programming with the launch of Spring’s Calling on 20 March 2021 a festival marking one year since direct access to audiences was disrupted.

Celebrating Spring Equinox and hope, Spring’s Calling will feature 3-5 minute-long audio based artworks of spoken word, podcasts, music and singing from artists across the region.  Anyone can get involved by submitting content to Culture Central - cru@culturecentral.co.uk and sharing on their own platform(s) using #SpringsCalling.  Further information: www.culturecentral.co.uk