In a spring and summer like no other, Reading cultural organisations haven’t let lockdown stop them from innovating, engaging and entertaining; in the absence of the usual tens of thousands of visitors the town would usually experience several local creatives have focused instead on bringing Reading to the world.
Two groups that swapped Broad Street for broadband in recent months are CultureMix and Reading Fringe Festival. Usually to be found – and hard to miss! – on that bustling street and numerous other venues around town with, respectively, RASPO Steel Orchestra and events for adults and children, they had to quickly come to terms with this new reality and adapt.
CultureMix: Keeping The Band Together
“Virtually overnight our work was gone – I was anxious about the mental health of my team and everyone we work with,” explained Mary Genis, who formed RASPO in 1997 and subsequently founded not-for-profit CultureMix Arts. In particular CultureMix’s key focus of working with people hoping to make careers in the creative industries was “completely scuppered” in the short term. But the team were never likely to be quiet for long.
“We did a Covid risk assessment and based on that decided that one of our priorities was to keep the band together. It supports a lot of people emotionally, for others it’s a fun thing, but it’s the discipline of playing in an orchestra that keeps them all engaged, so we came up with the Distant Mix project.” This involved creating high quality videos with performers recording their parts alone from home. The first, of Bob Marley’s Is This Lovefeatured 14 players, the second 24 and the upcoming third, aided by easing of lockdown, will include around 50 musicians.
Mary cites significantly stepping up their social media presence as one of the steepest learning curves, as a town which excels at bringing culture to people had to adapt to almost exclusively promoting online. They had help from the Arts Council’s Digital Culture Network and Mary has been impressed by social media ads: “They’re really not costly at all and if you get it right it can make a difference. We’ve now put together a marketing strategy that is meaningful, from this big pile of things we have going on.”
Reading Fringe Festival: Going Global
After months of planning for a typical 100-event, multi-venue Reading Fringe Festival, the rapidly changing situation in March also had a big impact on the organisers, as producer Steph Weller confirmed. “In the first phase it was a bit of mild panic but we very quickly started planning for the worst possible scenario, which it turned out what was happened: no live festivals any time soon.”
The Fringe team made the decision to move the 10-day July event online before lockdown had officially come into place, one which was much lauded by artists during the festival for providing some rare clarity. “We had the artists, the team and the audience to consider. While the easiest thing to do would have been nothing and have the summer off, that wasn’t the right one for any of those three.” The remaining question mark was scale, which would be dependent on funding so plans were made for two different sizes of digital festivals. After being awarded emergency funding by Arts Council England thanks to the National Lottery, a full programme of around 70 events covering comedy, music, theatre, dance, children’s shows and more was assembled and hosted on the Fringe’s website.
For the Fringe the biggest challenge was on the tech side, with the artists, team and audiences scattered in different locations, rather than gathered in one of their usual venues such as Reading Minster or the Purple Turtle. “It inverted all the planning,” explained technical manager Liam O’Brien. “All the main tech work was done in advance rather than when artists turn up on the day.” Liam’s day job with AV Events put him in a good starting position, having worked on several hybrid online-and-in-person events on the corporate side. Their hard work paid off with an estimated 10,000 households reached, with viewers locally, nationally and internationally – including Australia, Asia, Europe and, notably, over 400 users in the US. The Fringe, which has always prided itself on showcasing global acts alongside Reading-based and UK artists, was aided by a strong social media campaign and press coverage in outlets that would not typically cover the Fringe, including Time Out New Yorkand Metro.
The Future: In-Person And Online?
“There’s nothing like the real thing,” adds Mary. “But given the circumstances we’re still getting opportunities and we’re really busy”, citing a recent visit to Abbey Road for one of their artists to record for Notting Hill Carnival: Access All Areas, as well as being invited to partake in Reading’s Windrush Day, Reading Carnival Virtual Party and the Fringe’s Creative Coffee.
For Steph, a major positive of doing things so differently this year was taking accessibility to a new level. Nearly all the Fringe shows were free to watch, with the option to donate directly to the artists and the majority were live captioned, close captioned or had post-show subtitles. She cites the audio descriptions being added to the three galleries by local photographers – available to view alongside 60 other events until the end of August – as an example of something that would not have previously happened but that they hope to build on.
Both were quick to praise the many other local cultural organisations who have taken events online over the five months, including Readipop, MERL, South Street, The Firm and Reading Museum. And both CultureMix and the Fringe are committed to maintaining a digital element going forward, following positive response from artists and audiences both near and far.
This is the first in a series of articles on Reading cultural organisations in lockdown and beyond – get in touch if you would like to be featured by emailing Zsuzsi@livingreading.co.uk.