by Maddy Costa
When I grow up, I want to be as wise, humane, thoughtful and attentive as Francois Matarasso. I read the essays on his website Regular Marvels a few days ago and kicked myself for not doing so sooner: similarly wise and thoughtful friends (artists/writers/thinkers Rajni Shah and Mary Paterson) have been singing his praises for months. Each Regular Marvel is a community project exploring a facet of humanity’s relationship with art: Where We Dream spends time with an amateur-dramatics society; Winter Fires celebrates older artists; Bread and Salt contemplates migrant experience. But it was A Wider Horizon, on the importance of art to our understanding of each other and ourselves, and to our general well-being, that made my blood go fizzy. Here’s an excerpt from its introductory enquiry, Who Likes Art?:
Culture can be described as how we do what we have to do. We have to eat, but what we eat, how we prepare it and how we share it — all that’s culture. It’s what makes Sunday lunch, and it’s why Sunday lunch in France is not the same as Sunday lunch in England.
Art could be described as how we do all the things we don’t have to do. How we sing, dance, play, tell stories, make things up, share dreams, frighten ourselves, arrange objects, make pictures, imagine and all the rest. But don’t make the mistake of thinking those things aren’t important because we’re not obliged to do them. On the contrary, they’re so important precisely because we’re not obliged to do them. They’re important because we choose to do them, we want to do them, we wouldn’t feel ourselves if we couldn’t do them.
Art is wrapped up in everything we choose to do in our never-ending search to fulfil ourselves as human beings, to express our love, to speak our desires and our terrors, to create an identity, to build community, to make sense of life. Who likes art? Everyone likes art. We just don’t all like the same art.
Ever since I was tiny, I’ve been immersed in art: in the music my parents listened to, and that I used to forge my own identity; in the paintings I encountered and made in my teens; in theatre, which stole my heart in my 20s; in writing, which somehow in my 30s became as essential to me as breathing. But I make no distinction between craft and art: from my mother I inherited an aptitude for dress-making, from my aunt a love of knitting, and with all the women in my family I share a love of dancing and creative cooking. Art, in all its aspects, is my life. Matarasso revels in the multiplicity and necessity of art, too, and reading him reminded me of something beautiful that Chris Goode, a theatre-maker to whom I dedicate a lot of thinking time, wrote a couple of years ago:
It’s funny: almost everybody, right?, at some point or another in their lives, has written a poem. A teenage ‘nobody understands me’ poem or a funny little ‘roses are red’ poem in a Valentine’s card or whatever. Almost everybody does a bit of making, whether it’s cooking or gardening or knitting or DIY or whatever — and it’s not just target-driven activity, it’s not just about needing a cake or a scarf, it’s about having something to do that makes you feel like a participant in a wider project of being a civilised and creative individual in a society that overwhelmingly wants you to see yourself only as a consumer. But how many people will ever make a bit of theatre?
Part of what New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood is about is reaching out to the people who feel no connection with theatre in their lives. It’s not just that they won’t participate in it, or don’t dream of writing it or acting in it: they don’t even go to see it. Or if they do, it’s once or twice a year, the pantomime with the kids, or a big glossy West End show as a birthday treat. I sound like I’m disparaging pantomime and big glossy West End shows: I’m not. It’s just that watching and thinking about theatre is the best way I have – better by far than novels or cinema – of contemplating everything that is difficult, incomprehensible, overwhelming and wonderful in life, and in a childish way I wish everyone felt the same.
That’s what made encountering Matarasso’s work last week so particularly exhilarating: I read it at precisely the moment when I’m embarking on a new phase of work in this project, in which I visit the participating towns to talk to people about why they don’t go to the theatre, what it is that puts them off, what their expectations and assumptions and prejudices are. I’ve never done anything like this before and I’m apprehensive and really excited. Can I persuade anyone to change their mind, to come and see a Fuel show? What will I do if they do come, only to feel all their prejudices confirmed? Or if they come, really enjoy themselves, but file the experience away as a good night out, not to be repeated any time soon? There could be some knotty conversations ahead; what a relief to have Matarasso, graceful and patient, as my quiet companion and guide.