The sacred art of joining in

This is the second in a short series of backstage pieces connected to a project I did for Fuel looking at some historical precedences to NTiYN: ways in which theatre-makers, venues, and their staff, have approached the questions of audience engagement since, roughly, the 1930s. In this post, I talk to Stella Duffy: writer, theatre-maker and Fun Palace co-director. I went to her interested in a less academic, more storytelling take on Joan Littlewood’s work; I left with goosebumps and surging admiration for Stella’s passion and dedication to social change.

M: I feel like all the words for “inclusion” have been co-opted.

S: Joining in still works really well, people aren’t using joining in. Would you like to join in? Come and join in. I’ve been saying join in a lot, because join in doesn’t say start a new thing, it doesn’t say do my thing, it says: do your thing. I think there’s a thing about saying to people: we don’t have the answer, you have your local answer, here’s what we’re doing, and where’s the crossover? I have fully expected people to be snobby, don’t you come here and tell me this, chip on shoulder, but all they have done is say thank you for coming out of London, thank you for leaving London, how brilliant. It doesn’t matter how brilliant they are and how much great stuff they’re already doing, they still say thank you for coming to us.

M: What’s your sense of how Joan Littlewood went about this?

S: [Theatre Workshop] were doing working men’s clubs: this is the thing we’ve forgotten. In the 30s, when she and Ewan MacColl – Jimmy Miller – were blacklisted by the BBC, they were doing working men’s clubs. We always had a tradition of that and for all I know it’s a peculiarly British tradition: there must be other European versions, but the version that we have, that Saturday night out, maybe there’s a show on, you go down to the club, that’s a very British tradition and a small-town tradition. Even here, in Brixton, there was everything here but there were still working men’s clubs. My mum and dad used to go to the pulp and paper-mill workers’ club because that’s what my mum and dad were, that was their club. It was a cheaper pub, that’s all, but they had shows, and it was often by them, by the local people for the local people.

Joan’s work pre- and post-war was trying to get people to be more political, and they did the club circuit. They would sit and chat and get pissed and go home with people – that’s what we’re not doing, we’re not shagging them enough. Seriously, they used to get in people’s lives because they weren’t so different to them.

M: Apart from the nutshell idea of the Fun Palace, what in her work do you feel you’re building on?

S: I don’t feel we’re building on the arts as we know it at all. It’s become more and more clear to me we’re building on communities not arts, and if I never see another play in a theatre where I have to sit down and be quiet, that’s fine with me. I still like those plays, but it would be very hard for me to book a ticket for something where I have to sit down and shut up, not because I’m so fucking loud but because I might want to tweet about it while it’s happening, I might want to go “oh my god that amazing thing just happened”, and that should be OK. Maybe it needs to be OK in a certain area of the theatre so other people don’t get annoyed, maybe it needs to be OK on certain nights – relaxed nights, call them what you will. I really don’t like the term relaxed, I think it’s a bit hippy, a bit in community – my mum, were she alive, would not know what that meant. We can find a better word.

I think what’s happened for us, as people came back to us about making a Fun Palace, is [the realisation that] it’s communities, not artists or arts people. That’s what we’re about, and that requires us to be even less arrogant, because of course everywhere’s a fucking community and it doesn’t need us to come in and tell it it’s a community. However, what we have are some tools that we believe in, that maybe they haven’t had access to or don’t know about, or aren’t interested in, and those tools are theatre and dance and music and science discussions and the geography of where your family originally come from. There’s a Maori phrase, to introduce yourself the first things you would say would be your mountain and your river, if we were being traditional we would use those first. And that’s about community, because community says I’m where I am now, but I’m also where I’m from.

I’ve been working in the arts for over 30 years, I’m passionate about it, but I’m passionate about it as a way to join people up, as a way to talk to other people, joining up and joining in. I didn’t know that when we started. I look back at Joan’s work and Joan’s writing and that was there but I don’t think they knew that very clearly either. They also didn’t make the Fun Palace, and they were trying to make one building, which would have only served one group of people, and they did have a bit of an instrumentalist 1960s approach: this is good for people so people should be able to do it. We’re not saying it’s good for people, we’re saying it’s fun for people, and do it however the fuck you want it. If fun for you is a silent Fun Palace, please go for it; if fun for you is a Fun Palace that has no arts in it at all, go for it, how amazing; if fun for you has games forbidden, go for it. But it’s definitely about your answer is as good as mine: everything we have to contribute is of value, let’s find out what that is.

That’s a long-winded way of saying I’m not sure we used to be any better at this, I think we might have a rosy, golden glow view of what it was like. Joan had to leave London in the 30s because she couldn’t get in anywhere, unless she did the very posh voice that she got all the prizes for at RADA; she couldn’t get in being herself and doing what she wanted to. And she was as elitist as they come in other ways – we all are, to a certain extent. So I’m not sure there ever was a golden age, but I think what gives me massive hope is that we have the internet: we have an opportunity to share in real time what we’re doing with each other, which we’ve never had before, and we don’t need to spend tons of money on it because we can do it on twitter and tumblr, it can be free, and the more free we make it, the more accessible it will be to everybody. And yes you need a phone or a computer, but you can borrow mine. And we didn’t use to have that.

My granddad, his parents were Irish immigrants to New Zealand, they were all really poor. He was the town’s clerk, and fireman, and a hunter, and he played the accordion at all the parties. Now that man’s a perfect bloody Fun Palace maker. When we were better at living in community, we had the person who played the music, the person who sang the songs, the person who told the stories – we had all that. We used to have a storyteller in every community, telling us back our stories; we used to be good at community, and maybe that’s a myth too, but everything I know about older Britain’s history says that we did. It’s hard-wired in us, we just don’t listen.

M: I think that’s the really deep, embedded root of NTiYN, and I don’t think we’ve articulated it. It reminds me of something that happened at the beginning of project, when Fuel staff wrote a list of questions that they wanted to ask in all the NTiYN places, and lots of them related to those ideas: what are the stories and the memories that hold this community.

S: I think there’s a problem for Fuel with the use of the word theatre. People perceive theatre to be expensive so you only go once a year, or it’s not really for me so you only do it on a school trip: theatre has come to mean that, whether we like it or not, whether we’re doing different work or not, that’s what that word means to the bulk of the population – including the people who love theatre. To the people who love theatre it means in a building, it means I shut up you show me something, it means I emote but silently – despite the fact that it comes from the Greeks and it was given to us for catharsis, so I could scream and cry if I wanted to. What we’ve done to theatre ignores the history of theatre, and it ignores that it was a sacred act. It was a sacred fucking act! It was a festival, and yes it was done by society to shut up the people, you come here on this day and you have your emotions, that way you won’t revolt next week, and yes that’s crap, but we’ve taken away the sacred, and lots of us with really good intention, because the church has screwed us up, or the synagogue or the mosque screwed us up. So we took away the sacredness of it. But this is why I did this all of last fucking year when I was having my second cancer, because my life has a mission, and my life’s mission is to make these things that have been closed to people like me, working class people like me, make them a little bit more open, and if I do it a tiny bit, that will help, even if it only helps me.

What is sacred is Carine from France and Alexander from Portugal and the other non-British nationals from the Farnham Fun Palace saying that they made a Fun Palace to be more integrated in their community, because their community hasn’t welcomed them. It’s people saying they spent £20 on their Fun Palace last year, and this year they’re doing it entirely for free because they want to only use donated and secondhand things, to be even more friendly. Sacrifice comes from sacred: what can I give? I got my equity card when I was 18, I have made and given for free to the arts for over 30 years, I have given to my community of artists, but I haven’t given to my community, I haven’t given to my neighbourhood. I give to much groovier places all the time, I give to already privileged people all the time; I happen to live in a pretty deprived area, but I don’t give to that area – I do because I do book readings for free in those places, so I do, but when I spend three years writing a novel unpaid, that’s not me giving to the world for free, that’s me giving to me for free. When I create a piece of work, I do it for free, and I think that’s fine, I don’t think anyone should pay me to do that. Why should they pay me to grow flowers in my back garden? It’s the same thing. Why should they pay me to make a cake for me? It’s the same thing.

Maybe I have to be 52 to feel this strongly, or maybe I had to have two cancers, whatever, but I’m really clear that I can give and that I want to give and that it benefits, of course it benefits me to give to where I live. It helps my community, it means I can walk down the road and say hello to people, but I had to do something for that to happen. Sorry, that came out of the problem of the word theatre, which goes back to the Greeks, and I don’t know what the alternative is, but there is a problem with the word for those of us in it and those who aren’t in it: it is a barrier and it is an over-inclusion for those who feel comfortable in it, for whom it is community. I have both, I think lots of us have both. Culture is a word we are using and that’s not an easy one either, but the British Science Association call science culture, culture is what people do when they’re asking about who we are, what humanity is, what community is.

M: Where do you get your learning from?

S: The Fun Palace makers: the people who aren’t already artists or scientists who are giving astonishingly useful feedback, as community members, about where we got it wrong, or not wrong, where we thought one thing and it turned into something else. The more I work with scientists, the easier is to say I’m wrong. A few years ago I was commissioned to write for a collection of short stories about modern science and worked with Rob Appleby, who teaches particle physics at Manchester university, and was involved in the Large Hadron Collider project at Cern. He said two things that totally stayed with me: one is that when they get stuck, they go and have a coffee, because it’s in the coffee room that solutions come – which is so Open Space. The solution doesn’t come in the let me worry about this problem, it comes in having a drink, having a chat. The other thing is that when they first turned on the Hadron Collider and it didn’t work, he said they were really happy because they said: fuck, now we know what to do. What should have felt like public humiliation, because the public wanted to humiliate them, was: oh my god how amazing, now I know what to do.

I think artists could really benefit from that, and one of the things I want to start saying is to please use Fun Palaces to get a science buddy. Buddy up with a science person, because they are practised in this methodology, they are immensely skilled in the flaws and the mistakes and the incorrect calculations being of massive value. If we can provide science buddies through Fun Palaces, I think we might make a huge difference in a longer-term ecology.

Everyone an artist

by Maddy Costa

Francois Matarasso has been a source of inspiration pretty much since I became involved in New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood. A cultural thinker as generous as he is perspicacious, he frequently alerts me to cultural projects or public activities I might not otherwise encounter, and argues for more genuinely inclusive ways of thinking about, talking about and creating art. As the subtitles to his website and blog so piquantly put it, he writes about art as if people mattered, and thinks about culture as if democracy mattered.

I’ve flagged him up on here before, but his latest post feels particularly provocative for the NTiYN project. It focuses on Les Nouveaux Commanditaires, a programme initiated by Belgian photographer Francois Hers to create an alternative to standard community arts provision: giving people (in Matarasso’s words) “not just access to great art (as selected on their behalf by experts) but access to the means of cultural production”.

The Nouveaux Commanditaires mission statement makes clear that it seeks to overturn cultural inequalities. “Citizens remain absent and silent in art,” it notes. “They seem satisfied with anonymous relations with artists and limit artworks to having a role within a heritage that is managed by markets and institutions whose criteria and values could not stem from a political, let alone artistic project.” In the opportunities created by the programme, by contrast, “the citizen becomes an equal to the artist and acquires the authority to publicly express a need to create as well as to assess what is produced in the name of art”.

NTiYN – especially in its second phase, whose focus is split between touring existing work and commissioning artists to create new work for specific communities – shares many impulses with the Nouveaux Commanditaires. Through the post-show discussions I lead, members of the public are invited to assess what Fuel bring to their neighbourhood (and later to write about it for publication on this blog). New work is being commissioned following Artist Missions, again all documented on this blog: here, artists with motley disciplines and backgrounds – some of them already working with Fuel, but many new to the company – are invited to spend a day immersed in a participating NTiYN location, speaking to people who live there, finding out what culture is important to them, figuring out what kind of theatre work might suit their community, and encouraging participation.

From what Matarasso writes, however, the Nouveaux Commanditaires goes a step further. “Essentially a method of enabling citizens to commission new public art”, it invites people from very different professions – “doctors, voluntary groups, farmers, journalists, gardeners, teachers, politicians” – to choose for themselves the artists with whom they want to work, and what they want made, then collaborate with a mediator to bring their project to fruition. It makes me wonder: what might the NTiYN commissions look like if it weren’t Fuel making most of the decisions?

A possible British answer to the Nouveaux Commanditaires might be found in the Fun Palaces project co-directed by Stella Duffy and Sarah-Jane Rawlings. Inspired by Joan Littlewood’s motto “everyone an artist, everyone a scientist”, Fun Palaces aims to be “not just an event, [but] a movement, putting cultural participation and public engagement at the heart”. At this stage in its development, it’s hard to tell to what extent doctors, voluntary groups, farmers, journalists, gardeners, teachers or politicians are responding to its invitation to make their own Fun Palace, and how entrenched in our culture is this hierarchical notion that artists and art institutions make and curate art, while the rest of us just consume it or, at best, participate as instructed.

It’s a bit much to ask that either NTiYN or Fun Palaces single-handedly undo decades of failure to understand the necessity of art and culture to personal and social well-being. But it’s worth thinking about how these and other community-minded projects invite a general public to get involved, what equalities they successfully promote, and what hierarchies unintentionally persist in their structures.