18 Jun 2021

Culture of Possibility

Post written by: Erin Walcon

Sometimes in life you get to meet your heroes.

For years, I’ve read and thought about François Matarasso’s work on participatory and community arts. His writing has infused and informed my own opinions and had a direct impact on my artistic practice. Recently, Jade and I both got the chance to meet him (on Zoom) and talk about our practice at Doorstep, about some of our concerns about contemporary framings of ‘co-creation’ and about how we might have these conversations more widely within the sector. It was a real (pinch-yourself-what-is-happening) joy to talk shop with him – and to explore questions about empowerment, conscientization, and young people’s voice in participatory work.

In chatting together, we discussed how a contact of trust is key within participatory practice – i.e. whether ‘the promises that are made, are kept’. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It’s particularly key when working with young people – to whom promises are often broken, and whose innate sense of justice is sharp and instinctive. When working with a group of young people, we form a contract of trust at the start of an artistic process – an agreement about how things will work, in this space. Much of this contract is about power, is about decision-making, is about voice, is about who controls the vision. It’s about what we do if we disagree about the story and where it should go. It’s sometimes about how much people will be asked to share, or how risky the work will be, both emotionally and artistically.

Our young people in Doorstep Youth Theatre are currently working on 6 independent projects as part of our Esmee Fairbairn-funded Producing Praxis project. What excites me about this is that the projects are totally young-person-led … from conception to actualisation. They’re going to oversee their own budgets, cast their own shows, and supervise design, marketing, etc. They’re flying with them. There will be moments in this which are tricky for us to navigate as adults in the process – I think this will be good for us, healthy learning, healthy growth.

Matarasso’s article Use or Ornament: The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts was particularly useful to me when I was writing my PhD and it strikes me that it’s just as relevant now as it was in 1997 when it was published. I think we are seeing a contemporary movement toward participatory arts as a trend (funding and priorities-wise), and as we emerge from the pandemic and enter the Arts Council new 10-year strategy, I want us to be returning to these writings and having these conversations. When doing community-based participatory work, who holds the power? Who controls the vision? Whose politics are on display? Whose stories are used, and was permission asked? How migh such work challenge the status quo?

As I say, sometimes in life, you get to meet your heroes. Jade and I joined François and writer, activist, speaker and consultant Arlene Goldbard for a chat on their Culture of Possibility podcast last week.  Arlene has written about the experience here (and I genuinely am feeling twangs of imposter syndrome in reading her words, I have to say.)

You can listen to the podcast here.

It was a real honour to meet them both. Arlene’s body of professional work is incredible – I’ve been a long-time admirer of her writing. You can get a sense of her approach by listening to her speak… she’s a compelling public speaker and a voice that I deeply respect.

I’ve written before about how we stand on the shoulders of giants to do this work we do – Dorothy Heathcote’s practice, Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The work itself is often humble, invisible, grassroots, embedded, quiet – real empowerment and real change usually happens without any fireworks, over long-term journeys – over years. But the underlying questions the work poses are enormous – about social justice, about power, about societal change.

Some intelligent voices have been particularly key in advocating for this practice – in amplifying it, in posing key critical questions to the field. I feel so honoured and privileged to have been able to sit with them and talk a little in the past few weeks.

May these conversations continue.

May we keep asking difficult questions of ourselves.

May we continue to challenge the status quo – to push back bravely where needed, to keep the promises we made at the start. To remember the giants whose shoulders we stand on. To trust our voices to speak loudly in the changes that are to come.