Saturday, 13 January 2018

What Maria Matos means to me (or, why did I sign the petition)

On December 17, 2017, the newspaper Público published an interview with the Councilor of Culture of Lisbon, Catarina Vaz Pinto, where it was announced that "[the theatre] Maria Matos (MM) will have a very different programming model, with longer running periods and a greater concern in attracting audiences, in order to be profitable". The news was surprising to me, to say the least. I would say more, I remember that, as I read, I felt a kind of physical pain.

Since that day, there have been two meetings of citizens interested in the future of this theater, who disagree with the decision announced by the Municipality. There has also been a petition
, which I promptly signed and which will be delivered to the City Council next week.

I read with great interest the opinions of colleagues and friends whom I very much respect, who do not oppose the announcement made by the Municipality and who criticize those who reacted negatively and signed the petition: Jorge Silva Melo (JSM on Facebook - image below), Miguel Abreu (MA on Facebook, here and here) and Miguel Lobo Antunes (MLA in Público). I learned from all of them: first, about the story of Maria Matos, which I did not know; and also about their concerns, regarding the theatre programming offered to Lisbon’s audiences and the inadequate conditions of this theater for the presentation of the programming it had until now. I also appreciated MA’s clarifications in relation to public-private-lease-privatise. They are needed in this discussion.

At the same time, there are things that have surprised me in the arguments presented. For example:

- The need expressed by all three colleagues to draw upon the history of MM and to remind us of its "initial vocation", which, apparently, we should serve faithfully, moving backwards;

- JSM’s criticism that the "intellectuals" (are they?) [intend] to take over buildings which are clearly destinated to other purposes", while "the obvious destination [of MM] is the entertainment of a little qualified middle class, but which, nonetheless, deserves its theatre";

- MA's criticism that the discussions of those who oppose the decision of the Municipality, as well as the petition, are demagogic, a fact he attributes to the "Incompetence or ineptitude of some? Ignorance of others? Some opportunism? There is probably a bit of everything, generating noise and confusion."

- MA's criticism that the MM "served, during the last eight years, a set of artists aligned by an aesthetic identity and artistic and socio-cultural complicities which, in the words of several personalities, currently have space in [the theatres] São Luiz, Culturgest , D. Maria II, CCB...";

- Following on from this point, MLA’s opinion that "the number of venues with this type of programming has increased" and that "spaces of 'contemporary' creation abound in Lisbon";

- MLA’s statement that "This is a kind of decision that does not require public discussion. Those who have been elected to manage the cultural policy of the Municipality must define the fate of their venues, listening to whom they wish, if they wish, and assuming their responsibilities."

In relation to all this, I would like to say the following:

The last eight years are also part of the history of MM. Some may regard them as a "detour", I rather see this more recent history as equally legitimate, a more than natural development in spaces that remain alive.

In these eight years, MM did not only serve "a set of artists aligned by an aesthetic identity and artistic and socio-cultural complicities" – which is natural, considering the existence of an artistic direction. It also served a group of citizens (non-artists), aligned by an aesthetic identity and socio-cultural complicities, who found a space there that addressed their concerns and still presented them with others, which they had not necessarily asked for or could not even imagine. I am one of these citizens and no, I do not find this type of programming in São Luiz, D. Maria II, Teatro do Bairro or CCB. I sometimes found it at Culturgest (which is now changing direction); and found in the space of Next Future, at the Gulbenkian Foundation (which no longer exists). Even if we maintained all three, I could hardly speak of “abundance". It's not just about being "contemporary".

In these eight years, thanks to the work of an entire team, MM has gained a specific identity, an identity that is not attached to an artistic director, but which is associated to the space and what it represents in the lives of many citizens: it has become a theater of the polis which assumes a political (non-partisan) positioning, which believes that we do not live in the best of the worlds, but does not consider it a utopia to invite people to reflect on this world, our life in common in the city and what each of us can (that is, has the power) to do. There is an audience that "goes after" an artistic director, because, regardless of where he is, he maintains his positioning / questioning. But there is also an audience that creates a relationship with a space, as well as expectations regarding what it represents, which is something that may be approached in different ways by different artistic directors. I had hoped that the specific identity of MM would be maintained with whichever artistic director would follow, by decision (and with the guarantee) of the Municipality of Lisbon. I had expected new complicities and perhaps new aesthetics as well. I had concretely hoped (a hope created during Lisbon - Ibero-American Capital of Culture and especially with the arrival of Grada Kilomba to Lisbon) that MM would be a municipal theater with a black artistic director. But it could also be something else, as long as it fitted the identity of the space, the "promise" that a brand (a brand very well crafted by MM) brings.

This is, in my view, the missing element in the appreciation and criticisms made by our colleagues: the relationship that a group of citizens created with MM. Even if the room is not the most adequate for the programming it presents; even if we were less comfortable on the bench. But because we liked, and needed, the "discomfort" that this space brought us. And also the surprises, the wonders, the beauty.

I signed the petition. I did not do it pretending, "as an intellectual (am I?)", to take charge of a place that seems to belong legitimately and forever "to a low-skilled middle class", depriving it of its entertainment. Nor did I do it with demagogic intentions. I also consider that I was not driven by incompetence, ignorance or opportunism.

I signed the petition because the space of MM has brought me a lot and means a lot to me. And because, in democracy, I do not expect our governors to listen to us "if they wish," however much they may be ready to assume their responsibilities. I expect them to listen to us whenever a group of us tells them that we have something to say on a subject that concerns us. And I expect them to take on their responsibilities after that.

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