Cole Matson spends his time filling out small business loan applications and waiting on hold in long-distance phone calls lately. He is the managing director of Open Window Theatre in Minnesota. Their mission is bringing, “multigenerational professional theater with a redemptive vision to the Twin Cities,” according to their website. All of the theatre’s in-person events are postponed for the time being with the coronavirus upheaval, which explains Matson’s recent activities. Still, the theatre posts recitations of poems by actors and staff they are calling The Spoken Word Project to keep the audience engaged during this otherwise downtime.
Although Matson now takes on more administrative and behind the scene duties, he is an actor, producer, and theatre scholar himself. He bridges the worlds of performing arts and the academy giving him a unique perspective on how the two interact within the broader context of Catholicism, and his resume reflects this. He is the founder of New York City-based Catholic Artist Connection, he worked as a Programming Association for Sheen Center for Thought & Culture, and has been the editor of a string of Catholic and Christian publications dealing with the arts and religion.
Catholicism is the theological base that Matson works from in these endeavors, but he is actually a Catholic convert (Matson discussed his conversion on The Journey Home). He grew up attending a Presbyterian Church and did not truly encounter Catholicism until briefly attending graduate school at Loyola University Maryland. In the process of his conversion, he received an M.A. in Theology from Cambridge University where he lived in C.S. Lewis’s home as a scholar-in-residence. Even before becoming Catholic, Matson experienced the tensions of holding consciously Christian beliefs in the art world.
Through the fire
Prior to studying theology, Matson received his B.F.A. in drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, which proved not a congenial place for growing in one’s faith. Matson explained, “For the most part, the instructors I had were all about… [open] yourself up and get rid of all strictures including those constricting religious upbringings and sexual qualms… that you were raised with, and let yourself be completely liberated in order to be a good artist.”
When one professor learned that he enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, her comment was that, “fantasy is juvenile trash not worth indulging your time on.” The professors tended towards urbane realism made in their image and likeness. Somewhat amazingly, Matson maintained his faith and his love of good-natured fantasy through this experience.
These loves motivated his schooling and career aspirations following NYU. After getting his M.A. in theology from Cambridge, he attended the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland receiving his Ph.D. in Divinity from the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts. He was more at home in this environment. “I saw that there were people… doing dissertations on C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, George MacDonald, Charles Williams, and I thought, these are my people. There were some people doing dissertations on theatre theology as well,” Matson commented.
At St. Andrew’s, Matson delved more deeply into the relationship between faith and art. Catholicism’s sacramental understanding of the world and the Church allow more penetrating insights into the dignity and purpose of art. Matson explained, “The imagination and images and stories... aren’t just lesser tools to illustrate the Gospel…, but stories and art actually communicate something of God to us in a way, which cannot be communicated just through the use of reason and through words. The experience of reading Lord of the Rings, for example, is greater than the experience of pulling out lessons to be learned from Lord of the Rings, and it’s that experience that strengthens you.”
This understanding of art saves it from falling into two different antagonistic utilitarian pitfalls. One is seeing art solely as self-expression, which Mastson encountered at NYU. In this view, which takes relativism for granted, there is no truth or even necessarily reality binding artist and audience. The most one can attain is a more comprehensive “my truth,” and the artist has no obligatory duty to do so or assist others in this anyways. We see this in self-indulgent conceptual art with little to no inherent beauty. Only those supposedly in-the-know can comprehend it, and it ultimately sours many people on the power of art and aesthetic.
On the other extreme, we find an overly-moralistic art sacrificing beauty and the complexities of human existence to portray clean-cut lessons for the audience. This tendency can lead to being overly sentimental. Flannery O’Connor discusses this idea, which can be attributed to many modern Christian and Catholic artists and audiences, in her essay, “The Church and the Fiction Writer.” O’Connor notes, “By separating nature and grace as much as possible, he [the modern Catholic reader] has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliché and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene.”
She continued, “He [the modern Catholic reader] forgets that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence, and that innocence, whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, by some natural law becomes the opposite.”
According to O’Connor, the distortions needed to create “clean art,” inevitably lead to counterbalancing perversion. A more deeply formed Catholic imagination views art as tied to truth, beauty, and goodness in a mysterious and incarnational way thus saving it from both extremes. Art can have inherent purpose, unlike the modern self-expressive doctrine, without being reducible to merely a means of instruction.
Matson’s current work with Open Window Theatre engages some of the modern complexities of effectively wedding faith and art. One of its founders, Jeremy Stanbary, previously ran an explicitly Catholic company called Epiphany Studio Productions. Matson explained, “[Epiphany Studio Productions] was formed in order to tell stories about the Gospel and about the saints for Church and school audiences, so it was stories by Catholics, about Catholics, and for Catholics.”
Although Stanbary remains unabashed about his Catholicism, and many of the people working for the company like Matson are Catholic, a broader vision guides Open Window. Matson confided, “The plays that we do don’t necessarily come from Christians, don’t necessarily have Christian or Catholic content in them, but the arc of the play is resonant with the arc of the Gospel, which is that suffering leads to death, leads to resurrection through the grace of God… [this] is what we are looking for.”
Matson continued, “Because you do not have to be Christian to be moved by and believe in that arc. But at the same time, because the founders of the theatre and a lot of people that work with the theatre are Christian, a lot of our patrons are Christian because that arc comes from Christ. We do have a large audience base who are Christian, and Catholic in particular, who are looking for plays which shine the Gospel even if they are not directly labeled as being related to the Gospel… We are trying to bring that arc of redemption to the wider secular theatre community in the Twin Cities.”
In this way, the company holds itself to high-quality theatre standards while maintaining content standards informed by a developed Catholic conscience. “Our aim is to become one of the premier professional theatres in the Twin Cities… to be known as a theatre which does good work that stands up amongst its peers… while also our audience knowing that anything they come to see will encourage them in faith, and hope, and love, and not be nihilistic or full of nudity or profanity or anything like that.”
Through his conversion and these many projects dealing with the intersection of faith and art, Matson discerned the beginning calls to a religious vocation he is currently parsing out. He has talked with many artists experiencing a similar call who are unable to find a home within communities that are hesitant to carve out a space for individuals inspired to minister through the arts. He is in contact with people on possibly beginning a community dedicated to this purpose and encourages artists who feel a similar call to reach out to him. His website with contact information is https://colematson.com/.