You are just not going fast enough – Richard Gregory’s opening address at Noorderzon Performing Arts Festival, Groningen, August 2013
Just over a month ago, I didn’t expect to be standing here talking to you. I thought that, right now, I’d be sitting in the Noorderkerk, somewhere near the back, opening my notebook, looking around to see who was in the audience, waiting nervously for the premiere of our performance at Noorderzon of The Dyas Sisters, Quarantine’s new theatre production. I’d be wondering how it might go. How you might react. What kind of audience you were going to be. Now I’m thinking the same, but for different reasons…
We’ve been at Noorderzon before – in 2011 with Entitled, our performance made with theatre technicians and the year before with Susan & Darren, a piece made with a dancer and his mother. And we’d expected to be here again, starting tonight, with a new production made with 2 sisters from Dublin.
But the production doesn’t exist. After over a year of research, development and rehearsals in Dublin and Manchester, I cancelled it. It wasn’t ready. It wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t happy to share what we had made with you, the public. I wasn’t happy to show it in this context – at Noorderzon, one of my favourite festivals – alongside work of the highest quality.
When I telephoned Mark Yeoman, to tell him that The Dyas Sisters was cancelled, his response was typically supportive and imaginative. He asked me to do this – to make the opening speech of this year’s festival. So here I am. Mark also told me that this year, for the first time in 12 years of programming, 3 of the artists have cancelled their performances. More likely than not, this is simply a coincidence…
And yet, of course, these are strange and difficult times we’re living through. Times of austerity and ideological muscle-flexing. Times when financial support for the arts is fundamentally under question. Times when the role of art in society is under scrutiny. Times when I’m not sure whether to describe myself as an artist, a social worker or a salesman. This is time to play safe perhaps – to make as sure as possible that things can’t go wrong…
So I’m here to talk briefly about risk and failure and how vital they are as principles of creativity – in everyday life as much as in art.
I’d like to share two quotations about risk:
The first is more literary, from Goethe: “The dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety.”
The second is my favourite, from the ex-Formula One champion Mario Andretti: “If things seem under control, you are just not going fast enough.”
I turned 50 last year. I’ve been a theatre director for all of my adult life. I’ll let you in on a secret. I don’t know what I’m doing. But I’ve done it for the past 30 years. The more I do it, the less certain I become about what to do and how to do it. Some of the time that’s terrifying. And I’m very happy about that.
The art that thrills me most is art that admits the most uncertain aspects of humanity. Art that allows for fragility, banality, clumsiness and ugliness, art that allows for vulnerability and contradiction, art that dares to be unfinished, art that is open to all kinds of interpretation and response, where the everyday can sit alongside the sublime. Art that provokes argument, art that allows the possibility of failure, is art that is more likely to touch me, even change me. This is unsafe art, art that might just be going too fast, that might drive over the edge.
To my mind, one of the great challenges of making any kind of art in contemporary society is to construct an environment where new forms and challenging ideas can exist in a popular public arena. That’s where the most interesting conversations take place. I’d even say that’s how progress happens. There’s absolutely no point in constantly speaking to the converted.
One of the things that Noorderzon does so well, perhaps uniquely, is to create a public space where all kinds of people want to meet and celebrate together. The park as the popular centre of the festival is not just a hub but a heart – beating hard for 10 days, and pumping people out of its arteries north, south, east and west to go out on a limb and discover some of the best theatre and art and music that the world has to offer right now.
For me, the important thing is that this work is rarely easy. It doesn’t assume a consensus or approach its public with lowest common denominators. And the exciting thing is the return to the park – later that night, or the next day, to argue the toss about the performance that you loved and your neighbour hated, to pump some new blood into the veins of debate about how, when the world is so crowded with difference, we might find fresh ways to share it together.
Art doesn’t exist in isolation. It seems to me that we’ve allowed ourselves to get used to looking at the world through the lens of capital, to discussing our problems in the language of bankers, to measuring our success in Facebook “likes” and Twitter “re-tweets”. Is this how we want to be?
Financial and social risks are taken on our behalf, without our agreement. Certain kinds of power remain in certain places and appear to shape our lives. And yet – art might just remind us that risk isn’t all about money and that failure, when it’s shared, can be a powerful, progressive thing. If we don’t experience it, we might not truly know what success looks like, or indeed what we might do next. Art might just remind us that being human is a messy, complex, terrible and brilliant thing. That not everything we produce as a species can be neatly wrapped up and sold in millions of units in a palatable form. That futures might be for imagining not trading.
I hope that we’ll all take some risks at Noorderzon this year – as artists and as audiences. Have a great festival.