ISDF Opening

25 June 2012

This is the text that I read at the really great opening event of the International Student Drama Festival in Sheffield on Friday 22nd June. It starts with a reference to another pretty inspiring event I took part in the same day – a panel discussion at Free Word in London, organised by LIFT and Index on Censorship.


I was on a panel this morning as part of the LIFT Festival working with Index on Censorship, at London’s Free Word Centre .On the panel were theatre makers from Iraq, Belarus and Lebanon; Lucien Bourjeily, a Lebanese film-maker and theatre director who brought improvised theatre to the streets of Beirut during the political turmoil in 2008; Natasha Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, co-founders of Belarus Free Theatre, which performed underground until they were forced into exile in 2010; and Monadhil Daood who founded the Iraqi Theatre Company in 2008.
We were talking about what made us work,
what our relation was to issues of censorship and freedom of speech.
I mean it was pretty humbling
and in many ways it felt absurd for me to be speaking at all
given that I was the only person on the panel who had not seen colleagues, friends and families persecuted, imprisoned, tortured or even killed in pursuit of their artistic work or simply for being there.
I can say for sure that these are not the problems I’ve faced in 27 years of making, performing, challenging and provoking in my work with Forced Entertainment… or in the role I’ve taken on recently as a professor at Sheffield University, working with students in theatre at the university.
But on the other hand what we spoke about this morning in London reminded me
minded me
of the importance of the space we do have in the arts
and of the limits we do have on in that space
and of the importance of staying free
and real
and live and now
We are – in case you hadn’t noticed – living in a space of economic downturn
neo-conservative politics
a space which offers us the dismantling and out sourcing of state functions (health, education, arts)
and in general
and with cuts a steady insistence on the importance of private sponsorship
a situation in which, little by little sponsors help to define the shape of public institutions.
We’re also living in a space here in Britain
where even public money is more and more focused through instrumentalist agendas, more and more focused on the delivery through arts of quantifiable outcomes.
There has been
a turn in Arts Council application process in which they are asking ‘how can you help us to deliver our vision’ – and that still shocks me, because,
I always thought
and still believe
for very good reason
that it was, is, and should be, the other way around.
In the broadest sense – in the world of private sponsorship and in the funded sector there is I think an attempt to make an image of the arts as a space of convivial affirmation
which is fair enough in one sense.
Reading the materials these days you’d know that art is about celebrating, bringing together, and affirming. You’d know that its about creative self-expression.
It’s harder somehow
to find reference to things like the fact that the arts might challenge, provoke or disturb.
It’s hard to find an emphasis on things like difficulty, difference, division or dissent.
We are here at the opening of the International Student Drama Festival in Sheffield – nine days packed with 20 performances and something like 260 workshops –
and I think this will be an amazing opportunity to show and to meet and to invent.
In 1984 my colleagues and I moved from Exeter where we had studied, here to Sheffield
I don’t know now what we were doing or thinking back then –it’s lost – I don’t even think we really knew at the time.
But I’m sure we had a sense that there could be
should be
a new theatre
a way to talk about the world we were living through, the situation we were born into,
the world we were starting to inhabit and play a part in as artists and citizens.
I imagine, one way or another, that is the reason that you are here also
each in your own ways
that you feel/know/think/intuit that the world needs a different way of speaking into it,
a new way of being articulated or unpicked.
I cant know of course and I cant advise.
Or again, to say it another way,
perhaps I can flag here some of the things that all of you already know.
You know that you were born in a certain time at a certain place, and that in time you have a particular eye on what’s around you, a certain ear to the culture, a kind of radar set in particular ways. I can say – which you all know already –  be true to that. And trust that all of it is relevant. Everything you know, everything that you’re curious about, everything that you’ve seen, felt, figured out, loved, hated, suffered, enjoyed, everything connects to what you can do, what you will do, what you have to do, in a certain sense.  In that way – as you know already – what you are is strangely, weirdly, in one sense minutely and in another sense totally, unique. A strange balance of histories, passions, skills, mistrusts, angers and lusts – a balance that’s beautiful, awkward, ugly, tough. Keep it that way.
I am talking about what you know already – about your knowledgeable love of computer games, or your passion for Country & Western, Bollywood or outdated political mainfestos or makeshift structures made out of wood. Your skill at maths, your sense of humour, your fear of heights, words, other people, being touched, your love of crowds, flow-charts, dubstep or other things. The combination of these things, there, in you, that you know about already, was not possible before you because this particular moment – in the culture, in the global, the local social and the sexual politics – never was before, and because these things, and others, never met before in that particular set of circumstances, personal and otherwise, that is you.
I want to say – what you know already or you would not be there in the first place – that something, now, is possible in theatre, in performance, in live art, in any medium, that was not possible before. And that something – is what you have to do, follow, articulate, question, invent or find and you are the only person or persons that can do that.
I advise that you steal things, from everyone and anyone. Take one thing from everything you love and then hide, mix and rework it all in what you do. Take one thing and make it yours. William Burroughs in his brilliant essay Les Voluers prescribes appropriation and remixing as a form of artistic practice and quotes Genet, I think, saying that “the thief is in no hurry” – take time, he says, to survey the scene – everything is there for you to take.
I also advise that you be promiscuous (artistically and otherwise if that’s possible) – start conversations, open possibilities, try things, drift, stay curious. Do not lock things down too much too early. Do not lock things down at all. Know – which you know already – that ‘the thing you do’ can shift and change, that your interests are diverse, and that their articulation, might at some point take many forms. Don’t lock things down or get trapped and don’t (either) be distracted by every stupid thing that comes along. Let go and hold on. Be open and defend.
I say that the good work comes from people that follow their noses. That the good work comes from people who don’t fit, or whose dogged sticking to a thing, whose dogged pursuit of a thing that no one else cares for, becomes a resource for the rest of us – a revelation, an assertion, an awkward insistence, a hymn to a possibility that we might well otherwise have overlooked.
I say – which you know already – as you go forward as makers, writers, directors or performers, don’t be afraid of identifying ways in which what you do meets the agenda of other people, institutions, bodies, funding structures. You may be new writing, you may be audience development, you may be cross-artform, you may even be cultural industries and regeneration of urban landscapes clause 9 sub-paragraph 4, artistic enterprise. Its all fine. You can be inventive and resourceful and assertive in all that. You may be these things – talk that talk and fit temporarily or otherwise into one hole or another – its all fine. But – I say – please know, which you know already – that you are also none of those things, that what you do comes from another place, that the good work in fact, the best of it, conforms to no agenda, is not a truly comfortable or fully compliant part of any scheme, plan or provision, that what you do as artists sets its own pace, place, aesthetic, context, context, that you’re occupancy of any of these positions described above is at best only ever temporary and tactical, only ever a means to an end, and that the end, in the end, is the work you make, and that the work makes its own rules. Nothing less than this is good enough. Everything else is bullshit.
I’m thinking back to this morning and the discussion about the space of relative freedom we have here in the arts and as I do so
I’m wishing you a great festival of
purposeful playfulness
or of endless propositions for playful purposefulness
a festival of serious unseriousness or the best kind of unserious seriousness
serious seriousness inserted in unseriousness.
Or again I’m thinking about the importance of the space we do have in the arts
space wrapped tight in serious unseriousness or good kinds of unserious seriousness
serious seriousness inserted in unseriousness.

Tim Etchells.
Sheffield 2012.