We talk and think about risk a lot when we’re making new performance work. We rarely encounter physical danger in the way that front-line services do.
Medical staff, care-workers, police, all face statistically much heavier risks, especially during the current crisis. WildWorkers often work in challenging locations, with steep slopes, slippery underfoot, using fire, in the dark, in all weathers – the subject of laboriously crafted risk assessments. But nothing as fiercely hard as trying to keep someone alive while risking your own health and the health of the people you love; we don’t have to muster that kind of bravery.
Yet I have experienced moments of fear in my work…
In the West Bank as part of the Palestine Literature Festival, Bill, Mercedes and I walked down a deserted street in Hebron. We were among a large group of Palestinians and artists of many nationalities. Suddenly we were surrounded and challenged by heavily armed soldiers. This was a forbidden street. ‘WHO ARE YOU? WHERE ARE YOU FROM?’ There was a beat of silence while the implications for the Palestinians among us flashed through our minds. Henning Mankell, the magisterial Swedish writer, spoke. ‘We are from the world’ he said. A true artist’s response. There was a confused pause. Then they allowed us to pass. Creativity and unity saved us.
With Kneehigh back in the 90s we made a splendid little show that toured village halls in Cornwall and Dorset, ‘Telling Tales’. Miraculously it was booked to play the Arts Alive Festival in Soweto. In the weeks before we embarked the stories told to us magnified all kinds of night terrors – carjackings, rapes, murderous burglaries and muggings. A lawless and inhumane place. But guess what? I have never in my life been showered with more love and sheer human affection than we were given on the streets of Soweto.
In the Naval Dockyard in Plymouth we made ‘The Beautiful Journey’, set in the future after all the bees had gone. I played Kassandra, the scientist, scanning the climate and the horizon. I conceived the image of her flying above the dock, suspended from a crane to do her work, Bill loved the idea. But I hadn’t really thought this through. You see, I’m not very good at heights. My brother Pete designed the cage I was to travel in and he was the crane master controlling my voyages. As the moment of my first flight approached I felt physically sick, but there was no way I was going to back out. Pete did a beautiful thing. He showed me around the cage and the crane. He showed me how the cage door was secured and how to open it quickly if I needed to get out in the water. He showed me the strops that attached the cage to the crane hook, two of them as a failsafe. And then I had my first flight, spiralling gently upwards over the dock. Those launches into the sky became my favourite memories of that show, lifted up into the last rays of the setting sun, repeating the mantra of Met Office sea areas ‘Viking, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight…’, the midnight sound of our Dad’s boat.
Each of these terrors had their cure in love and in other people.
We are all navigating a new and fearful territory right now, picking our way over unexpected bumpy ground, finding out what our risk boundaries are, fearful of what might happen if we slip.
I haven’t been inside a supermarket for six months, but I have accepted a cuddle from my tiny great-niece. I sit in the garden drinking tea with Sally my darling next-door neighbour, two metres apart, but neither of us have been inside each other’s houses since mid-March (apart from when I locked the cat in the attic and was sitting on a wild beach far from home when I remembered and she rescued him). Each of us has to find our own path through this and it’s tempting to be judge-y when people’s choices are different from your own. But the ‘rules’ have often seemed so contingent, and so freely transgressed by those powerful enough to feel immune, that we really have had to make it up as we go along.
Now we have to work out how to live, how to make art, how to keep ourselves and each other safe. I have a feeling that artists are going to be good at this. We are accustomed to uncertainty, ambiguity. The whole business of bringing something new into being always feels dangerous somehow. ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ ‘What if they don’t like it? ‘What if we lose money?’ And then always this…
At a certain point in each creative process, usually a couple of weeks into rehearsal, this thought comes – ‘I can’t do this, I’m not up to it, I have no talent or skills for this task’. Then the second thought, ‘Yes, but I always think that at this point’. And then, crushingly, ‘Yes, but this time it’s really true’. I’m pretty sure most artists reading this will recognise this vertiginous feeling. Fear is a corrosive emotion, it can freeze you, paralyse you. It’s anathema to play, invention, radical creativity.
So, you make the next step, no matter how small, find a friend to make that step with you. And then the next. Because the risk of not stepping into the future is worse than the risk you fear. In the early days at the Eden Project we were wrangling how to introduce children’s play on the site and were being roundly defeated by our own perceptions of the inherent risks in everything we were proposing. It all looked too dangerous. We were in a hell of risk assessments, ‘zero harm’ and litigation liability. The solution came from an unlikely source. An officer at RoSPA (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) said ‘Sure, do your risk assessments, they’re vital. But do your Risk Benefit Analysis too’. He talked about the cohort of children we were raising who had never climbed a tree, never touched an animal, never played with matches, never stood in running water or waves. They would be the adults who had never tested their boundaries and were unprepared for the physical challenges of height, balance, tides, flames. He talked the poetry of the risks of not taking risks.
And now we are standing on the edge of the future. It was always so, every day, but we have never felt so keenly the possibility of change and the urgency of bringing it into being, a creative act. This month sees us jumping on the opportunity to get outside again and make work in the new normal – ‘MEET ME AT THE EDGE’ on the cliffs of Botallack; we are excitedly finding a way. We now know we can do things differently. Rebecca Solnit says in her inspiring book ‘Hope in the Dark’ – ‘The future is dark. But it is a darkness as much of the womb as the grave…’