Don't be a dick

26 April 2019

Naomi Obeng imagines a closing speech 

I’m quite a big fan of closing speeches. There’s something about the opportunity to sum up and to urge onwards that I can’t resist. I love a cutting summary. A satisfying conclusion. 

It felt quite strange being at NSDF and not really writing anything. Sure, there were the editorials, cobbled together at the end of a day (*ahem*), scrambling for the 500 words that might best sum up some sort of collective experience of something. Yeah. Eloquence.

Other than that I spent time outside of my own voice and listening to others. 

It was brilliant to work with bright and talented writers. To shape a publication with their words. I saw many semi-colons. It did not increase my respect for the semi-colon. I didn’t delete all of them. You live and let live. I was going to use the semi-colon as a metaphor here, but honestly,...urgh,...semi-colons. I’ll use something else.

Something that felt quite strange was the way NSDF ended, without too much of an all out rousing closing speech. I mean, anything Alan Lane says can and should be interpreted as doing that job pretty brilliantly, and celebrating Bost-Uni Plues as the audience favourite with the new Stephen Jeffreys’ award presented by Guest Director James Phillips was the most fitting way to close that ceremony. 

I just wanted a big massive block of ‘take this forward into your life’ to get us pumped for the future, and remind us that we’re capable of such huge change.

Maybe my enthusiasm levels are quite insensitive and I need it spelling out in confetti and letter balloons. (likely)

So I’m writing something here. Not from any position of authority (lol, I hope no one sees me as an authority on anything, only someone with an opinion and some knowledge, like you), but from the position of someone who isn’t sure that these things have been said loud enough, and in the same place enough. Things that I want to remind of. Things I’d like to remind myself.

Structure is made by people. It is an i n v e n t i o n. People can change structure. If you’re being forced to fit in, break it. If it's proving hard to fit someone in, change it. If it’s been this way forever and you’ve never asked why, fix it. People are far more important than ensuring the longevity of the structures and conventions that they’ve built. People are always more important.

If someone says we can’t do that now. It’ll take time. It’ll take money. It’ll take this that whatever. They’ve not questioned structure. Sit down and sort through it. Think of ways. Make it a goal. You have the luxury of not having a past status quo to unconsciously cling to. You have the luxury of being hardworking, dedicated, committed and passionate and capable of building worlds out of nothing.

You are the authority. I love that NSDF embraces equal footing. We have visiting artists who are generous with their time, who listen and learn from us just as we learn from them. Not all ‘established’ people are like this. Some see the way things were done twenty years ago as some strange gospel (an odd lack of creativity in a creative bubble), unable to fathom that the world around this structure has revolved onwards, and they’re busy imposing a ghost onto a world that has outgrown it. Don’t let them. You know more than they think. Be brave enough to show them their mistakes. Be brave enough to make mistakes. Otherwise the ghost will go on, catering only for other ghosts, and you’re not a ghost are you? Don’t become one. [revise with less confusing metaphor]

The very first discussion of the week got me thinking about whose responsibility it really is to affect change. I was thinking about asking whether the panel thought that, actually, people in power should be doing the heavy-lifting, because people with power have a larger capacity to make impactful change. 

I honestly didn’t like being urged by someone on a panel to be an activist – to go and protest and demand things. While we protest structural inequality, there are people actively (passively) upholding those structures. All it takes is for the people with power to not be terrible. If we were in their position (running a company, producing in theatre, casting a huge show…) we wouldn’t have to protest or be activists – we’d have some chats, listen to some concerns, have some meetings, and make some changes. You know, do what so many of you showed with such ease and grace during the week – being kind and generous and engaged with the world around you.

So I’d like to address this part of my closing speech not to the festgoer attendees of the National Student Drama Festival 2019, but to the selectors, visiting artists, judges and panellists – you are the ones who listen and who want to learn, but you will know so many people in this industry (and in others), who don’t have the same willingness. Tell them this.

If it don’t look broke to you, ask someone who isn’t like you. 

If it don’t look broke, it probably is, so ask someone else how you can fix it. 

I know that we are all trying to subsist. We are all trying to make work, and we think there just isn’t the time in the day to start overhauling systems. We think there isn’t the money. There aren’t the resources. We’d need this. We’d need that. 

But upholding exclusionary structures is a choice. 

It is an active choice to ignore the people ‘below’ you, and beside you. 

Thinking that there isn’t the time is denying countless people the opportunity to even begin. That is a choice you are making. That is the world you are maintaining.

If the arts are not for questioning the way things are, then what are they for? 

If they aren’t for putting humanity first, then what are they for?  

Passivity is easy. Action is hard.

So don’t make young people do all the work of being ‘inspiring’ and ‘impressive’ and ‘radical’.

Don’t make them have to ask loud enough and for long enough for you to be shamed into action.

Don’t be a dick.

@noffmag / [email protected]

Photo credit: Beatrice Debney