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8 steps towards a theatre commons: 5 to 8


This is the third of 4 blog posts on the theatre commons – written by Jenny Hughes

Here’s the next post about a ‘theatre commons’ – ‘8 steps towards a theatre commons: 5 to 8’. See ‘Towards a theatre commons’ and ‘8 steps towards a theatre commons: 1 to 4′ for the first two.

5. The past is a commons: Commons thinking and writing is frequently characterised by a special attentiveness to history. History is a commons resource offering stories, symbols, identities, proposals for supporting a future commons, and commons historians draw attention to the residues of historical commons in the present. I don’t have much to say about this speculative step at present – but as I write this I’m reminded of Naomi Klein’s accout, in her recent book This changes everything (2013), of the older women in a Greek community fighting to preserve its land making a vital contribution to the protest movement, not least because they held common knowledge of how to cook for the large groups of people who turned out to support blockades! In the community theatre initiative in Ashton-under-Lyne mentioned in the last post (‘8 steps towards a theatre commons: 1 to 4′), older residents in the neighbourhood valued the outdoor performance that was organised because it brought people out of their houses to see a performance and take part in a street party. This revitalised a residual commons that they had felt was lost, reminding them of times when neighbourly social support was more evident and, perhaps, prevalent. The intergenerational dimension of community events is one of the most urgent imperatives of a theatre commons. How do we institute networks that collect and pass on know-how from one generation to the next? This is relevant to all kinds of theatre as well as community practice – alternative, community, institutional, and commercial theatres need to get better at looking after its knowledge bases. Some great colleagues – Alison Jeffers and Gerri Moriarty – are confronting this problem in the community arts by working towards a set of archives that preserve the histories of the community arts movement (see communityartsunwrapped.com).

 Another example is Mark Tribe’s Port Huron Project in the US in 2008. Whilst teaching at Brown University during the war on terror years, Wright was moved by the apparent lack of belief in the possibility of social change evident in his students, which he connected to a loss of a ‘big politics’ impetus and an overarching sense that ‘revolution seems impossible’. So, he drew on ‘the legacy of the New Left by reanimating largely forgotten protest speeches’. He asked actors to re-enact 6 iconic protest speeches in their original sites, and in their entirety, including a speech by Coretta Scott King given two weeks following her husband’s assassination and a speech by Angela Davis given at a Black Panther rally in 1968. You can watch clips of the speeches here – http://www.marktribe.net/port-huron-project/

I find these performances hair-raising and incredibly moving – not least for the audible responses from audiences in the now time and place. In the book about the project, Rebecca Schneider comments on the uncanny experience of watching the re-enactments: ‘It is Now. It is Again. It is the necessary vigilance of arguing for Never – Again. And Again’ (in Mark Tribe The Port Huron Project: Re-enactments of the New Left protest speeches, Charta Art books, 2008. p. 25).

6. Barter without extraction – this one responds to that part of commons literature that describes the destructive impact of extractive industries on material commons across the world. Any kind of commons is sustained by relations of sharing and exchange – by sometimes complex and historic agreements about how resources are managed. Bartering without extraction – engaging in exchanges with other artists and researchers, and with communities, that don’t exploit or enclose – is easy to write and less easy to do well in practice. Each sharing is embedded in a network of power and influence that is both visible and invisible, hierarchical and potentially exclusive. This needs careful management, as common resources can easily be enclosed by one side of an exchange to the detriment of others, drawing attention again to challenging questions about the relationship between ‘property’ and the commons. Lewis Hyde (2012) explores the commons as a way of imagining property and property relations, and one that has changed over history, and others have defined the commons as properties only temporarily possessed for use, rather than as properties that belong to somebody or a group permanently. As noted above, whatever property concepts and practices are developed (for example, in relation to intellectual property) to govern the artistic commons, it is important that these work to enhance rather than deplete the commons in the long-term.

 Here’s an example – again from HowlRound in the US – a ‘Culture coin’ proposal (see ‘Culture Coin: An Alternative Currency to Sustain Artists’). Culture Coin is a ‘disruptive entrepreneurial model for theatre-making’ based on ‘a global, commons-based alternative economy and complementary currency … that creates new wealth, abundance, and virtuous social behaviours by matching unmet needs and underutilised resources that our current economy fails to circulate’ (Vijay Mathew and Polly Carl, ‘Culture Coin’ Artivate journal, 2: 3, 2013 p. 1). This proposal is presented as one that might compensate for ‘sweat labour’ (unpaid or low paid work) common to alternative and DIY theatres, and is also potentially more sustainable than the non-profit theatre sector’s current reliance on philanthropy and commerce driven models. It’s not clear from the website whether or not this has been tried out in practice, and it is a little bit like time banking and informal, neighbourhood based modes of exchange. The proposal is to develop a mechanism whereby artists and organisations supply a list of the ‘resources, assets, expertise, or support’ that they currently have and that are underutilised and might benefit other artists or organisations, and also a list the ‘resources, assets, expertise or support’ that they need to develop new work. Culture Coins are collected by something from your list of offers being utilised by someone else, and expended by you using something from another list, presumably with values agreed by the network of participants in advance …

 7. Waste = ‘the remains of a commons defeated’: – ‘The waste of a system is that which refuses proper integration: these are the remains of a commons defeated, and the anticipatory omens of a commons to come’ (Rob Halpern cited in Andrew Herscher The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2012). Wastes are fragments, spaces, people, ideas and relationships discarded by the capitalist profit-making project, and have prescient, immanent value … Herscher’s book gives examples of how vacant lots and abandoned buildings in postindustrial Detroit for example, have been transformed into commons projects – offering a brilliant insight into the manifold commons potential of postindustrial landscapes.

8. Occupy the commons: Might a theatre commons initiative in the UK help reverse the ‘growing wealth gap’ between large and small theatre organisations – which Charlotte Jones from the Independent Theatre Council has pointed to? She shows how the current funding environment is making it difficult for small arts organisations to function (see Charlotte Jones ‘National portfolio cuts are something to shout about’ The Stage, 26 August 2014). If a theatre commons akin to that developed by HowlRound were to work, bigger institutions would need to be honest about their debt to the commons, and governance structures would need to be responsive to existing commons customs – informal as well as formal, articulated as well as unspoken – in specific localities. There are no rules here – these would have to be made in the doing, and adapt to context. There is perhaps one overarching principle, though, that might be important (and I know I am borrowing this from something I’ve read – but I can’t find the exact citation) – everyone can make use of the commons so long as they don’t take them away from others or leave them depleted.

In my city of Manchester (UK), the local authority is facing another round of unprecedented public sector cuts, which will continue to stretch the already overstretched networks that many arts and theatre projects are embedded in and supported by. Working out where the commons practices are and how to enhance these might help to safeguard creative practices essential to maintaining the well-being of the city over the ongoing period of economic shock. There are some good sources that provide guiding principles for how a cultural commons might be organised that might be utilised here and these tend to stress non-compulsion and voluntarism, born of recognition of the mutual benefits of commoning. Being plural, diverse, inclusive might be important – the city’s history of amateur theatre needs to be included, alongside professional theatres, and artists who have been around for a while alongside new and emerging artists. Partnerships with non-cultural sector organisations might also be important. Valuing visitors, audiences, participants and ‘service-users’ as commons contributors is essential. Charities, philanthropists, capitalists, corporations, crowd funders, academics, teachers, the politically Left and the politically Right – all included, if they are up for wearing a commons lens. It might even be possible to commercially exploit the productions of commons activity, with profits re-invested in the commons …


Thanks to all the theatre artists and theatre organisations I’m working with at the moment – their work has fed this series of posts on the theatre commons, through conversations and via the opportunity for direct encounters with theatre-making – Bolton Octagon, Contact, Common Wealth Theatre, Chol Theatre, The Edge, Men’s Room Manchester and Royal Exchange Theatre.






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