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8 steps towards a theatre commons: 1 to 4


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

Here’s a second post about a ‘theatre commons’ – ‘8 steps towards a theatre commons’. I am posting the first 4 steps only here and 4 more will follow soon. See ‘Towards a theatre commons’ for the first part of the discussion.

1. Put on a pair of commons-tinted spectacles – develop a common lens: Hardt and Negri say ‘it is difficult to see the common, even though it is all around us’ (Hardt and Negri 2009, p. viii). What would happen if we put on a pair of commons-tinted spectacles and went about our day-to-day practice of thinking about, making and teaching theatre? How would this begin to alter, enhance, transform the way theatre is understood and practised? What commons are we making use of, enclosing or exploiting and/or enhancing as we go about our daily activity? The turns of phrases, gestures, movements, narratives and atmospheres that are circulated in and through the theatre ‘belong’ to (are generated by) the common. I speculate more about theatre as a ‘commons art’ below, but here I want to propose the possibility that the commons is something we are doing a lot of, and doing a lot of a lot of the time. We are commoning not just by doing theatre, or by doing things in the theatre without being paid for them, although commoning might include this, but also when we are doing things for the love of it – to support what we or someone else has done or might do, to enhance theatre as a commons available for all, and/or to sustain theatre’s contribution to a broader commons. These things might include: sharing a response to a piece of theatre, initiating a theatre-making project that draws attention to something important or tries something out, borrowing a gesture from someone on the street to start a drama exercise, borrowing a phrase to write a scene, seeing some theatre in the park, creating some theatre in a park, organising a play reading, reading someone’s work, catching on to and circulating an idea about theatre – such as ‘theatre commons’ for example! – working in collaboration, giving/receiving informal mentoring, doing something out of a sense of goodwill, relying on the goodwill of others, lending out props, costumes, space, driving the bus, exchanging a skill.

Quite a lot of what we do in the theatre relies on the goodwill and freely given attention of others – an extended conversation, an invitation to an event, the energy that generates some warmth around a piece of work or an artist. Lots of things spring from conversation and collaboration. Often, what we do does not achieve value in monetary terms – and is not fully financially remunerated. The theatre economy – even and perhaps especially in the commercial sector – expends much time and resource on ideas that may not make money, and certain economic customs in commercial theatre have developed to cope with this uncertainty. The relationship between economic property, money and the commons is a tricky area and needs to be more carefully thought out than I promise to do here. It is vital to support campaigns to pay artists properly – of course – and also to properly fund theatre production, and make theatre accessible to people on a living wage. I want to insist on the theatre commons and theatre commoning as a thing that does not mean working for free – as asking artists to work for free will only exhaust the commons. Rather, the theatre commons and commoning is a thing done in conversation with a money economy and, overall, is anything thing done in theatre in a way that sustains the theatre commons, and the contribution of theatre to a broader commons, over the long-term.

Whilst researching the original production of Jim Cartwright’s Road at the Royal Court Theatre in 1986, I was struck by frequent reference to jumble sales for costumes and borrowing of props in production meeting minutes (these are held at the V&A Theatre and Performance archive – another kind of theatre commons). Clothes were borrowed, props were bought on the cheap and other solutions to resource problems were improvised as the production team sought to stretch the budget and get this ground-breaking piece of contemporary British drama on its feet. The 1980s was a time of massive attacks on public funding for the arts, creating an environment at the Royal Court that caused the artistic director, Max Stafford-Clarke, to say at the time that ‘we have to think like paupers’ (see Philip Roberts and Max Stafford Clarke, Taking stock: the theatre of Max Stafford-Clarke, London: Nick Hern Books, 2007, p. 102.). In one sense, the reference to paupers draws attention to important arguments about the need to fund art properly, pay artists properly, distribute resource more equitably. I don’t think the idea of a commons undermines these arguments, as I said above. But the commons can provide a kind of social security to protect commons values, habits and practices. Lewis Hyde describes how the organisation of the commons in early modern England created a system of social security by ensuring that forests and pastures were open to people living on limited means. There are many, many examples of theatre-making that rely on a makeshift and associational organisation of the commons, from community theatre, activist theatre, amateur theatre, to festivals for new work and even, arguably, some kinds of seed-corn investment for commercial projects. Commoning imperatives have sustained some of the most significant theatre collectives in contemporary theatre – Odin Teatret in Denmark, for example, insist on equitable sharing of resource by paying all staff, including director Eugenio Barba, actors, stage managers, administrators and drivers, the same wage. The theatre commons can provide an essential infrastructure for the day-to-day processes of theatre-making, as well as help to nurture new and risk-taking projects.

Here’s a current example from the US – HowlRound, ‘a centre for the theatre commons’ – a brilliant online network that provides ‘a commons by and for people who make performance’ and explicitly aims to confront some of the inequalities that define theatre as an industry. As they say on the website (under ‘About’), ‘HowlRound’ is the name for the noise that is created when the sound from a loudspeaker is fed back into a microphone – ‘it’s an amplified feedback loop’. HowlRound draws on commons thinking and the collaborative habitus of theatre-makers to help sustain the non-profit theatre sector, for example by maintaining an open source online platform, including their New Play map initiative. This is an online map where theatre-makers upload information about the resources – artists, spaces, networks – drawn on when making new work. The map promotes new work, functions as a means of pooling resources, and reveals and shares information about a previously hidden theatre commons, radically transforming normative understandings of who is making theatre and where, what they are doing, and what they can do.

2. Theatre as a commons art, and an artful commons

Theatre is a messy, loose, open-ended, collaborative and social sort of art form that has experimented with, materialised, improvised and reflected on the commons across its manifold geographies, histories and presents. From plays about commoners and the commons, to the methodologies and commitments of theatre collectives, from theatre-makers’ adaptations, interruptions and deformations of capitalist forms of production, to the way a theatre event is only ever completed by an audience (and only then to begin again), theatre is perpetually open to the commons. Theatre’s opening to the commons has been historically fraught, with the principle of mimesis – theatre’s open-endedness, and its reliance on the copy, the replication, the almost the same but not quite – undermining fixed ‘truth’ and triggering political and social anxieties across history – as detailed by Jonas A. Barish in The Antitheatrical Prejudice (1985). The medium of theatre is vernacular – inspired by gestures, phrases, movements, rhythms and myths that encapsulate the extraordinary tensions, alienations and conflicts of ordinary life. Giving in to a tendency to become poetic – in reflecting the rhythms and shapes of common life, theatre serves commons life.

One way of thinking about this, following on from the association of the commons and the poor noted in step 1, is to turn to Grotowski’s text, Towards a Poor Theatre, originally published in 1968 (and so associated with the last turn to the commons to influence the development of theatre – the countercultural movement of the 1960/70s). Grotowski tried to strip theatre of all that was not essential to it – focusing on the relation between the actor’s body and craft and the spectator only – conducting a series of experiments with the actor’s capacity for expression and the spaces of encounter between actor and spectator. He and the ensemble of actors he worked with drew on classic texts to locate ‘representations collectives’ – a ‘common ground’, a relational commons, between actor and spectator ‘already existing in both of them, something they can either dismiss in one gesture or jointly worship’ (1986, p. 42). He presented theatre as an investigation of a commons (of sorts), saying that ‘theatre is an act engendered by human reactions and impulses, by contacts between people’ (p. 58) and as an exchange that happens in a context of ‘warm openness’ to another (p. 47). Theatre is sustained by the actor’s search for points of contact between her/his biography and the spectator and ‘if this concept is extended to the whole troupe, a new perspective opens up onto the limits of this collective life, onto the common ground of our convictions, our beliefs, our superstitions and the conditions of contemporary life’ (p. 98).

Some parts of Grotowski’s discourse – his rejection of the everyday, his notion of stripping the life mask to unveil the ‘holy actor’, his extreme seriousness, and his marginalisation of popular and trash forms of performance – are determinedly not commons-like. A theatre commons, for me at least, needs to include the frivolous, decorative, throwaway, everyday, plain silly and ridiculous. Paolo Virno – in his book, Grammar of the Multitude (2004) – describes ‘common places’, that is, forms of communication that are common (rather than specialist, and so open to many rather than a few). He argues that these common places are open, conspicuous, virtuosic (that is, performance-like) practices which can become the ‘apotropaic resource of the contemporary multitude’ (Virno 2004, p. 37) (apotropaic means protective, an insurance against threat). The gestures, narratives and phrases of theatre are something like this common place, perhaps – but, theatre does not occupy the political domain proper – it is determinedly improper. Virno argues that the idle talk and vacuous chatter of commoners (or to use his term, ‘multitude’) is infused with political potential. He takes Heidegger’s idea of ‘idle talk’, dismissed by Heidegger himself as a characteristic of ‘unauthentic life’, and uses it to describe the emotional tonality of the multitude/commoner. Here, idle talk and vacuous chatter cannot be so easily dismissed – it is inventive and potential – pragmatic, curious, adaptive, fleeting, performative, lacking in foundation: ‘nevertheless, this same lack of foundation authorises invention and the experimentation of new discourses at every moment’ (Virno 2004: 90).

One final brief point here, specific to theatre and performance studies. This is a bit abstract, so feel free to skip it. The commons also has a relationship to the performative and performativity that might be worth thinking about. If the performative is an utterance (or gesture, embodied movement) that materialises the thing to which it refers, then the commons provides its content and its infrastructure. The social material that produces (and queers) a performative, and a network of performatives, are a commons – they belong to each of us, albeit that our power to disturb the enclosures of such commons is not equal, perhaps. Without the commons, there are no grounds for our naming – for bringing into being lives that matter and/or the matter of life, and also, the commons institutes a very different kind of ‘self’, and relation between ‘self’ and ‘other’. Linebaugh’s comment that ‘human thought cannot flourish without the intercourse of the commons. Hence, the first amendment linking of the rights of speech, assembly, and petition’ (2014, p. 15) perhaps provides the grounds for thinking about this some more … Also see the chapters of Lewis Hyde’s book, Common as air, already cited here, on ‘the common self’.

3. Map the commons – here, I’d like to turn around and think about how a theatre commons might be practically realised. The first step, it seems to me, might be to map the commons. So, following on from wearing commons-tinted spectacles, we might start to locate and articulate the shapes that a theatre commons takes in local contexts, and work to enhance these commons. There might be ways in which theatres and theatre-makers in specific localities could map and make better use of their cultural commons. HowlRound’s New Play map initiative referred to above provides a great example. A map is a tricky idea though, as maps can be tools for enclosure and flattened out representations of the world, as demonstrated by the use of maps to claim ownership over and extract resources by colonial forces historically. The potential for enclosure is a challenge for the commons generally, and any move to mobilise the commons needs to ensure that such enclosures are challenged, and that any enclosures that are necessary are implemented in a way that enhances the commons over the long-term. HowlRound’s map does this by being dialogic and participatory – anyone can upload information about their theatre event, and as part of this they map the resources used in making it, bringing to visibility an array of artists, spaces, resources – a commons, embedded in theatre-making, for use by others, enhancing the commons for all. HowlRound’s initiators say that their mapping has led to more sharing rather than less, perhaps surprising given competition for resources in a threatened sector. Even a brief look at their website provides an insight into the way their work has generated a proliferation of theatre commons – the Latina/o Theatre Commons, numerous live streaming events, more than 1000 blog posts, nearly 500 essays …

4. Consult the genius of the place in all: Commons thinker David Bollier cites Alexander Pope’s comment, ‘consult the genius of the place in all’, to draw attention to the diversity of social and civic commons that are embedded in place (Bollier 2014, 155). For Bollier, ‘people are gravitating to the commons because they see it as a way to celebrate and protect their particular local circumstances. A community’s identity is inevitably entangled in its geography and its buildings, its history and its leaders. It is the place where people learn and develop a fuller sense of humanity and ecological responsibility’ (Bollier 2014: 155). It is possible to see the same impetus to relate to space and place differently in site-specific theatre and performance, in recent thinking about space and place in theatre and performance studies, and about ecology and performance. It is also there in community theatre practice historically, of course.

A commons lens brings these strands of thinking and practice together in a useful way, reinforcing their impulse to develop theatre as a set of relations that enhances common places rather than disrupts or lays them to waste. Common places are streets, associations, clubs, individuals, hubs, institutions, homes and enterprises, all shared or held in common, and they are also relationships, feelings, atmospheres, ideas, images, memories and perceptions, hidden knowledge, informal exchanges and events. A commons-focused theatre might complement the commons in a host site by searching for and revaluing the visible, well-trodden, recognised but also the invisible or forgotten common places, and historical narratives attached to them. A brief example – over the last three years, the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester (UK) has worked with New Charter Housing (a social landlord) to develop theatre initiatives in the Smallshaw/Broadoak/Hurst areas of Ashton-under-Lyne (north west England). When this worked well, artists practised responsively and in concert with existing commons in the area, and these commons appeared in many forms, from the contributions of amateur artists living in the neighbourhood to the warm welcome extended by residents on a street that was the site of an outdoor performance (see the ‘This is ours’ blog post and the archive for the Everyday Heroes project on the poor theatres database). Other cultural commons in this so-called deprived neighbourhood included musical bands, line dancing clubs, green spaces, resident’s associations, family hubs, work clubs, volunteer networks and community centres …

Steps 5 to 8 of ‘Towards a theatre commons’ will follow soon … here’s a preview:

5. The past is a commons

6. Barter without extraction

7. Waste = ‘the remains of a commons defeated’

8. Occupy the commons



David Bollier Think like a commoner: A short introduction to the life of the commons, Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2014

Jerzy Grotowski Towards a poor theatre, London: Methuen, 1969 edition

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Commonwealth, Cambridge Massachusetts and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009

Lewis Hyde Common as air: revolution, art and ownership, London: Union Books, 2012 edition

Philip Roberts and Max Stafford Clarke, Taking stock: the theatre of Max Stafford-Clarke, London: Nick Hern Books, 2007

Paolo Virno A grammar of the multitude, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004


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