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Towards a theatre commons


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

‘The commons’ is a term that describes things that are organised in ways that hold them open and make them available for common use. Commons can be material (places, people, things), social (relationships, networks), cultural (values, knowledge, feelings, symbols, experiences). The commons already exists, and it can be enhanced, developed and created anew. In times of economic austerity and ecological crisis, the idea of the commons has gained powerful traction. It appeals to people interested in operating outside of a market economy, working responsibly with resource, challenging inequality and reviving communities that are under real pressure. As commons thinker Lewis Hyde says ‘even as market triumphalists work to extend the range of private property, a movement has arisen to protect the many things best held in common’ (Hyde 2012, p. 3). I am drawn to the commons because it provides a framework for bringing together the areas I’ve been interested in whilst researching theatre, performance and poverty – the economics of cultural production, the socio-political construction of the idea of ‘resource’ and resourcefulness, the relationship of theatre to notions of scarcity and abundance, the use of theatre as resource by communities designated ‘economically deprived’, the use of theatre as a resource to tackle issues of economic justice etc.

How might the idea of the commons and the practices of commoning that it enables relate to theatre-making? How might the commons be adapted to nurture theatre ecologies, theatres as institutions, and in teaching and researching theatre? The theatre sector – professional, community and educational – is currently preoccupied by concerns about the impact of public sector cuts, poor pay for artists, lack of opportunities for emerging artists, inequitable distribution of resource and by the apparently precarious status of Drama and Theatre Studies as a discipline in schools and Universities. Might the commons offer a way of navigating these difficult times? In this post I offer a few definitions of the commons – and in two later posts I’ll present an eight-step speculation towards a theatre commons and list some resources that I’ve found useful for thinking about the commons. It is worth saying upfront that I am not proposing a fixed programme here, but instead I want to share some ideas about a theatre commons that I find inspiring as well as disseminate some ideas to be picked at, dismissed, enhanced, developed and realised in collaboration with others – in line with good commons behaviour then.

Some definitions of the commons

‘The commons’ is an idea that is perhaps most often used in discussions of natural resources – land, water, air. There is a large-ish and growing body of literature inspired by the commons, and in it Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom is often cited as a source of inspiration. She studied the management of ‘common-pool resources’ such as land, fish and rubber by communities in Ethiopia, the Philippines and living along the Amazon, describing these in a book published in 1990 called Governing the Commons. Her work details the manifold ways material resources are safeguarded by local practices, and it runs counter to the idea of ‘the tragedy of the commons’. The ‘tragedy of the commons’ was described in an essay by ecologist Garrett Hardin in Science in 1968 – he argued that every commons ends in the tragedy of its inevitable depletion, as each user seeks to maximise his own gain from it. Ostrom’s work responds by describing governance systems that ensure that the commons are protected and enhanced through use.

In his book describing the plural commons that have arisen across human cultures throughout history, David Bollier describes the extraordinary benefits generated by cooperation: ‘human beings’ natural propensity to cooperate is a powerful source of innovation that has given rise to a rich variety of social and civic commons’ (Bollier 2014, p. 133). Bollier describes the commons as self-organised systems that manage resources in a community in a way that does not rely on the market or the State, and preserves those resources, and the values and identities associated with them, for future generations.

Another set of definitions of the commons is offered by historian Peter Linebaugh. He provides a geographical history of the commons that tracks its resistances and resonances over the 400 period of enclosure that arose with the development of capitalism. For Linebaugh, the commons is ‘the theory that vests all property in the community and organises labour for the common benefit of all’ (Linebaugh 2008, p. 6). Here, the commons are more than ‘common-pool resources’ – Linebaugh draws attention to ‘common’ as a verb, and the way ‘commoning’ is an activity conducted through labour with resources (Linebaugh 2014, p. 13). He reminds readers of the Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘common’ as ‘belonging equally to more than one’ (ibid., p. 17 ). He also explores how some commons are generative – including the knowledge commons where, citing Thomas Jefferson – ‘he who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me’ (ibid., p. 17) (and, we might add – brightening me).

Here is a great definition of the commons from Nick Dyer-Witheford:

If the cell form of capitalism is the commodity, the cellular form of a society beyond capital is the common. A commodity is a good produced for sale, a common is a good produced, or conserved, to be shared. The notion of a commodity, a good produced for sale, presupposes private owners between whom this exchange occurs. The notion of the common presupposes collectivities – associations and assemblies – within which sharing is organised. If capitalism presents itself as an immense heap of commodities, ‘commonism’ is a multiplication of commons (Dyer-Witheford 2008).

 This definition is interesting in that it draws attention to the relationship between the commons and property, and opens up a longer discussion of what kind of property a commons is, or could be. In my reading about the commons to date (which is by no means comprehensive), Lewis Hyde’s book Common as air: Revolution, art and ownership, is useful. He avoids presenting the commons as somehow immune from the problems of property and ownership and explores the history of intellectual property (an issue important for artists, of course). Hyde shows how property rights associated with intellectual property law – depending on their boundaries – via temporary enclosures that support artist remuneration for example, can protect and enhance the artistic commons.

On a more philosophical note – I’ve talked in a previous post (see ‘This is ours’) about Hardt and Negri’s book Commonwealth (2009). Hardt and Negri explore the common wealth of the material and social world – and they include space, bodies, language, feelings, interaction, images, shared knowledge, codes, networks in their definition of the common. They point out that neoliberal economic practices increasingly rely on these commons for their potential productivity, but at the same time these commons are impossible to contain – to fully enclose. Knowledge, communication, feeling, ideas, images, languages, codes, pathways, walkways, shared spaces – these are manifestations of the material and social world that cannot be owned – that are inherently social, in common. Capitalism in its most modern form needs to maintain the freedom of the common, as the modes of productivity it favours rely on the creative potential of the common. But capitalist systems also try to introduce modes of relationship to the common that work against and compartmentalise it. Creative activity by the multitude (of commoners) – for Hardt and Negri – opens up the common and ghosts alternative modes of living that challenge such constraints and compartmentalisations … Here, the common is characterised by an openness to all regardless of property, rank, place.

In the next post I present ‘8 steps towards a theatre commons’, and here’s a preview of the steps:

  1. Put on a pair of commons-tinted spectacles – develop a common lens
  2. Theatre is a commons art, an artful commons
  3. Map the commons
  4. Consult the genius of the place in all
  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

Nick Dyer-Witheford ‘Commonism’ Turbulence 1 (2008). Available from http://turbulence.org.uk/turbulence-1/commonism/

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

Peter Linebaugh Stop thief! The commons, enclosures and resistance, Oakland: PM Press, 2014

Peter Linebaugh The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and commons for all, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008

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