An Actor Manages: On Acting and Immaterial Labour

by Broderick Chow

Contemporary actor training and methods of acting equip their students to be the ideal self-managers.

First published: 29 January, 2013 | Category: Culture, Education, Employment & Welfare

In 1983, the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild published her study of what she called ‘emotional labour’ among flight attendants, in a book called The Managed Heart. Hochschild was the first to pay close critical attention to this dimension of modern work – although the gurus of organisational management had been well aware of the necessity of managing those pesky feelings for much longer. Hochschild draws on the theories of the Russian theatre director and acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavsky to analyse and illustrate emotional labour. In particular, she notes that flight attendants practice something akin to Stanislavky’s theory of emotional memory, in which the actor draws upon previous experiences in order to produce or conjure an appropriate emotion in the moment of performance.

Hochschild mainly uses the actor’s work as a metaphor. But really, Stanislavky’s systematising of the process of acting really does have a lot to do with the changes in modern work. There is a citational network between the academic discourses of acting and business management — not least the ‘human’ side of management and therefore the instrumentalisation of emotion, empathy and social relations by waged labour. What we have come to think of as ‘actor training’, taught in specialist drama schools, university departments, colleges and high schools across the United Kingdom and North America, is in a way, a fairly new beast, one that emerges as a certain historical moment, and what essentially amounts to a method for self-management and discipline of the unruly aspects of the self, be they physical, mental or emotional. Therefore, the products of this training, that is, actors, are a metonym for larger changes in the organisation of work in the 20th and 21st centuries. Actors are the ideal freelancers – self-managing, flexible workers.

As an academic who spends a fair amount of his time teaching young students how to act, thinking about these links between acting and management raise troubling questions. I am particularly troubled by the way that the positive qualities of a career in theatre or performance such as creativity and autonomy, which are supposed to combat the crushing alienation of what my students often refer to as ‘some office job’, start becoming the same qualities required by those who can survive the insecurities, uncertainties and overall precarity of the ‘new’ flexible labour market. Worse, autonomy and creativity are presented as fair trade-offs for what is often systemic exploitation in terms of job security and remuneration.

My friend Angus, who was once a stand-up, used to open his set with the line: ‘I’m an actor… Which means I work in a call centre.’ This was a joke, but it was at the same time deeply true and thus rarely that funny: he did work in a call centre, and the painful truth is that call centres love actors. (The call centre RSVP, based in East London, only hires artists.[1]) Or, take the example of an advertisement[2] placed on an online recruitment website on 23 November 2012 for call centre workers, which specifically called for actors alongside musicians and students. The ad stressed the flexible nature of the work; simultaneously engaging with the supposed qualities an actor might have, such as ‘Good rapport building skills.’ The job spec collapses the affective and emotional skills of the actor with the precarious nature of their field of work; actor training, which was supposed to be a way out of the alienated workforce, turns out to perfectly equip students for it.

Acting and Management

Harry Braverman’s landmark analysis of labour and ‘de-skilling’, Labour and Monopoly Capitalism (1974), does not immediately appear to resonate with the actor’s process, but there are clear parallels. Braverman describes the ‘detailed division of labour’ as follows: labour is the source of surplus value, and the accumulation of value is the driver of capitalism. The capitalist is driven to ‘economise’ on the overall wage bill by dividing the process into tasks, because he/she can then pay certain workers to perform lesser-skilled tasks. The minimum pay of the worker who would once have performed all the operations of the process would, by default, be the highest pay for the most difficult task. Such division of labour finds its apotheosis in Frederick Winslow Taylor’s system of ‘Scientific Management’, which sought to separate the conception of a production process, or the management of the process, from its execution. Managers, Taylor recommended, must gather knowledge of the entire production process and assume a ‘monopoly over knowledge’[3] in order to determine the tasks of the worker. The result was a tremendous increase of efficiency and productivity, at the cost of the alienation of the worker from the product of his/her labour; in other words, the dehumanisation of the worker.

Taylor, the pioneer of organisational management science, and Stanislavsky, the pioneer of naturalistic actor training, share striking similarities. Both were outsiders to ‘closed practices’ – Taylor’s craft apprenticeship and entry into the factory was, as Braverman points out, an act of youthful rebellion against his wealthy father; Stanislavsky was an amateur actor, who, as his biographer Jean Benedetti notes, was pretty bad at acting. Both found that through observation, processes that seemed mystifying and complex could be captured, understood, and perfected. A mechanic’s craft in the factory and an actor’s work on stage both involve what we might call a tacit or intuitive knowledge, and both Taylor and Stanislavsky sought to capture this otherwise unstable knowledge as method. Unlike the worker in manufacturing, however, the actor does not simply carry out tasks set by the manager, but engages in a complex process of planning – therefore acting is much more analogous to management.

Immaterial labour?

The role of the manager evolved along with the shift in the economies of Western countries in the 20th century from the manufacture of goods to the renting of intellectual property and accumulation of surplus value through brands and the creation of symbolic capital. This shift is described shorthand by the concept of immaterial labour, which the Italian autonomist philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato describes as: ‘the kinds of activities involved in defining cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms and, more strategically, public opinion.’[4] The practice of management thus increasingly emphasised the management of one’s self in order to create favourable interactions with others. The designation ‘immaterial’ is therefore pretty disingenuous. While immaterial labour does not produce commodities of the sort analysed in chapter one of Das Kapital, such as coats or chairs, its practice involves a familiar material: the body and its affective and emotional capacities.

That ‘emotion’, or better yet, ‘feeling’, itself was a material that could be worked on and disciplined was intrinsically understood by Stanislavsky’s disciple and the originator of what is today known as American Method Acting, Lee Strasberg.[5] Strasberg stressed the use of ‘affective memory’ (sometimes incorrectly known as ‘emotional memory’), a means to evoke a specific emotion within the given circumstances of the dramatic text by remembering a corresponding feeling from the actor’s own past. All artists, he argues, use their memories of previous experiences, but only actors must do so ‘in the presence of the audience at a particular time and place.’[6]

There is a fundamental transformation of the nature of performance going on here. The System and the Method are means of disciplining and manufacturing spontaneous emotion, but this is not the same as pretending. No, in fact, both the System and the Method emphasise the ‘truth’ of the moment, and this discourse is not limited to theatre professionals; ‘emotional truth’ and ‘believability’ are frequent (empty) clichés in the evaluation of actors’ performances by the general public.

That this rather radical elision – that genuine emotion can be instrumentally manufactured – isn’t subject to more critique points to the way in which the development of acting methodologies parallel larger industrial changes. Take, for instance, this example from the world of business, Dale Carnegie’s popular self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book masterfully resolves the contradictions between self-interest and genuine care and sincerity: ‘Make the other person feel important [in order to wield influence] – and do it sincerely.’ However, Carnegie doesn’t really resolve any contradictions – he simply pretends they don’t exist. Both Carnegie and Strasberg effectively give the same advice: don’t deceive, but engage in a careful process of feeling management.

Actor training prefigures the increasing alienation of the self, the instrumentalisation of relationships, and the elision of the false and the true and the public/private within 20th and 21st century work. While Taylor emphasised the monopoly over knowledge as the key aspect of the manager’s role, the French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s landmark analysis of management texts The New Spirit of Capitalism defines management exclusively in terms of the negotiation of interpersonal relationships. Networking is an established part of working life, not only for managers, but other employees, freelancers, and even job-seekers.[7] Today, we are all managers, and therefore, we are all actors.

Management is a curious sort of labour: one must hollow out one’s own private inner-life for public consumption and appropriation, echoing Strasberg’s famous words: ‘Acting is being private in public.’[8] But when private qualities are leveraged for workplace gain they grow narrow and hollow. After all, as Peter F. Drucker, the first guru of organisational management pointed out, the manager’s only definition of success is his or her ability to improve productivity. The complexity of feeling is abandoned in favour of the pursuit of profit and improved performance.[9]

The actor as the ideal self-managing, precarious worker

As has been well-documented by other writers, the rise of ‘immaterial labour’ has been accompanied by an increase in the precarious nature of work, as short-term contracts on various projects, ‘flexi-time’, and freelancing become increasingly the norm. Here too, the actor prefigures the ideal subject of what Guy Standing calls the ‘precariat.’ Aside from the minimal amount of time spent actually ‘on-the-job’, that is, onstage, on set, or in rehearsal, acting involves enormous periods of unremunerated labour, or rather, labour that is paid for by the promise of eventual remuneration. This includes those performances that never come to be – auditions and castings, which of course involve reading from the sides, but also, put simply, networking with casting directors, agents and producers.

Actors also engage in self-management of life-narratives and personal portfolios, mining aspects of their personal history and image in order to present a flexible but unique and hire-able body (I remember a number of occasions in which a casting, more often than not for a commercial, would resemble a blind date – ‘what do you like to do on the weekends?’ ‘tell me something interesting about your family’ – though such information was nearly always irrelevant to the commercial’s scenario as well as the product itself). In a typical audition, an actor must ‘slate’ (USA/Canada) or do an ‘Ident’ (UK), stating their name and agent, give ‘profiles’ (the casting equivalent of a mug shot), and usually summarize themselves in a few pithy sentences. At the same time as an actor is meant to mine their inner self for emotional truth, they must also create a packaged self that can be sold.

It’s true that this doesn’t sound wholly dissimilar to any other industry, particularly other creative industries, which is what this series on ‘The Passion Industries’ is meant to illuminate. Acting, perhaps, is merely the work of self-management laid bare and brought to an extreme. The supposed autonomy and creativity of the actor tends to obscure possible systemic exploitation, particularly in terms of insecurity of employment, remuneration, and other forms of social welfare.

The real shame here is that realist and naturalistic modes of representation, in other words the theatrical movements made possible by Stanislavsky and Strasberg’s developments in actor training, have at their core a radical project: to depict the human within the larger social forces that determine his being. This was the aim of the theatres of Zola, Ibsen, and Chekhov in the late 19th and early 20th century, an aim carried into Strasberg and Meisner’s work with the Group Theatre in the 1930s, which staged Clifford Odets’ seminal piece of trade union theatre, Waiting for Lefty, in 1935. Rediscovering this radical and humanistic heart of naturalistic actor training – the stage as a laboratory of critical enquiry – should therefore be the job of today’s teachers of theatre and performance.


Broderick D.V. Chow is a lecturer in Theatre and Modern Drama at Brunel University London.


[1] Laura Barnett, ‘Don’t give up the day job – how artists make a living’, The Guardian, Online, Available at:

[2] ‘Calling all actors, musicians, and students.’ 23 November 2012, (Accessed 20 January 2013).

[3] Harry Braverman, Labour and Monopoly Capital. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974), p. 119.

[4] Maurizio Lazzarato, ‘Immaterial Labour.’ In Paolo Virno & Michael Hardt (eds.), Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 133.

[5] Lee Strasberg studied at the American Laboratory Theatre, under the tutelage of Maria Ouspenskaya and Richard Bolevasky. The Laboratory Theatre was founded in 1923 by Ouspenskaya and Bolevasky, both students of Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre (MXT), after the company’s first appearance in New York City in 1922. Strasberg is known for his involvement in the theatre collective the Group Theatre and for leading the Actor’s Studio, which has trained numerous American actors including Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Sally Field. 

[6] Lee Strasberg, A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method, (London: Methuen, 1988), p. 116.

[7] Ivor Southwood’s book Non-Stop Inertia (Zer0 Books, 2011) is a rather devastating account of the way in which, since unemployment is today treated as an individual failing rather than a systemic problem, job-seeking has become a performance in itself. The unemployed are made to perform not only their own potential employability, but also the very task of looking for work.

[8] Lee Strasberg in S. Loraine Hull, Strasberg’s Method (Woodbridge: Ox Bow Publishing, 1985), p. 70.

[9] Jon McKenzie, Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance, (London: Routledge, 2001).

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