The Passion Players

by Elyssa Livergant

Rhetorics of play in the performance industries echo and reinforce shifts in labour practices in post-Fordist economies.

First published: 23 January, 2013 | Category: Activism, Culture, Economy, Education, Employment & Welfare

Some see theatre and performance as practices that are particularly agreeable to critical thinking about contemporary labour conditions.[1] Reliant on affective and cognitive work processes like communication, teamwork, improvisation, self-management and the performing body, theatre and performance certainly resemble wider shifts at work in post-Fordist political economies.[2]   The theatre and performance artist seeks to develop abilities and communities that will support her in innovating and risking with her body, her ideas and her relationships. Conditions of employment are often precarious, fiercely competitive and reliant on informal networks and communities to access work.    

In 2011, the Arts Council of England (ACE), grappling with cuts from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, published a report – Supporting Growth in the Arts Economy.  The report imagines meeting points between, on the one hand, an ‘arts ecology’ (a quasi-organic entity expressive of human co-existence and consisting of public and not-for-profit activities), and a ‘creative economy’ (a post-Fordist system of production that seeks to capitalize on cognitive and affective work).  With statements like ‘by working more entrepreneurially, flexibly and openly across the overall ecology […] art will be enjoyed by more people,’[3] the ACE report imagines arts organizations and the artists they work with to be artisanal entrepreneurs, animated by a neoliberal spirit.  Shot through with neoliberal rhetoric, the report names as a key outcome the desired growth of the nation-state’s ‘reputation as a leading global creative hub.’[4]

Supporting Growth in the Arts Economy also recognizes a creative labour force populated by productive and passionate workers – ‘with a desire to explore, innovate [...] and collaborate.’[5] The narrative of work in the creative industries as linked to passion and sociality is very familiar, particularly in the context of an arts industry and wider system of production that relies heavily on free and underpaid work and informal networks to keep it going.  Despite the ongoing work of campaigners challenging precarious work in the arts,[6] arts workers who can afford the pursuit continue to operate within a precarious industrial context that, as Pierre-Michel Menger observes, ‘evolve daily within the economic settings most compliant to the demands of modern capitalism – extreme flexibility, autonomy, tolerance of inequality, innovative forms of teamwork. ’[7]   

One of the things that is particularly interesting to me about the relationship between theatre and performance practices and contemporary forms of work are their shared logic - the promotion of work as expressive of the human being.  As Menger points out, in the arts (and increasingly in other sectors) psychic income flows from work are supposed to trump monetary rewards. As Kathi Weeks writes in The Problem with Work (2011), ‘the glorification of work as a prototypically human endeavor, as the key to both social belonging and individual achievement, constitutes the fundamental ideological foundation of contemporary capitalism’.[8] The conditions of the contemporary theatre and performance worker are underpinned by a rhetoric that cultivates an exploitative relationship to one’s own labour.  In contemporary productivist narratives in the theatre and performance sub sector psychic income flows are tied to investments in self-expression, community, ownership and authenticity. In other words, as Weeks points out, principles of production hold sway because of their association with certain metaphysical and moral codes.  In theatre and performance and the wider world of post-Fordist production commitments to work are linked to an individual’s creative production and commitment to social practice. 

Play and performance

In 1973 theatre-maker and performance theorist Richard Schechner identified a new form of cultural practice in theatre and performance that he called the workshop. Schechner defined this workshop as a temporary protected time-space focused on playing around with reality, which sat in contradistinction to homogenizing corporate and state culture and the pressures of conventional production processes. It afforded theatre and performance workers an intimate, playful and safe ‘commons’ where participants could take risks with themselves and their material. Schechner’s 1973 assessment of the workshop appears, in the moment I am looking from, as exemplary of the qualitative features of a certain kind of work ethic and labour process valourized in the current cultural economy. Both forms share an emphasis on romanticizing the sociality of artisanal forms and are defined by temporary and intensive group working practices that focus on local growth and development by promoting risk, experimentation and innovation through play. They both attempt to ascribe labour with an autonomous agency through which individuals and communities can connect to a source of vitality and can grow. 

Critical interest in play has been a staple part of theatre and performance studies since the 1960s.  One point of reference for this relationship can be traced to Schechner’s broad ‘spectrum of performance’, which suggests that all behaviours can be studied as ‘performance’, including ritual and play, the performing arts, and the enactment of identities, social and cultural roles.  Schechner associates play with vitality, risk and authenticity, where play, ‘not  “the world of working in daily life”’ is the basis of ‘real’ existence.[9] As Schechner explains: ‘Play is dangerous and, because it is, players need to feel secure in order to begin playing’.[10]   In other words, playing around with the normative hold of a constructed reality is central to the way theatre and performance imagines its work.  In doing so it points to performance’s apparently innate ability to generate radically transformative social relations.

The valorization of playing in the literatures and practices of theatre and performance does something interesting in addition to the accounts of resistant vitality and flexible subjectivity that have come to be associated with it.  It puts playing to work in a particular way by making it a form of production.  While claiming an oppositional stance to the world of work it stages transgression and the breaking of conventions as a conduit to future potentialities.  Playing expands the terrain of production by re-imagining work as a valuable expression that will yield a return. 

Play and flexible labour

The discourse of play is not only employed in the critical literatures of theatre and performance.  The resistant and radically flexible subject imagined by theatre and performance from the 1960s onwards strongly resembles the post-Fordist flexible worker as it is imagined in much more recent managerial literatures.  Pat Kane’s Play Ethic (2004) is exemplary.[11] Kane’s writings champion playing as an essential vital force that combats psychological and economic depression and promotes future economic and social growth.  He coins the neologism ‘soulitarian’ – the ‘fluid worker-player […] urged by existing institutions of power and capital to give up “the labour of themselves”, in exchange for wages or other compensatory resources.’[12]  Kane proffers the ‘player’ as the ideal identity to re-authenticate the organizational structures of capitalism and the delegation of precarity to the worker. In addressing the tensions in labour relations that arise for the ‘soulitarians,’ he suggests that:

On the policy and management side, the search should be on for identities that can ‘bridge’ the gap between an ever-more-potentialised ‘soulitarian’ workforce, and organizational structures of wage-labour and contractual coercion which hold less and less legitimacy […] the identity of ‘the player’ may be one such re-legitimating identity.[13]

Attempts to re-legitimate organizational structures of capitalism by means of the management of affect and emotion are by no means new.  Prior to the 1920s importation of therapeutic techniques into American corporate culture, [14] nineteenth century British social theory sought to address wider concerns amongst those with power about the conditions, techniques and rationales for managing labour within industrial capitalism.  The political economist Arnold Toynbee indicated that if England sought to maintain capitalism, then society should seek to reinstate in the worker ‘feelings of kindliness and gratitude, of filial reverence and paternal care, of political fidelity and patriotism- in short, of all the sentiments which welded society into a whole.’[15]  Toynbee declared that: ‘A gospel of life is needed rather than increased production.’[16]  As the erection of Toynbee Hall later in that century attested, one way this gospel was to be articulated was around the spirit of play and its management. 

Play and the performance industry

In contemporary theatre and performance, the idea of play fuels an approach for making new work and is also a tool for the professional development of surplus labour in the sub sector.  One of the questions I posed at the Passion Industries workshop was how the gesture of holding play apart, as ‘other’ than work, makes operable, valorizes and expands certain commitments to industrial productivity in theatre and performance that appear as a ‘gospel of life’.

In 2008 I participated in a peer-to-peer professional development project called Balloon, run by theatre and performance organizations Oval House and Artsadmin at Toynbee Studios.  Working independently, often generating my own projects with shifting collaborators, the prospect of a consistent group, even if temporary, to meet with and learn from was a heartening proposition. This protected time and space felt important, as did the fact that this space was set up by two industry players, creating for me at least, an affirmation of my position as a professional artist. Balloon was a supportive group oriented toward the desire to practice ‘work’ without having to ‘produce’ any kind of  ‘work’. These kinds of peer-to-peer projects, that aren’t work but actually are, have been more prevalent in the theatre and performance sub sector over the past decade.[17] Hosted by larger ACE funded arts organizations (though their funding, too, is sometimes precarious), artists or arts workers are brought together by organizations to learn from and support each other.

Under the guise of being ‘unproductive’ events they are actually a form of reproductive labour for all involved. Peer professional development opportunities serve to connect atomized workers with each other and function as a means to keep surplus labour active, supported, connected and engaged in the industry while requiring little fiscal investment from organizations and asking for little reflection on the politics of participation. Participation in peer-to-peer projects initiated by larger organizations is often unpaid, but serves as an opportunity to build connections and an artist C.V. For arts organizations it serves as an opportunity to meet other artists and future collaborators, and can be an opening to reflect on questions of capacity and the kinds of support they can provide to a growing pool of artists coming through their doors.  It provides evidence of their work in supporting a productive community to the wider industry and funding bodies – demonstrating their contribution to the development of ‘a leading global creative hub’. These projects also seek to provide opportunities for artists to develop ideas and practices amongst a network of peers away from the apparent scene of production. For participating artists they provide kinship, a sense of community and support inside and outside of the meetings, and an opportunity for development.  

By claiming these playful spaces as free of the business of producing theatre and performance, as their hosts and participants often do, participants in the sub sector are unable to address an important site of tension – the management of play and its relationship to work. These initiatives have appeared in the sector as opportunities for playful, unpressured and unproductive exploration, however, as Bojana Cvejić and Ana Vujanović put it, they also serve as ‘the training ground for a flexible neoliberal politics [….] which constantly seeks new “creative” solutions resulting from improvisations in unknown settings.’[18]

The problem with play

In a recent essay, critic Jane Blocker asks what an artistic boycott on ‘risk’ – the favoured narrative frame for innovative practice in art and performance - might look like.[19]  Although I am not advocating for a Blocker-like boycott on playing in theatre and performance or in wider social and labour processes, I share her concerns with regards to play.  The value attached to play is as an affective experience that links future growth opportunities to the individual, civic society, the nation and the market.  The presence of peer-to-peer training programs points to the ways playing together in precarious industrial conditions does not challenge the status quo of the world of work, as the theorists of the 1960s suggested of play, but maintains it, idealizing cognitive capitalism’s aspirations for an ideal passionate, socialized and productive, post-Fordist worker.  It appears that artistic practices, their modes of production and the rationales associated with them prefigure wider socio-economic change.  The challenge is how to attend to these contradictions in ways that arrest the growth of a ‘global cultural hub’ that mandates self and communal exploitation in the name of passion, public good and capitalization.


Elyssa Livergant is a performance artist, cultural worker, lecturer and troublemaker who is finishing her PhD in the Drama Department at Queen Mary, University of London.

[1] Thanks to Louise Owen, Lynne McCarthy and the editors of NLP for their comments and to participants in The Passion Industries workshop.

[2] See, for example, Allen John Scott, Social Economy of the Metropolis: Cognitive-Cultural Capitalism and the Global Resurgence of Cities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), Federici, Silvia Federici, ‘Precarious Labour: A Feminist Viewpoint’, Variant 37 (Spring/Summer 2010), 23 – 25 and Franco Berardi  The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (New York: Semiotext(e), 2009).

[3] Tom Fleming and Andrew Erskine, Supporting Growth in the Arts Economy (London: Arts Council England, July 2011), p. 7.

[4] Fleming and Erskine, Supporting, p. 92.

[5] Fleming and Erskine, Supporting , p. 15.

[7] Pierre-Michel Menger, ‘Artistic Labor Markets: Contingent Work, Excess supply and occupational risk management’ in Ginsburgh, Victor, and C. D. Throsby, Handbook of the Economics of Art and Culture (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2006), pp.765 – 811 (p. 801)

[8] Kathi Weeks, The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke University Press, 2011), p. 109.

[9] Richard Schechner, The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 28.

[10]Schechner, The Future of Ritual, p. 26.

[11] Pat Kane, The Play Ethic: A Manifesto For a Different Way of Living, New edition (London: Panmacmillan, 2005).

[12] Pat Kane, ‘Soulitarian City? Creative Digital Identities and Practices in Glasgow’, (06 March 2006), [accessed 05 December 2012], pp. 1-21 (p. 2).

[13] Pat Kane, ‘Soulitarian City?’

[14] Eva Illuz, Cold Intimacies (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), p. 17.

[15] Arnold Toynbee, Lectures on the Industrial Revolution in England: Popular Addresses, Notes and Other Fragments (London: David & Charles Reprints, 1969), p. 152, pp. 23-24.

[16]  Toynbee, Lectures on the Industrial Revolution in England, p. 25.

[17] Examples include Live Art Development Agency’s DIY programme (2007), Artsadmin’s Balloon (2008), Camden People Theatre’s Starting Blocks (2011), and The Battersea Arts Centre’s Independents and Wayfarers (2010). Although these initiatives differ in their content and relationship to the production of a live artwork for a public they are similar in their commitment to a logic of ‘unproductive’ development that focuses on creative support and the building and deepening of relations between peers.  

[18] Bojana Cvejić; and Ana Vujanović in ‘Precarity Talk: A Virtual Round Table’, TDR: The Drama Review, 56.4 (Winter 2012), 163-77 (p. 175).

[19] Jane, Blocker, 'The Aesthetics of Risk in Wartime', The Aesthetics of Risk: Volume 3 of the SoCCAS [Southern California Consortium of Art Schools] Symposia, ed. by John C. Welchman, (Zürich: JRP/Ringier, 2008). pp. 191 – 223 (p. 217). 

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