Theatre as a Commodity

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Another somewhat lazy post on this blog that I keep up to date oh-so-often….

Here is an essay I wrote last year looking at whether theatre can be considered a commodity or not.


 Before we can even begin to understand whether or not theatre is a commodity, we need to establish what Marx means by the terms ‘commodity’, ‘use-value’, ‘exchange- value’, ‘value’ and ‘labour’. In the most basic terms, a ‘commodity’ is something that one needs – it is a marketable product. Every commodity has both a ‘use-value’ and an ‘exchange-value’. On the surface, both of these are quite self explanatory – the former refers to “the usefulness of a [commodity]” (Harvey, 2010: 16) (for example, a jumper’s use-value is that it keeps you warm), and the latter refers to, in a nut-shell, the monetary value one could exchange it for (the jumper’s exchange-value may be £9.99). As such, a commodity’s use-value may alter depending on the consumer. The term ‘labour’ refers to what went in to making this commodity; commodities are all products of human labour. But, as David Harvey points out in A Companion to Marx’s Capital, how do we measure human labour? “It can’t be the actual time taken – what [Marx] calls concrete labour – because then the longer taken to produce the commodity, the more valuable it would be” (Harvey, 17), that is to say, if a lazy worker takes longer manufacturing a specific commodity, would you pay more for it than, say, a productive worker who manufactured the exact same commodity – same quality – in half the time? No, you would not. Harvey continues to explain how Marx states that this is human labour in the abstract. So, a commodity’s ‘value’ is judged on the abstract labour, rather than it’s concrete; concrete labour is solely for a commodity’s use-value, and abstract labour is the labour as a whole. The aim of a Capitalist investor is to make surplus value: to increase the value of the commodity by labour. So, if I buy an old piece of antique furniture for, hypothetically, £60, and spend a further £50 on the restoration of said furniture, I can then sell it at a higher price, say £200. The £90 profit I have made is the surplus. In equation form: money – commodity – money+, or M-C-M’.

As a drama student, I am frequently reminded about how my degree “isn’t a real one” and how drama students “do not work”. This is, of course, ridiculous. Although obviously a different type of labour, the labour that goes into a single production (in the dramatic sense) is incredible. When looking at something like theatre, for example, an audience witnesses the labour (or, at least, the performance part of it) happening live on stage. What the audience witness is the actors working. Additionally, labour goes in to creating the actual performance: costume, props and scenery design, rehearsals, research and so on – (literally) backstage labour. The audience often becomes aware that what they are watching is a form of labour. Every performance, in the broadest sense, is a risk: no two performances are the same, and, due to it being live, something can always go wrong. If this happens during a live performance, however, more often than not, ‘the show must go on’, and the audience are witnessing this labour – this work – going wrong. Furthermore, an actor is often able to engage in an audiences’ reaction to their labour, and can act on it so. Theatre is distinctive in that every audience member (or consumer) has a unique experience. This is what differentiates this kind of labour from, say, manufacturing jumpers. Groups are even set up to evaluate and discuss an audience’s reaction; judging what experience they get from viewing this labour (Sauter, 2000: 176).

So, can theatre be considered a commodity? To answer this, we need to look at several different types of performances, all with very different economic conditions. Think firstly of a performance by first-year drama students at a university. Naturally, their budget is going to be minimal, and most likely self-funded. The venue, however, is already paid for – that being the university’s theatre (for argument’s sake). The group may consist of four or five actors, none of whom are getting paid to do this. Their labour is actually taken into account and examined, and evaluated into a grade towards their degree. Compare this, now, to West End production. The steaks are a lot higher. More often than not, the actors must be what is known as a ‘triple threat’ actor – they can sing, dance and act at the same time. This requires a lot of training, and, as such, a lot of labour, both on and off stage, and it extremely challenging. Furthermore, ‘triple threat’ actors are expecting to have some knowledge of how to read music and understand various musical theories (Bond, 2010: 61-66). Hypothetically, let’s say that we have a triple threat actor who has acquired a large role in the West End production of Wicked – one of the most expensive musicals in West End history, estimated (at the time the ensuing article was written) to have cost between £6 million and £10 million:

[Producer] David Stone said that Wicked’s cost would be at the “high upper range of what West End musicals cost”. He promised that those who have appreciated the “oohs and ahs” of the $15 million Broadway original, would not be disappointed. “The production here in London will be just as spectacular. It will not be scaled down at all.” The musical has a 40-strong cast, who require 400 costumes and 80 wigs per performance, as well as a full orchestra (Paddock: 2006).


Our actor is the star of the show; it was stated in The Independent in May 2006 that actress Idina Menzel was the highest-paid actress in West End history for her performance in the production of Wicked:

Potential investors tell me her package is budgeted at $30,000 per week, plus accommodation…”The show’s total estimated start-up cost is $6m, so paying Menzel $30k for a four-month stint is a drop in the ocean,” I’m told. “If she gets good reviews, it’s a good investment: in New York, the show rakes in about $1.4m a week.” (Adams: 2006).


Our actor has paid, for argument’s sake, £30,000 for three years of drama school to become a triple-threat actor, and is generating approximately £20,000 per week in an £8,000,000 show that itself makes £1,000,000 per week. Compare this now to a university student who is paying £3,500 for their course for the year, plus an extra £50 on props for their performance, and generating no money from it. These examples are one extreme to the other in terms of production value, and although more concrete labour went into the performance of Wicked, the abstract labour as a whole is equal for both the university production and the West End musical.

Various artists, practitioners and drama theorists have taken the idea of the labour of theatre and developed it into a performance piece. Notable examples include artists such as Santiago Sierra. Sierra’s most well-known works often incorporate ‘labourers’ undergoing somewhat menial, mundane tasks to attempt to emphasise how a labourer sells his physical strength in a Capitalist society, and tackles the issues of immigration and immigrant poverty in Capitalist countries. His controversial work is often a commentary on the nature of work in a Capitalist society (Margolles: 2004). For example, his exhibition Six People Who Cannot Be Remunerated for the Staying in the Interior of Cardboard Boxes (2000) – a metaphor about the poor living conditions for asylum-seekers in Germany at the time – placed six volunteering asylum-seeking foreigners into small, narrow, cramped closed cardboard boxes with very little room to move. They then remained in the boxes for the duration of the exhibition (four hours). Due to the boxes being completely closed (aside from a small breathing slit), the ‘performers’ (I use inverted commas here describing them using the term ‘performer’ is arguable) movements are hidden to the spectators. In another of his pieces, Eight Foot Line Tattooed on Six Remunerated People (1999), he paid several people to stand, topless, side by side, whilst he tattooed a line across their backs. This was the show the sheer desperation of what some people will risk for a small amount of money. This was similarly drawn upon in one of his most recent pieces, Project 22 — 7 forms measuring 600 x 60 x 60 constructed to be held horizontal to a wall (2010), in which labourers were paid a minimal wage to hold (as the title explains) 600 x 60 x 60cm monolithic structures on their shoulders against a wall for the duration of a working day. Sierra’s controversial work often somewhat humiliates his ‘performers’, demonstrating to what lengths people will go to earn a small wage, or more (10-Inch Line Shaved on the Heads of Two Junkies Who Received a Shot of Heroin as Payment (2000)), in a Capitalist society. All of his ‘performers’ endure physical labour, pain, and in some cases, disfigurement, which the audience plainly see or are aware of, all for a very small amount of money. This can be compared to the sometimes dangerous environments other labourers, such as builders or factor workers, have to work in, and how they too can suffer deformities or visible changes (such as leathery hands).

In theatre, a director could replace a single “star-actor” with, say, 30 Malaysian child labourers for a fraction of the price. However, due to the nature of performance, this would upset an audience. In this sense, could we refer to the actor as a commodity, as opposed to theatre itself? The actor is producing the labour, but is also providing – in a sense – use-value. If an audience does not respond well to the actor – or if the actor is replaced by 30-something third world labourers – then, as a commodity, (according to Marx) it loses its value: “if the commodity doesn’t meet a human want, need or desire, then it has no value” (Harvey, 22). As previously mentioned, a Capitalist investor will want to create surplus value in his commodity. Ergo, if a producer pays M amount of money to send a ‘plain’ actor to drama school, where he learns over the course of three years to sing and dance as well, becoming a triple-threat actor, and then going on to become a West-End performer, earning M’ amount of money, in theory, the producer has made his money back with surplus value. So, perhaps in this sense, theatre cannot be considered a commodity, but an actor can. The same could be said for, say, football players, who are passed from club to club and trained, growing in value; although it is not particularly couth to refer to a person like this (connotations imply that a commodity is some sort of object). An audience can watch an actor on stage laboring – the labour is to both entertain and inform, but also, through performance, an actor enhances his or her own performance potential through experience, and therefore, in some sense, could well be creating surplus value for themselves. On the other hand, however, what if the actor is not making any money – what if they are volunteering, and the performance generates no income? Could they still be considered a commodity? The piece may still meet ‘human need and desire’, as Harvey puts it, but provides no immediate exchange-value, although, arguably, depending on the performance at hand, a varied amount of use-value. This is highlighted in university professor Dia Da Costa’s article on activist theatre, in which she states that although the performance may have no exchange-value (unpaid actors), the use-value, or what impact the piece has on an audience, is what’s really important (Da Costa: 2012). Naturally, this applies to a lot of forms of theatre, so can they too be considered a commodity, even if the piece lacks an exchange-value?

The answer, I feel, is still quite ambiguous and completely depending on the form of theatre taking place. The term ‘theatre’ covers an enormous spectrum; to classify all of these as commodities would be wrong. So, yes, theatre (and actors) can be considered a commodity, but it varies from piece to piece – and depending on how you define commodity. If you feel that a commodity must invoke some form monetary exchange-value, then many forms of theatre are excluded from this bracket. However, if a commodity only needs to produce a kind of use-value, no matter what kind of use-value that is – namely, whether an audience enjoys the piece or not, or takes anything away from it – and is created by some form of labour, then theatre is indeed a commodity.




Sierra, Santiago Dir. (1999) Eight Foot Line Tattooed on Six Remunerated People. El Espacio Aglutinador, Havana.

Sierra, Santiago Dir. (2000) Six People Who Cannot Be Remunerated for the Staying in the Interior of Cardboard Boxes. Kunst-Werke Hall, Berlin.

Sierra, Santiago Dir. (2000) 10-Inch Line Shaved on the Heads of Two Junkies Who Received a Shot of Heroin as Payment. San Juan de Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico.

Sierra, Santiago Dir. (2010) Project 22 — 7 forms measuring 600 x 60 x 60 constructed to be held horizontal to a wall. Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.


Adams, Guy, ‘Broadway Star Set to Scoop Up a Wicked Transfer Fee’, on The Independent website: – Accessed: 10 April 2012

Bond, Derek, ‘The Triple Threat Actor and the Acquisition of Musical Skills’, Journal of Singing – The Official Journal of the National Association of Teachers of Singing, Vol. 67, No. 1 (September 2010), 61-66.

Da Costa, Dia, ‘Learning from labour: the space and work of activist theatre’, Contemporary South Asia, Vol. 20, Issume 1 (March 2012), 119-133.

Harvey, David. Companion to Marx’s Capital. London: Verso , 2010.

Margolles, Teresa, ‘Santiago Sierra’, BOMB Magazine, Issue 86 (Winter 2004) from the BOMB Magazine website: – Accessed 13 April 2012.

Paddock, Terri. ‘”Wicked” Scales up for Big-Budget London Spectacle’ on the What’s On Stage website: – Accessed: 10 April 2012.

Sauter, Willmar. The Theatrical Event. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000.


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