[... my provocation from This Thing Called Artist Development at Ovalhouse...]

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So this talk is called:

Samuel Beckett’s First Play Was Shit And It Took A World War For Him To Write A Good One (and he was 40 before he did) or Artist Development Programmes are a Form of Disciplining Reified Ideology Reflecting the Underlying Structures, Practices and Brutalities of the Late-Capitalist, Neo-Liberal Economic Base, And, You Know, That Can Fuck Off.

Basically I got dared to do a talk with this title by my friends on facebook. But I do stand by it, even if it makes me a dick, and here’s why.

Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett’s first play was not as is often assumed Waiting for Godot – it was called Eleutheria which is Greek for derivative and not particularly exciting first play and it was shit. It has never been performed (Roger Blin, the director of Waiting for Godot in it’s original french production had to choose between Godot and Eleutheria, and chose Godot cos it was easier to stage). Subsequently the playwright suppressed the work, which is fair enough. But, the erasure of the work before Godot from our understanding of what Beckett is and how he became that is a harmful act, propagating an (essentialist) idea of genius emerging fully formed and hiding the singular set of circumstances and experiences in which a singular artist is shaped. Before Beckett could write a play that actually worked, that could find traction with audiences and give form to a kind of meaningful public speech, here are some of the things that had to happen:

  • exiling himself from the country of his birth
  • exiling his writing from the language of his homeland and writing instead in french
  • the second world war
  • he had to spend a really long time staring at some paintings (seriously – he could apparently happily spend 3 or 4 hours just looking at one painting – so no wonder there’s so many pauses in his work)
  • living under occupation
  • writing a shit play that he’d subsequently suppress.
  • delivering messages for the French resistance

Would the idea of artist development around today have helped a Beckett to emerge or would it have smothered him? It’s hard to imagine any of these things (not even the world war one) being part of anything we might conceive of as an artist development scheme, though it’s actually not so hard to trace the influence and importance each of them holds in the development of his work. Indeed, anything schematic is inherently at odds with the individuality of the artist. And that’s why I want to talk about neo-liberalism and late capitalism(ok – so I actually always want to talk about neo-liberalism and late capitalism, but that’s the excuese i’ve given myself for it today).

Neo-Liberalism views the individual as a subject to be formed and made more efficient and in tune with the economic circumstances of their existence. Necessarily, this involves boilerplate solutions to the problem of humanity’s diversity because the relentless expansion of late Capital’s domain over ever more aspects of our lives rests on an idea of infinite exchangeability. As soon as value is attached to something it can be bought, sold, and bartered. What is your work worth? What is your time worth? What is your life worth? What is your development worth?

The instruments and instrumentalisations of neo-liberalism insert themselves into the practices of even (perhaps in particular) those areas which appear to be most resistant to economicisation – even art, which is normally totally above these kinds of things. Thus the education system becomes increasingly concerned with the measurability of particular (ideologically determined) forms of success, the media continuously report on the complaints of the Confederation of Business Interests that schools and universities do not churn out graduates with the right kinds of skills (as though it were the function of the state and of society to furnish Capital with the workers it desires, and not the function of business to provide staff with the training they might need to do their jobs, or – more radically – to provide people with the kind of work they relish and desire).

The constant collection of metrics results in an inevitable drive towards an (at least pseudo) marketisation – which can be seen most clearly in the transformation of university education into an enormously debt driven provision of a service/product to a group of client/consumers (which in turn is meant to increase their value and worth). Thus not only does the service offered become viewed as a commodity in itself, but the consumer of it also becomes commoditised, a carrier of the value that’s been generated through the act of purchase – holding within them the reified sets of social relations, ideologies and expressions of labour which have been involved in their creation. Now, obviously artists and the institutions which generate them are way to clever and good to be caught out by a simple expression of the underlying economic system defining every aspect of our social and material lives. But still, it bears questioning the extent to which the act of our “development” actually defines and creates us as subjects – embeds an ideology that acts through us rather innocently giving us tools with which to operate in whatever way we see fit. After all, if you’ve got a hammer every problem looks like a nail and if you’ve got a workshop on narrative, character and writing dialogue every play looks like a pseudo-naturalistic 3-hander exploring the problems of the bourgeois family unit.

Strangely in this hyper-capitalised, hyper-liberalised worldview the individual is herself a kind of luxury – the relentless drive towards efficiency as represented in economies of scale actually demands an erasure of difference and leaves no place for the particular vagaries of a particular person, unless she happens to be able to afford that kind of attention. In fact the individual as component in the machine of cultural reproduction needs to be actively formed to fit into the systems which are ostensibly there to serve and protect them – systems of law, of commerce, of work as well as systems of meaning, of language, of culture and of thought.

When I started out as a director I often felt I had to pretend to be shitter than I was in order to insert myself into the structures the theatre world expected me to fit in. I have no doubt this did me harm, and while I guess no individual was actively trying to damage me in my early interactions with this liberated art world, the collective effect of them was sufficiently uniform and sufficiently dispiriting that as an insititutional whole it looked to me like the theatre world was arrogant and a dick, and that it wanted to force me to not be myself before I was going to be allowed to work in it. Now, I will admit that it’s just about possible that I may have just been a bit arrogant and a bit of a dick myself, but i’ve met loads of people who are arrogant and a dick working in theatre and it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t have been allowed to be that too.

More specifically – the kind of practices and ideas that the odd kind of non-apprenticeship I was failing to have was seeking to instil in me, were ideas and practices that would have utterly shaped the kind of work I would have made. I kept hearing the same kind of ideas repeated to me over and over again – the director’s job is to get out of the actor’s way, it is dangerous for an artist and her work to be too clever, theatre is obviously inherently political because mumble mumble empathy mumble, artists should be asking questions not giving answers (should they? Should they? Should they?), just tell the story (whatever the fuck that means) and so on. All of these ideas were delivered, in training and in conversations, in meetings and in advice as though they were simply common sense – the obvious, correct (even the efficient) way of doing things.

Which is to say that they are shot through with ideology.

So as I hinted at when I talked about things being reified before, this is all about the process of reification. For those who have for some reason had better things to do with their lives than try to decipher Marxist theory, Reification is the process of abstract social relationships and ideologies taking concrete form. That is to say, my trainers are the reification of a particular set social relations and a particular arrangement of labour and power relations that involve some poor fucker somewhere getting totally shafted, and it is through this process that they become, not merely shoes with the use value of being wearable, but commodities with the exchange value of being sold off cheap in bulk to TKMAXX because no other fucker wanted them and so people like me can afford to buy them.

But ideology, social relations and power dynamics can also be reified in the operations and practices of institutions, which are after all, the means by which our social and cultural lives reproduce themselves. And so, if cultural institutions become agents of this in their relationships with artists, if artists start to become the product of their developmental practices, then not only the art we produce but also the artists themselves become commoditised even before we’ve started to speak – avatars for the forces that operate through us and define us even if we consider ourselves to be really totally dangerously radical and individual.

Now the term artist development is riddled with hidden power dynamics – it’s hegemonic as fuck. It presupposes a subject and an object – someone who knows how to enact the development and an artist who should have development enacted upon her. It assumes (like the bland, empty political term progressive) that development will necessarily be a good thing for the artist and not simply those enacting it, and like the term progressive it obscures the fact that the way in which development happens is at once the result of a series of decisions which may take in to account a collection of competing interests (what the institution wants or needs, what the artist wants or needs, what the funders think are important, what the communities in which the artist and institution are embedded consider to be important) and an inevitable playing out of a set of power relations defined by how much the parties involved perceive themselves to need each other. And when you look at it like that it all feels a bit depressing.

So here’s three and a half things that I think:

1.You can’t develop an artist, but you can create the circumstances in which an artist can develop themselves. Pedagogically, this idea is uncontroversial – if the aim is to allow children to develop, it’s entirely consistent to consider themselves the agents of their own development. Unless you’re the government. Obvs. Because if the aim is to force children to develop in certain ways you need to employ far more coercive strategies to turn them into the subjects you need them to be. And coercive and disciplining practices often disguise themselves as disinterestedly operating for the good of those they are operating on. But the fact remains the day centres I take my daughter to for stay and plays are almost always more exciting and beautiful as spaces, more respectful of the needs and desires of their users, more geared towards playing and learning and discovering and becoming, than any of the places in which I might develop my work or I might be asked to develop myself as an artist.

2.Individual artists are different and so they grow and develop differently and need different forms of nurturing in relation to this. Personally, when I was younger and bolder and more fearless I mostly needed the space and the support to just get out and make stuff and not be told how to do it by people I didn’t really respect because their theatre bored me. I didn’t need to be asked to do specific things because I already knew what I wanted to do. Now I’m more fragile and my work and my psyche are more delicate – and what I need is predominantly places of safety – not retreats from the world, but spaces where I feel held enough to enable me to attempt to reconfigure the set of relationships that make it up. And I’m more interested in conversation and invitations so being asked to do things is lovely. Perversely I think I’ve probably been offered these things entirely the wrong way round, because that’s the way you might imagine it would work and because now i’ve had a modicum of success people assume i sort of know what i’m doing even though I work as hard as I can to dispel that idea. Still institutions, practices and processes, however much the individuals within them may resist it, exist in and are shaped by our current climate, and so find it hard to place genuine conversations and listening at the core of their interactions. So of course they find it hard to know what an individual needs – unfortunately I am a beautiful unique snowflake and as such I’m unpredictable and hard to legislate for. I imagine you are all just like me in this.

3. Growing hurts and has consequences. It means confronting your limits and overcoming them. It means embedding in yourself practices, feelings and ways of being that have not sprung naturally from our interactions with our environment. It means abandoning the protections that our habits have created for us. It changes us as people – we become something new, and we explore territory in ourselves which we perhaps did not even know existed, and which may contains monsters of which we were only faintly aware. This is true for anyone, artists aren’t special (not in this way, anyway) but the peculiarly public and social nature of our work tends to amplify these feelings. Part of the way we can help people who are growing is by helping them deal with the hurt and the consequences of their growth. And part of the way we can do that is by abandoning an attachment to the myths of success, of strength, of confidence and of certainty which we are often asked to project (again, artists are not special in this, but the public nature of artisthood amplifies both the demand for and the repercussions of it). Perhaps the most effective artist development scheme we could be provided with is a space where artists at all stages of their careers can be openly broken, openly unsuccessful and openly weak with each other.

Just not all the fucking time, though, huh. That’d be a bit much.

Also -this is the half- sometimes survival is hard. Sometimes survival is enough. Sometimes it’s a kind of winning. Perhaps there are times when we should be encouraged not to develop, not to push forward, but to retreat. If you’re not allowed to fall back you’re not really the avant-garde, you’re cannon fodder.

Here are some things that some artists need some of the time:



to be listened to

an audience

gentle bollockings from people they respect

Here are 2 questions:

What might be a less intrinsically violent and hierarchical configuration of language than “artist development?”

What might be a more useful objective?

And here is my rousing final bit:

Institutions – let’s not talk about how you can develop us. Let’s talk about how you can care for us. Let’s talk about how you can hold us. Let’s talk about how we can hold each other in an expression of our mutual fears and wants. Let’s talk about how you can love us. Let’s talk about how you can comfort us. Let’s talk about how you can protect us. Let’s talk about how you can help us to survive. Can you be our place of safety? Can you be our place of total exposure? Let’s talk about how you can create a space in which we can be raw and terrified and beautiful and broken and powerful and scarred and impossible and badly behaved and wrong and arrogant enough to believe we matter and magnificent enough to be open and vulnerable in public and sacred and full of hope and despair, and lonely and proud, and necessarily stupid and unashamedly intelligent, and questing and questioning, and heart-broken and disappointed, and pointlessly ecstatic, and…

And that way, maybe, if we feel like it and the wind is with us and the stars align the right way, we will develop.

Failing that, please, just give us the fucking money and let us get on with it.

Ps – Free tickets. Personally, I can never afford to go to the theatre cos I work in it. Free tickets.


  1. Angela Chicken
    Posted May 23, 2015 at 10:05 am | Permalink


  2. Posted May 24, 2015 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    loved it

    there are individuals in institutions who try to do this

    but its antithetical to institutional power

    so the trick is to find the people despite the institutions

    that’s a skill that needs teaching at school…

    Oh, and disabled artists can tend to understand all this to their core

  3. Jo West
    Posted May 25, 2015 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    I’ll have some of that, missus! So someone else does understand. Coming to writing in me 40′s has been the best thing that ever happened to me but no one really knows how amazing I really am. And I’m Northern so have to drive gazillions of miles to get to new writing theatres like Truck and WYP. Sending stuff out to competitions is really my only option at the moment as theatres have little resources for unknown amazing talent like me. Belief by a third party who you haven’t given birth to, had sex with or are related to is unbelievably uplifting. It just doesn’t come very often.

    Thanks for your posting.

    Much love,


2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] Here’s a great provocation from This Thing Called Artist Development at Ovalhouse by Alex Swif…. It’s sort of about artist development but it’s also about, well, you know, the world. And stuff. [...]

  2. [...] Still, I wish when I’d been writing my provocation, I’d managed to get as much fire under it as Alex Swift got under his… [...]

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