A factory of art

15 April 2019

Joseph Winer analyses NSDF and the theatre industry through the lens of Fordism 


At Saturday night's NSDF ‘19 Opening Party, Curve Chief Executive Chris Stafford said a bunch of wonderful things to welcome us to the week. He also described the festival as ‘a factory of art’. I found this uncomfortable. When we think of factory work, we often think of the mass production assembly line: unfair working conditions, quantity vs quality, and repetitive labour. Using David E. Nye’s breakdown of the assembly model (otherwise known as Fordism), I’d like to have a think through its conventions to hopefully highlight that NSDF is definitely not a factory.

1.       There is a division of labour – each worker has a set of well-defined relatively simple tasks to be performed on a car being moved along a moving assembly line

OK, so, yes, theatre is, a division of labour. There’s a production team who take on different roles for each show, a group of actors, a management team, set of skilled technicians, selectors, judges, etc. But are the tasks of these workers relatively simple as Ford’s model would suggest? Surely not. Take the role of the director for example. The car in our scenario is the show itself. There’s no clear set of instructions for the physical labour involved in the task of making a show. Unlike cars, no two shows are ever the same. Nor is the task of making our “product” a simple one. 

2.       The parts that the laborer applies in the assembly process are interchangeable. There is no ad hoc filing, grinding, etc., to make them fit in place.

Ad hoc filling, grinding – shaping to make fit the part – seem integral to the nature of many performances we’ll see this week. A production moulds its team, its set, its technology. It cuts together music tracks. It focuses its spotlights differently depending on the height of the actor...I think we can all agree that there is plenty of filling and grinding in this industry to fit everything into place.

3.       Manufacturing employs specialized machines that have a single function.

Single function…

S I N G L E fun k shun. ????? 

How many times have you been making a show and found yourself doing a job that feels completely out of your remit? I’ve seen technicians tearing ticket stubs. Front of House managers checking in on cast welfare. Actors sewing together their own costumes. In producing a show, even worker and machine become interchangeable in their functions. Our ‘factory of art’ sees creatives, technicians and all others involved both facilitate the labour and create the work itself. Unlike the factory, it is not the speed of the machine that defines our work pace. Our labour is cued by the demands of our fellow theatre-makers.

4.       Machines are not grouped by type (you don’t put all the milling machines in one spot) but are placed where they are needed.

The actors are blocked. The management team are on different doors. One technician’s up a ladder. Another’s behind a sound desk. But the point is, not one of us is stuck or stable like a machine? 

5.       Parts and assemblies are moved automatically from one stage of production to the next — they’re not shifted by workers whose job is assembly. There is no wearisome heavy lifting or towing.

Just speak to any stage crew for this one. Try and run your show without a technician moving any heavy equipment around the building. We don’t just build the show. We often find ourselves running the entire operation. Particularly in the DIY budget-restricted world of student theatre. 

6.       There is enhancement of production by electrification and good lighting.

OK, perhaps I’ll give this one to Ford.


The factory model sees efficient mass production. The focus is on product. And the focus on product is to turn a profit. This is not what theatre should be about. We should be interested in process. In the failure of something going wrong on the night. In the vast range of responses that different audiences can offer for a moment in a show.

This is not to say we don’t have to work efficiently. Restrictions on money, rehearsal space, time-frames, etc., do force us to work under pressure. But I think it’s really boring when work is performed in the exact same way night after night. In an article for WhatsOnStage, Matt Trueman described the long running Les Misérables as ‘perfect, too perfect’, commenting on the nature of play as a medium of ‘discovery and invention’. We simply cannot play in a factory that pressures us into making product on mass. I also don’t believe that labour should always be disguised behind seamless scene transitions and “magical” thirty-second costume changes. Why should our labour be repetitive, pressured and thankless?

Guest Director James Phillips also referred to the extra hour of labour that the festival worker might do that goes unnoticed. But should we really be glamorising this? Is NSDF trying to set us up for an industry which, like the factory, forces its labourers into working in unjust conditions? Art is about creative expression. A masterpiece can happen by accident. An arts council funded national production can be an absolute failure. And maybe that’s OK? Maybe that’s the point?

If NSDF is a factory of art, then I’m not sure we’re doing it properly? I also demand a pay rise.

@noffmag [email protected]

Image credit: Beatrice Debney