February 2010. The lights are off. As I adjust to the dark I can make out shapes of others scattered around the room. Disoriented and uncertain I wait for some sign or direction of what to do. The air is thick with anticipation, but as time drags it becomes clear that no instructions are coming. Then it begins all around me. Sat in the dark in a workshop in the courtroom studio of Toynbee Studios, I begin to feel anxious. I see the outline of another body in front of me and I panic. I should do something. I reach for anything that might keep things working, that might keep play going. Does anyone want to dance, I ask. I waltz. I sense someone dancing behind me.
In what follows I think through my participation in a 2010 workshop led by Anne Bean, recounted in part above, to understand better the role of play in the conditions of production for theatre and performance under capital. Bean is an interdisciplinary artist, belonging to (or claimed by) multiple experimental art scenes, including visual, performance, and sound art, who has been a central figure of European live art since the 1970s. The workshop, which was conducted largely in the dark and focused on the aestheticization of cooperation through an emphasis on its participants doing play was held at Artsadmin's Toynbee Studios, the influential UK arts producing organization's home in East London. This article puts my account of Bean's workshop in conversation with Victorian economist Arnold Toynbee's demand for a new capitalist morality. Toynbee's appeal was, of course, not directed at me or the other workshop participants disoriented and uncertain in the dark. But, I argue, the situation of play that arose in Bean's workshop is a contemporary iteration of what Toynbee called a gospel of life, a term referring to a commitment to self and civic betterment at the core of a burgeoning capitalist morality. The connection between the shaping of Victorian labor practices and the staging of cooperation between participants in Bean's contemporary workshop is the basis for this essay's core assertion: that the value of play as a counterpoint to work within practices and discourses of theatre and performance needs considerable rethinking.