In the third of multi-talented AYT writer, Emma Bentley’s series of very personal articles, she talks about the pros and cons of doing scratch nights. But is she done with them completely?

I don’t usually think about my spotlight page. It’s there, it’s got my photo on it, it says how tall I am and how much I weighed when I graduated drama school – it does the job. But the other day I had to send the link to a casting director, and I decided to pop on to check it. To my horror I realised I only had one acting stage credit for 2019 – a short play called Sierra Nevada by Audrey Lang, which was part of the Rapid Write Response Night at Theatre 503 for Wolfie. Luckily, I’ve been acting with KIT Theatre in schools and I’ve done a few ads so my year hasn’t been completely dead.

Since graduating LIPA, I’ve taken part in oh so many Scratch and New Writing Nights, as well as Short Plays Anthologies – whatever you want to call them. In fact, in October I produced a night of 6 short plays from our MFAs at Central School of Speech and Drama. The Christmas Scratch is even a thing now, with companies like Haste Theatre staging their “Notivity” show last week. So, with all of this in mind, I thought it would be good to try and reflect on why Scratch Nights are good, why they are bad, and why we do them.

Let’s start with the bad so we can end on a high, eh. Working for free is clearly one very hot topic of late. I recently came across Jessica Hische’s ‘Should I work for free?’ flow chart, and guess what, pretty much every question leads you to the answer NO. Personally, I was more than happy to work for free until about 6 months ago, when something shifted. Recently, my pal and dramaturg, Ashleigh Packham put her finger on why I had started to feel at odds with unpaid work in this brilliant thread. She challenges why it’s a good idea to take the leap of faith and stop doing it – for your own self-worth. So, although scratch nights give us the chance to act, they could leave you less valued, rather than more.

Because the cast have got to keep their day jobs so they can afford to eat, the rehearsals for Scratch Nights are always organised by finding time around everyone’s work schedules. As an actor, this usually means you’re running over to someone’s living room after work, trying to learn 10 pages of lines on the tube. I’d say the average rehearsal time is between 5 to 10 hours for a 10-minute piece. Which is not much especially if you’re working with a group of people you’re not familiar with. And really, you’re paying to do it, because of the travel and on-the-go food costs incurred (unless you’re one of the disgustingly organised people that cycles everywhere and brings homemade falafel.) On reflection, all this stress before the big day of the show doesn’t sound too alluring, does it?  

Looking back, I’ve been really lucky with the overall quality of the pieces I’ve done. I’ve signed up to so many without reading a script and thank god they’ve been brill. At worst, they’ve at least shown a glimmer of hope. I’ve a fair few friends who’ve signed up to perform in what they hoped would be a zingy, politically astute piece but actually turned out to be the biggest pile of wank they’d ever laid their hands on. The idea of – that I have been guilty of thinking in the past – “you’re lucky to be working on anything” is complete bollocks.

I get that writers need to see their work up on its feet to see if it’ll, well, work and every writer occasionally needs that boost of hope when they see their work staged – that’s what keeps you going right? But if the actors haven’t had the time to learn what the writer has written word for word, or if the actor isn’t even comfortable, I think it’s better to leave it. And what about the audience? I’ve come away from many a scratch night as a punter, having paid £10-15 feeling pretty disappointed.

Despite all the things that could potentially go wrong – not to mention people dropping out last minute, and the tech rehearsal being the most stressful three hours of your life as you’re shoved into a dressing room the side of a glorified cupboard with 20 actors – there are positives! Sierra Nevada was one of those instances where we all just lucked out. It was a brilliant script and something fellow actor, Lexi McDougall and I could really get our teeth in. We were being directed by the calm, kind and clever Jessica Arden and all three of us had that rare experience when you really click with one another. It even turned out that Theatre 503 was free in the daytimes and we were able to rehearse in the theatre, which definitely helped Lexi and I to relax a bit more on the day. We bonded so much in fact that we even have our own WhatsApp group, ‘NO BS Theatre Company’, inspired by a quote from Audrey’s play about “bullshitting” in your writing. Maybe that’s the key… if you feel like something ain’t right at any point – if you smell bullshit – get outta there!

From producing a scratch night this year, I’ve learnt that organising one takes a hell of a lot, so I am not at all saying that it is easy. There is no doubt that they give writers and actors a chance to be practical rather than conceptual or even dormant. However, in 2020 I want to make sure I don’t use them as a crutch that inhibits me from creating bold and epic, full length plays, or paid work. Even if it means I don’t have a single theatre credit on my CV. 

If you enjoyed reading this, visit Emma’s Author page to see more articles. Go on, treat yourself.