Getting new work off the ground can be a difficult and daunting process for any theatre maker, especially if a project is in its earliest stages and isn’t necessarily ready for production. It still needs time to brew, to mature, to develop, but would benefit from the structure of an imminent performance date, rehearsals and an audience. For almost 40 such pieces, this weekend’s Freshly Scratched mini-festival at Battersea Arts Centre invites audiences to gamble on “an evening of rough and ready flashes of inspiration mixed in with glorious failures”. Who could resist such an unflinchingly honest proposition?
“It’s a risky experience,” confesses Richard Dufty, Senior Producer at BAC, who is “ultimately responsible” for the successful delivery of the scratch nights taking place over three evenings, with two performance slots each night. Featuring 10-minute pieces from more than 30 artists, Dufty openly recognises that it isn’t all everybody’s cup of tea. “Audience members might see something they don’t enjoy but they know that ten minutes later there’ll be something else on – that hopefully they will”. There’s a refreshing candour in admitting some pieces might fall foul of the pressure of performance. Perhaps this appeals to our morbid sense of fascination, but BAC has thrown the net wide in a quest for diversity and quality to “see as many people as possible to ensure you get the best of what’s out there”. Dufty is clear that scratch applications are not auditions: “it’s simply the spirit of scratch to work with a volume of artists”.
“Scratch isn’t about polished work. It’s about great ideas and actively embracing the development process,” explains Dufty. Although the work shown on each evening is loosely linked to a set theme (Myths, Selflessness and Heroism, Machines), this isn’t a platform event for finished work and BAC is more than aware it doesn’t suit every artist. It takes a certain type of person to face the risks of a scratched performance. “We wanted to find artists brave enough to fail,” says Dufty. “You can scratch a piece of work at all different stages of development – from small ideas that may or may not have legs to almost completed projects. But for Freshly Scratched, we wanted to find work at the earliest stages of development.”
Dufty doesn’t shy away from admitting Freshly Scratched is “quite different to the rest of our programme”. However, the term “scratch” was actually invented at BAC 15 years ago, though it is now used across the globe. This is BAC’s first scratch event in two years and something of a leap of faith. Dufty highlights that “the key characteristic of artists involved in Freshly Scratched is that they have never worked with BAC in this way before”. Although some participants have come through BAC’s Homegrown youth programme, this venture is all about showing BAC is “not a closed shop”, as Dufty puts it. Scratch supports and champions emerging artists by allowing them access to a professional theatre environment, and Dufty confesses it is just as exciting for the production team as for the performers. “I get a particular thrill from it because as a producer I see theatre all the time and often by artists I’m working with and whose work I know”. For Dufty, Freshly Scratched is “all about art in its own right” and strips away theatrical conventions. With a Pay What You Can scheme for audiences, minimal technical specification and the centre’s ‘Playgrounding’ ethos transforming unusual areas into interesting theatrical spaces, imaginations are set free. Artists must rise to the challenge. With nowhere to hide, scratched performances are “fragile and vulnerable” according to Dufty. He tactfully jokes that you can read an outstanding written application, then see that proposal come to life in some rather unexpected ways, and admits frankly, “the very definition of scratch is that the work isn’t finished and it won’t be perfect”.
But what can audiences really expect from these imperfect interludes? As a means of nurturing new work, Freshly Scratched unlocks the creative process. “Theatre should be brewed up over a period of time because truly great work comes to fruition slowly,” observes Dufty. “The principle of scratch is that artists show their work to an audience to get feedback. People could give a pound, have an evening of entertainment and take an active role in the process. Their feedback can genuinely influence the future of a piece.” Tulisa and Gary Barlow, eat your hearts out – if you’re in the market for some creative critique, BAC is evidently the place to be. In short, Freshly Scratched puts the creative process first. Theatre cannot be created in a vacuum and as Dufty emphasises, “it’s BAC’s belief that theatre is better if it is enriched” through development and participation.
In the genre of immersive and interactive mini-festivals, Freshly Scratched is unique thanks to more than its kaleidoscope of creativity. Undoubtedly, the heady rush of holding the power to influence the fate of a piece of theatre is nigh irresistible as an audience member. Likewise, brave young theatre makers must be heralded for throwing themselves and their art to the lions that prey mercilessly on the delicious delicacy of new work. However, it is the refreshing frankness surrounding the event that truly captures the exhilarating spirit of scratch and the unpredictable nature of performance. Some will fail and some will flourish, and as Dufty jokes, “you always dread having one of those head-in-your-hands moments”. But even if one ship sinks sensationally, a mere 10 minutes later, it will all be history. Audiences will have moved on and the artist will (hopefully) have learned something they didn’t know before. As Dufty notes, “theatre must be made in dialogue”. Scratch performances, then, look like the ideal opportunity to join the conversation.
Freshly Scratched is showing at Battersea Arts Centre until Saturday 15 October. Performances daily at 7pm and 9pm and tickets are Pay What You Can. For more information and to book tickets, visit the website here.