Dialogue at BAC
Scratch – to itch or not to itch

- Jake Orr

Being based in BAC saw Maddy and I working with three artists as they took their journey into developing their pieces. Peter McMaster with Yeti, David Sheppeard with Holocene and Greg McLaren with Atomkraft. Each of them was based within the BAC building and being given two weeks to develop their pieces with scratch performances for audiences towards the end of each week. In the case of Greg, his two weeks were split across the month, where both Peter and David had two weeks solid.

Asking to be part of the process for these artists as they made their work was not easy. The rehearsal room is, and should be, a place where the work – in whatever form it takes – should be supported and in a safe environment. The rehearsal room is a place in which artists take risks, and with the nature of scratch already inviting an audience to see work in a fragile state, inviting an ‘outside eye’ to observe and ultimately write about this process is challenging.

Both Maddy and I are aware of the challenges that this proposes for artists. On other occasions when we have asked to be part of the process of certain theatre companies we have been point-blankly told “No. The rehearsal room is sacred”. We get this. Artists need the time and space to make work without prying eyes, just like Maddy and myself as writers need the time to develop our words. Inviting an audience to peek over our shoulders wouldn’t be easy, and the same is true for a theatre-maker to invite someone into the room to observe their work.

Maddy worked closely with Peter, bordering into dramaturgical support, while my relationship with him was a friendly face to speak to now and again during down moments of the rehearsal room. Although I had a few conversations with Greg, we never formed a strong relationship. For me, it was my ongoing commitment to David Sheppeard that led me on an artistic journey discovering how a solo artist makes work.

David had previously developed his scratch at BAC, but from what I gathered it didn’t work out. (There is nothing wrong with this – failure is very much part of the process of scratching and developing work – the key is knowing when to learn from this and move on or pick yourself up). Returning again with a different approach to his work, David embraced his residency with new vigour. David identifies himself as a queer artist, working predominantly in autobiographical material. He is a producer and theatre-maker, regularly producing other gay artists or his own work on the fringe-circuit. He is based in Brighton.

Some immediate thoughts:

- Brighton has an interesting artistic community. I use the word ‘interesting’ because I’m still not quite sure how to gauge it. From my interactions and conversations with individuals in and out of BAC about Brighton the feeling I get is that it is a creative place but also a difficult place. The community is very disparate at times, and even though Brighton boasts its own festival and fringe, and venues such as the Nightingale and the Basement, there are too many artists and theatre-makers for too few opportunities (but hey, that’s a problem even for the likes of London). I was told repeatedly that artists leave Brighton to produce work, seeking opportunities in other cities, rather than all attempting to go for the same Brighton-based chances.

- Autobiographical work. I always feel slightly cheated by the autobiographical artist/theatre work. The subject of self is an easy route to take, especially for solo artists. That said, David’s use of the autobiographical work is fascinating, especially in relation to his sexuality.

- Being a gay artist. I almost cringe as I type this. As a gay male myself I often feel displaced and removed from my sexuality. I struggle repeatedly with the notion that because I am gay I must have a certain way of being, when really all I can ever be is myself. I get annoyed at the campery and the gayness of being gay. Then there is gay theatre, or queer theatre, or anything that is remotely ‘gay’ in theatre. It frustrates me. David’s work isn’t frustrating though, it is personal, honest theatre. Yes there are tongue-in-cheek moments as he delivers a prayer to God while describing his worshipping of the urinal wanks for old men, but it is also rooted in some deep sadness that seems to underlay his work. A sadness of sexuality, and of family.

My interaction with David during his residency was a curious one. I felt as if at times I was treading on his toes, or demanding something from him as ‘the critic’ in the room. My presence wasn’t disapproved of, but it brought a heightened state of awareness of himself as an artist. Much like when a producer walks in a room, David delved deeper into himself as an artist, performing his words and apologising for things going wrong, rather than seeing me as merely an observer or someone to talk to.

When we first meet it is agreed that I would visit David towards the end of his first week. He needs time to get into his work, and as he is the artist and knows what he needs (my words, not his) I allow him to lead on this. David tells me that he’ll be having some external creatives in the room with him to help him develop his work, mostly the Brighton-based director Emma Kilbey. At first, he’ll work alone, developing a script and working around the material that he hopes to develop. He is looking into volcanoes – and in particular Maurice and Katia Kraft, who were volcanologists, pursuing their love of volcanoes until they died. The scale of disruption, of how fragile the world is, becomes themes in which David makes parallels to his own life. Some of the footage that David uses during his rehearsals and performance piece show the magnificent scale of volcanoes and the chaos they cause. How small us humans feel in comparison, how defenceless.

In the words of David: “Holocene is the geological age in which we are living and sums up all the ways that humans have influenced the planet. The piece I am making is about volcanoes, fear and the way the human ego copes with the knowledge of death.“

Being in the room with David is to watch an artist struggle. The process of devising is not an easy one, it requires constant configuration, reworking, and attempting to understand what is trying to be shown at the core of the piece. David weaves together his own fascinating insight into volcanoes, with anecdotes of the Kraft’s life, and personal reflections upon family and self.

I kept my interactions with David during his rehearsal room times to a minimum, instead tracing the development of his piece through the director Emma who is acting as an outside eye for the work. Emma has created solo work herself and knows the challenges for an artist going through this process. She stresses that having someone in the room to observe and to see where the work is taking shape is crucial for the solo artist.

Emma and I speak at length about the failure of the solo artist, the challenges and constant strain that they go through in order to try and make work. So why not make work with others? It’s about telling an individual story, and at times, that requires just your own self, no one else. It strikes me that I’ve not considered why David might create work on his own, or indeed any artist for that matter. Is it resources? Lack of collaborators, or just the simplicity of having to rely upon yourself to develop the work? Trusting your own instinct and knowing what does or doesn’t work? There are some solo artists who have previously collaborated with other artists but found that they can’t. They can’t bring themselves to the point that they are willing to let go of what they’ve built and the working relationship becomes strained.

The Pressures of Scratch

What does become apparent the longer I spend observing David and speaking to him between rehearsals is the pressure that he feels under. It’s a pressure which all the artists I spoke to during Dialogue’s residency and since too feel during their own residencies. During a residency at BAC you must deliver scratch performances for audiences to see your work, whatever state it is in. Yes, it is a risk, but scratch allows for that risk to that place. The problem is that artists feel that they must deliver, they must push themselves and work hard to show something. Not even for the audience but for their producers, because It falls down to the producers to recommend them for future development in the building and hopefully into a full-scale piece.

As someone who works in the arts, be it writing or marketing or running a theatre website, I know the importance of having a deadline for my work. It keeps me spurred on, checking the clock and making sure that I don’t rest on my laurels. For theatre-makers this deadline for work can, at times, become a hindrance. Just like the writer who struggles with writer’s block, the theatre-maker can struggle from block. They must have something – anything – to show to an audience, which encourages them to work hard, but is it the right frame of mind for a theatre-maker to be in? I’m not sure.

Scratch as a whole is a good concept. In practice, though, it puts artists under pressure. My concern is that this can work against them. During one showing for David, it felt as if he was ill-prepared for the scratch. Not because he hadn’t worked hard to bring material together, it was just that the material wasn’t enough, or not at the right point for showing to an audience. What he needed was more time to formulate his ideas than having to rush them for an audience.

During one scratch of Yeti, Peter McMaster said that he was “kicking up the dust” (or dirt, I forget which), implying that this was only the dust/dirt beneath a body of work that was much deeper. The phrase stuck with me afterwards, because I think it is a good way of looking at the scratch model as a whole. Scratch thrives off the risk that artists have to take to explore their work in front of an audience. It reminds me of some of BAC’s other missions of wanting to “break bread between audiences and artists” – to essentially eat and experience with them – and this is what happens with the silent contract between audience and theatre-maker during scratch. We agree to enter into a contract with them as they kick up the dust waiting to see what patterns will be formed beneath. But it’s clear that not all dust is ready to be kicked up, just like not all theatre-makers suit the scratch model.

Writing about Scratch

As part of our residency BAC were keen for Maddy and I to think about a way in which scratch shows could be written about. Some of the above equates to this, writing about the work, but not reviewing (we were specifically told no star ratings, no reviewing).

After seeing Peter’s Yeti scratch I wrote the following. It uses a stream of consciousness to try and capture some of the ideas at play within his work.


A response to seeing Yeti: Yeti. A monster in the mountain. Somewhere in India. Clothes discarded. Rubbing up against legs. Primal. Animalistic. Primal. Animal. It’s like he takes an animal quality. Circles around the room. Dancing. A solo dance just for us. Some chairs placed with precision. Fish knife clamped between teeth. Nervous laughter, someone smiles. Stories of miniature proportions. This isn’t a performance. This is a small happening. Getting changed into clothes from the mountains. A rucksack clamped and tied to the back. A journey. Altitude. Monkey. A poem. From You to I. Or Me to I. I can’t remember which. Lists on the wall. Seeing Maddy’s name. Process. Repeated ideas again and again like the circles that he spun around us. The primal nature of being on all fours. Shuffling and searching. The poem of identity. Trying to understand what this man and this beast is. To me and to him. What is he explaining. Unknown. Beast. Hairy Beast and a man. The two mould together to create something new. ______________ It’s curious looking back on this piece of text and remembering parts of the performance, and how certain images have retained their vividness. In particular I can remember the way in which Peter rubbed his body against each of the audience member’s legs, who were sitting in a circle. There was something animalistic about it, but also something very human. I realise that this response to Yeti isn’t as coherent as a traditional review, it’s a snapshot of images and ideas. In a way it’s a piece of ‘artistic work’ itself (although that’s not to say that reviewing theatre or writing about it isn’t an art) that could have easily have been written by Peter himself as he used free-writing within his devising process. Perhaps it would make an interesting experiment to do another free-write or to attempt to write about Yeti after so much time. I normally write my responses to theatre immediately, but there is something in letting ideas and thoughts settle before, to use Peter’s terminology “kicking up the dust” again. I’ve written about how writing immediately after a performance isn’t always the best method or outcome desired for an artist. Perhaps the same is true of scratch. Perhaps this is why scratch pieces aren’t reviewed. It’s too embryonic to be forced into words.

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