Dialogue at BAC

- Maddy Costa

Even before Jake and I walked through the doors of BAC to start our Autumn Cook-Up residency, it was clear that we were affecting the way people within the building were thinking about the artist-critic relationship. Or at least, that we were sharpening into focus thoughts that were already floating around the building, unresolved and conflicted. Some of those thoughts were to do with press night arrangements; some to do with the impact of blogging on BAC's ability to protect Scratch performances from being reviewed, no matter how informally. One of the senior producers, Richard Dufty, sent us an internal document setting out rules of engagement between ourselves and Scratch performers that – excitingly – suggested the relationships we hoped to build as potential models for the future. Its proposals were simple: you don't write about a Scratch piece unless you've engaged with its making directly, whether by sitting in the rehearsal space or having a conversation with the makers in advance; you don't pass value judgments; you don't use star ratings. The document didn't feel prescriptive, it felt full of possibility.

I've had an odd relationship with Scratch in the past. More accurately, I've barely had one at all, as I rarely go to scratch/in-progress shows. It's not that I'm not fascinated by work in development, clearly I am, but there are barely enough evenings in a week to keep up with “finished” work (I use the word carelessly; usually I'm quick to dispute it), let alone work just begun. When I do go, I almost never fill in the feedback forms: questionnaires are dispiriting. And I never engage in conversation with the makers in the bar, because whenever I've ill-advisedly tried I've been a gushing idiot and regretted it for weeks after.

Because I so rarely go, the question of whether or not I would write about, blog about, a scratch piece hasn't come up. But right at the start of Dialogue's existence, I started fretting away at the complexities of this issue, because of a Critic's Notebook column by Lyn Gardner in the Guardian that ended with the following:

[A]ll across the country micro festivals are springing up, presenting works-in-progress that I keep being invited to review. I love the chance to see work in development. Furthering the dialogue between critics and artists can only be good. But after trying and often failing to assess potential in 300 words, I'm increasingly wary about subjecting fledgling work to critical scrutiny. Although the show might change, the review remains set in stone – or at least in cyberspace.

I know Lyn is writing about a very particular kind of reviewing here, but instinctively I faltered at some of her language. It's because I don't want to “subject” work, developing or developed, to “critical scrutiny” that I avoid calling myself a critic. And yes, the writing is “set in stone” – at least, in a mainstream context; blogs can always be re-edited – but that degree of permanence makes it all the more imperative that the thoughts contained in the writing are fluid. How you achieve that fluidity is the challenge: one that the BAC document posed directly. Writers engaging with Scratch, it suggested,

… might place doubt, an openness to changing their minds (and changing what they have written) and an equity between the writer and the person reading and responding (rather than the current hierarchical online model of the writer and everyone else who passes comment) at the heart of their approach. They might decide not to focus primarily on value judgements but instead they might try to write about what is interesting about an artist’s process and the challenges/ideas that that artist is grappling with.

One thing that wasn't interrogated in the BAC document is the assumption that people showing work-in-progress want feedback, either immediately or at all. But that's the purpose of Scratch!, you cry. Sure – but not everyone wants to use it in the same way. Alexander Kelly of Third Angel was instructive on this point at the Dialogue discussion held at Northern Stage/St Stephen's during the 2012 Edinburgh festival. He finds it frustrating when people talk to him directly after a work-in-progress performance, because invariably they pin down themes to such an extent that the piece feels less open for discovery. He prefers to hear people's thoughts a few weeks after the event, when he can hear what has stuck in their memories, when they speak more of resonant images than of what the piece as a whole was “about”. Until then, it's not so much the audience's reviews of what they have seen that's useful to him, but the quality of their viewing in the room – and, more pertinently, how the piece feels within his own mind, his own body, in performance.

So who are those audiences? At the Scratch shows I saw during Autumn Cook-Up, numbers ranged from five to maybe 50 and noticeably included friends of the performers, others making work at BAC and, almost always, people from BAC's team of producers, whose presence made even me, semi-resident in the building, feel curiously self-conscious, and indeed curious: I would sidle out of shows behind them, surreptitiously earwigging their comments. I began to see Scratch as a useful tool for BAC staff: an aid both to figuring out what to programme, and to knowing what support a company or director or performer might need.

And that puts a weird pressure on Scratch: for all that makers are encouraged to use it as dream-time, to take risks, challenge themselves and try the ideas they might otherwise avoid for fear of failure, these makers are still looking for affirmation from BAC – and a space in its programme. It was interesting spending time in the rehearsal room with Peter McMaster during his residency: the days when he was performing I felt he was a little less relaxed, a touch restless, and we talked briefly about the contradictory feelings Scratch performances engender. He characterises the split as: “anxiety about the pressure of making something that is not valued, for whatever reason, by venue and audience, while at the same time enjoying the structure of the scratch process to help retain a focus”. But there are different ways of generating that focus: other makers resident at BAC staged informal afternoon showings of their work, which had a similar mix of BAC producers/staff/artists as their audience. Why does a more general public need to be invited?

Even asking the question feels odd to me, because usually I'm all for transparency. And actually engaging with Scratch after an extended period of not bothering reminded me what a beautiful offer it is. As an audience member, you are invited to become involved with or attached to a work: to watch it grow, shifting and mutating and blossoming over time. More discursively, it gives people not involved in the making of theatre an opportunity to witness almost-directly how work is created. The more time you're able to devote, the more illuminating Scratch can be: the four performances of Peter McMaster's Yeti that I saw differed subtly from each other, and offered insights quite apart from what we discussed in the rehearsal room into the way he builds up a piece. But who, in the normal course of life, can see four scratches of the same show? I managed it because I was squeezing Yeti into the 30 minutes before another show started. But the BAC schedule isn't consistent in creating that possibility, and an awful lot of Scratch shows sit in time slots that overlap with or butt against other work.

Then again, something intriguing happens in that scheduling: the hierarchy of Scratch and developed work melts away. On the down side, this can make you expect too much of a piece in progress: watching Bad Host's When the Lions Drink, I couldn't understand why it was dominated by a seemingly interminable scene in which two performers painstakingly transferred shot glasses from a tightly packed tray to an adjacent table, forgetting in my fidgety boredom that the young company needed to put the scene in front of an audience to appreciate that what looks hypnotic in a rehearsal room and in a performance space is not always the same thing. Jake and I had a long chat with its director, Chelsea Walker, afterwards, and she admitted wishing she had anticipated that scene not working. She also told us that in a previous residency, Bad Host had flooded BAC by attempting to stage When the Lions Drink – which imagines London submerged by a flood – in a four-inch pool of water. Now that I would have liked to see.

On the plus side, that blurring of finished and unfinished made me more willing to give myself up to Scratch shows, more ready to surrender to their worlds. I absolutely trusted the premise of Ross Sutherland's Standby for Tape Backup – that he had come across a long-forgotten VHS tape at his grandfather's house, and in it discovered aspects of his grandfather he hadn't known – and was thrown by the suggestion on the feedback form that he might have found some material for the show elsewhere. I had a similarly gullible moment watching These Trees Are Made of Blood: it didn't occur to me that the two women who came into the room late, stumbling and embarrassed, were part of the show, although it felt obvious in retrospect. The room in this case was a ramshackle construct, a dusty night-club in Argentina during the military dictatorship of the late-1970s and early 1980s, a time when political dissidents might at any moment be kidnapped and killed, joining the ranks of the “disappeared”. In a Scratch context, uncertainty and anxiety could imbue both the form and the content of the piece.

Another potential positive of BAC's flattened hierarchy is that it becomes more possible for the Scratch spirit of experimentation to hold even in developed work. Sweetshop Revolution's Tree was presented as a finished piece, and certainly felt like one when I saw it. At 100 or so minutes, it was probably too long, but the relationships forged between the four performers were consistently moving, thoughtfully provocative and often very funny, from the first confrontationally violent simulated sex scene through a series of individual vignettes contemplating money, family, religion, ambition and social atomisation, to a final, bruised and tender dance trio in which one man kept falling, falling, and the other two would catch him and prop him back up, a scene I interpreted as a physicalisation of the need for support networks, especially for the vulnerable and afraid, and which the friend who came with me read as a challenging reminder that clinging to baggage in life, clinging to responsibility, can be as destructive as it is generous. I saw the first performance and loved it; the second, according to its director, Sally Marie, was a disaster, and the third was radically different, with vast chunks of material excised. I love that being at BAC made this quick-fire reinvention feel possible.

In which case, the more-or-less traditional relationship between theatre and critics that you find at BAC feels especially peculiar. Annoyingly, I no longer have the official press release I was sent relating to Autumn Cook-Up, but in my memory only two shows had designated press showings, Kate Tempest's Brand New Ancients and Andy Field's Motor Vehicle Sundown. As it happens, Lyn Gardner saw both shows on dates of her own choosing, but that doesn't quite prevent the invitation BAC extends to the press feeling uncharacteristically rigid and old-fashioned. There are, of course, several critics perfectly content to slot shows into their diaries on appointed days, and if they miss the appointed date then oh, never mind. But BAC doesn't strike me as a theatre that does things because that's the way they're done. And, gratifyingly, by the end of Dialogue's residency, artistic director David Jubb had begun talking about operating a more flexible system and conferring with artists about how they themselves wanted to invite the press to see their work. If Dialogue contributed to the removal of the imposition of a specific press night from theatre-makers who don't want one, that feels like quite an achievement.

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