— All Play All

The qualities of scratch in theatre (and other practice like it)

I helped facilitate a session about scratch at BAC this week. These notes were to capture my thoughts.

There are many many lines of practice that share qualities with scratch in theatre. It’s a design process, sharing ideas quickly in a rough unfinished state with other people and fostering a dialogue around the ideas from everyone, practice in research. Any of these terms may indicate like-minded practice – iterative design co- development dialogue etc.

But there are distinguishing features of scratch too. Scratch is immediate. You can make something happen more easily in theatre, where you just need people and a room, than in any other medium. This makes scratch a very good platform to learn what is in play in practice like this.

Roles are fluid, too. I’ve been an artist, audience, curator, producer, host, facilitator around scratch, way easier than in other disciplines. The more roles you can experience in the process, the better you’ll understand it.

You try to put something in front of an audience as soon as you have something that feels it’s worth sharing. According to Matt Locke, for digital broadcast projects, you spend 10% of the money before you put it out for audience to engage, and then develop it in response to feedback, whereas telly tends to spend 90% first. This is also the principle of the minimum viable prototype.

The process is often best punctuated, with bursts of activity followed by sharing, followed by reflection, followed by further activity.

It’s an iterative creative process. You try stuff out, you observe it, you talk about it, you learn more about it, you make changes and then try those out.

There will always be uncertainty in the best creative process. Uncertainty means you’re open to discovering what something will best become, it’s not a sign of weakness. If you’re making something people will play or interact with, the degree of uncertainty must be greater because people in play will always surprise you.

It doesn’t mean you’re giving over the process to the ideas of other people. You’d rarely present a blank space and expect good results. You start with what excites you as a maker in dialogue with the interests of your future audience.

If you’re making something with a particular group of people in mind, you’ll be stupid not to involve them in a scratch/development process to discover if it excites them, what the opportunities and challenges in their engagement.

There will be certainty too in a process. Sometimes you’ll know what it is you want to make, and you’ll be developing, tuning, tweaking it. This tends to happen later in the scratch development process. Earlier on, you might be exploring what it is you want to make.

But there is more risk in the investment an audience makes in attending a scratch event. So you’ll do things to manage that investment, think about who you’re inviting, how much you’re charging.

But people (some people at least if most) are excited by the opportunity to get insight and involvement in the development of an idea. If that is properly opened up to them.

Scratch opens, hosts a dialogue about the work with all the people in the room: all the different constituencies of audience, the artists, the producers etc.

Noting that the biggest (social) barrier to participation in any activity – like attending a scratch event or talking about it afterwards – is a fear of being judged, you need to take care to host and facilitate that dialogue. In ways that make it easier for people to talk to each other, give permission to talk to strangers, to get it wrong. As an audience you might be worried about saying the wrong thing, looking stupid, upsetting the artist, or even just not liking it so much… all of these leading to judgement and being judged.

Often the core of the best dialogue about the work is reflected in the Jesuit maxim: seldom praise, never condemn, always distinguish. As in make distinct the thing you have just made, or just seen – how was it for you? or what was it for you? or what was your experience? are often the best opening questions.

It’s really useful to hear what all the different people in the room have to say about a scratch piece. And it’s really generous of them to give you their thoughts. But that doesn’t oblige the artists to take on board their points, only to say thank you.

The dialogue hopefully helps you more clearly define what the work is about, but also helps enriched with thoughts and references and associations you yourself wouldn’t make.

Sometimes artists can feel vulnerable after sharing work and need protection. But audiences also need permission and agency to get involved in conversations, and speak their mind freely rather than getting boxed in by the only questions the artists feel comfortable asking or answering. Excellent facilitation and hosting helps makes this happen, helps take the judgement out of it.

An event can take many different formats, use different facilitation devices and tricks. Often you’re scratching the format itself. My best trick as a host was to declare the event free of money but its price to be for the audience to buy a drink for the artist they liked the most but who they didn’t know before coming. This evolved into buying a drink for the artist or audience they liked the most but didn’t know before coming. And then over that drink, talk about the work,

Like any participation and interaction, taking part in a scratch event can build relationships between an audience and an idea, an artist, an organisation or each other.

It’s really important to consider and take care of your networks and communities and the relationships with those in how you host a scratch event.

But you can also use processes like scratch to build relationships with the people you want to get to know better.

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