It's been about a year and a half since we started Scratch Nights, and a year since we opened them up into a public platform. In that time we have been host to such a lot of new work and ideas, it seemed necessary to reflect on WTF just happened as we head into what will hopefully only be a brief hiatus.
Scratch Nights were, for us, a chance to shake off the that debilitating back clinging monkey, by name of End-Result. With no pressure to produce anything within a specific timeframe we were free to just fap out idea after idea and translate them immediately into performance. Every fortnight for about 3 months we came up with a whole new 40 odd minutes of performance. Sometimes they were old bits that had been reimagined; sometimes they were brilliant (or not) sparks of inspiration that had struck during another process only to be quietly shelved in the interest of the work as a whole; whatever we did, it was always rough.
During that rapid burst creativity, comparable only in pace and magnitude to the Cambrian Explosion, we almost inadvertently developed a number of new performance pieces that are currently in various states of realisation, including, Posties (internal mail delivering clowns), Guilt (the process of which was nimbly captured by Theo Taylor in this short doco), Quiz Night and a whole series of games involving headphones that we don't quite know what to do with yet.
After a while we started to run into other projects and simultaneously out of energy, but by which stage we were feeling confident in hosting the platform for all comers. This involved four week cycles of panic and relief as we attempted to curate and make our own contributions all in the same breath. The consistency with which artists and groups would materialise just days before the scratch night with a new concept to test was matched only by the regular attendance of the audience, who remarkably turned out month after month to see these guys trying out their weird ideas and works-in-progress. Some of those pieces were transcendental, some...didn't go as well, but as they say risk and reward go hand-in-hand and that is just as much, if not more, the case in performance as anywhere else. Hosting these nights I was witness to a ludicrous amount of experimentation in duration, repetition, interaction, scatology, psychology and physical duress, amongst other things.
Anyway 11 of those down, and we were starting to get increasingly diverse audiences and diverse artists coming to have a crack. This at least confirms to me that there is a need for this type of platform. I know that a lot of what went on was half-baked, but I think that's what audiences and performers liked about it, there was no expectation that it would be polished, so both were free to relish in what it was. There were some key factors that I feel helped contribute to that: the fact that the audience and performer were more on the same level, a bar space, rather than a theatre space; that there was the feeling of working through something together in the moment - that the performer was asking for as much from the audience as they were asking of her; and finally that any koha was offered at the end. You'll be amazed at how much you more you enjoy watching or doing something if you know the transaction is a mutual, as opposed to a commercial, one.
Scratch nights are not a new thing, and they're becoming more prevalent - with versions popping up in Auckland and Christchurch. I think it is part of a wider movement towards the democratisation of performance, and part of the answer to increasing and broadening engagement. They have huge potential for drawing out riskier ideas that might otherwise never make it to a public platform due to fear of failure when the stakes are higher - and if there's one thing we don't need in our performing arts, it's timidness.
There are many more issues and questions about the sustainability, purpose and future of scratch nights that I could get into, but I won't right now. However if you're interested in further reading I recommend having at look at this excellent series of articles on scratch nights and work-in-progress showings written by our friends in the UK, Getinthebackofthevan. I hope we or someone else can bring these back in the not too distant future, but in the meantime I'm satisfied that we had a decent hash at it, and that theatre was the winner on the day.
Written by Joel Baxendale, Scratch Nights producer
*Scratch Nights were hosted in the Understudy Bar at Bats Theatre Out-Of-Site and supported by the Wellington City Council Creative Communities scheme, and would not have been possible without this generous support.