Since July 2012, UnderConstruction Theatre Company has been curating a monthly Theatre Scratch Night here at the Old Fire Station. The night encourages local and emerging theatre makers to show work-in-progress, testing it out in front of a live audience. Each month, three pieces lasting up to 15 minutes each, are performed and receive spoken feedback facilitated by a host from UnderConstruction.

We caught up with Lizzy McBain, Artistic Director of UnderConstruction and facilitator on the night, to find out about more about Scratch Night, best bits from the last year, success stories and what to expect in 2014…

First things first, what can you expect to see at a monthly Scratch Night?

People often ask ‘what sort of work do you accept?’ to which there is no definite answer. The net is cast broad open with two prerequisites only; that the piece must warrant being performed on a stage with a live audience, and that the artists must have questions that they would like the audience to help them explore. As a result we have had radio plays that are potentially going to become theatrical pieces, reminiscence pieces that are going to be toured site-specifically, interactive pieces that invite the audience to participate, a human puppetry piece, an operetta, and scripted play texts. Each Scratch is different and no two monthly shows are the same – much like a lucky dip!

What kind of work has been shown or ‘scratched’ already?

To date we have had 29 new pieces scratched involving the work of 89 different artists. These have included established playwright Joe Graham’s extract from Spare Prick, a comedy about a love triangle, which will be performed in full at OFS in September, and spoken word poet and recently turned theatre artist Steve Larkin’s T.E.S, with a contemporary resetting of Tess of the D’Urbevilles, early in its development.
Artists who have less playwriting experience but just as much talent have also been encouraged to test their work out as it is relatively risk free; free use of the space in return for showing work in development. Lee Woodward’s, Flail, which saw actress Jodana Van Vuuren deploy fantastic comic timing in his piece about the endless quest for a perfect girlfriend, is one artist who has used the Scratch to test his writing and go on to edit his script using the feedback he has received from our audience.

Steve Larkin’s T.E.S - a contemporary resetting of Tess of the D’Urbevilles
Steve Larkin’s T.E.S – a contemporary resetting of Tess of the D’Urbevilles

Is it all more traditional theatre?

Not at all. We have also seen inventive reinterpretations of theatrical conventions. Bad Host’s When Lion’s Drink, which will be performed in a non-theatre space in London next year, invited the audience to donate personal items to the characters suffering the fall out of a flooded capital, and David Ralf’s piece Solo, in a piece about child pornography, cast the characters randomly on the night.

Are there any stories of shows or artists making it big in Oxford or elsewhere after they’ve performed at Scratch?

There have. Gaye Poole’s Memory Exchange, a piece about old age and memories set in a charity shop, has since gone on to receive substantial funding and has been toured around Oxfordshire nursing homes this summer. She told us, “I would have left the piece languishing in a drawer if I hadn’t been prompted to try it out at Scratch Night!”

Gwilym Scourfield’s All Fair in Love and Trade, was also selected to be shown in the final of Sky Blue’s International Playwriting Competition at the Junction in Cambridge in July after he showed it at the Old Fire Station in January.

Have there been any particular highlights for you?

Ivan Hall’s Four Walls, an incredibly clever solo piece exploring the nature of fiction and the writer’s power, as he deftly interacted as a fictional character with the “real” writer present through a voice over, was a definite highlight for me. Circle of Two’s Do Puppets Dream, a physical theatre piece exploring the world of puppets and the double, also deserves a mention as Celia Mendizabal’s portrayal of a human puppet required such control which she delivered throughout.

Circle of Two's Do Puppets Dream
Circle of Two’s Do Puppets Dream

Overall, it has been great to see the work of any new and emerging artists premiered for the first time at the Scratch. We really hope to see more from John Harper, playwriting student at Ruskin College, who’s EyePhone 64, a play about future technologies was very pertinent, and Simon Jay’s brilliantly witty and absurd monologues from Is he a bit Simon Jay?, really felt like witnessing first hand a new star on the scene!

John Harper's EyePhone64
John Harper’s EyePhone64

What can we expect next?

Scratch night has been an overwhelming success but there’s still room for improvement. After asking for feedback from all our artists and members of the audience, UnderConstruction and Arts at the Old Fire Station are hoping to attach to Scratch Night a two-week residency for one company who has previously performed, ending in a performance of more developed work.

We will also be working on the way those presenting at Scratch Night receive “good” feedback, how we can support them after they’ve ‘scratched’, as well as having a blog designed which will provide a platform for the long-term documentation of work produced at Scratch Nights, and the publication of research papers and artists’ residency journals.

Finally, we hope to establish a nuclear group of artists to become part of a steering group for the Theatre Scratch, who will assist with drawing in new artists, audiences and funding in coming years, strengthening its future operation.

We have already been granted funding by Oxford City Council from the Culture Fund to achieve this project, and are currently looking for match funding. Watch this space!

Theatre Scratch Night returns on Tuesday 17th September, 8pm