Features Artist-in-Residence Published 25 September 2011

Scratch Performance

Laura's journey takes her out of the rehearsal space and into the performance space, from life-long private obsession to a humid blur of public display, in one difficult step.
Laura Jane Dean

Having spent the last couple of months writing about my OCD and rehearsing alone in a room the perfect opportunity presented itself to try out some of the material I have been developing on a real, live audience, by taking part in a ‘scratch’ night hosted by Accidental Collective (a Kent-based performance company).

The process of ‘scratching’ work is now a well-established norm, with many theatres and arts venues holding ‘scratch nights’ (Battersea Arts Centre being the forerunner, ‘Scratch’ is a key part of its mission), allowing new work to be seen and developed. The crucial element of scratch performance is audience feedback; gauging audience response and receiving constructive criticism is invaluable to the artist/company and an essential part of developing a piece of theatre.

After many years of silence, saying my thoughts out loud was getting easier and feeling more comfortable but the reality of taking myself and the words out of the safety of the rehearsal space, a space which, as a solo performer, still feels very private and presenting it to the public made me feel really quite vulnerable. Was I ready? Would it resonate? Would it be perceived as self indulgent? Could it alienate an audience? Would the audience be able to recognise any part of themselves in what I was saying? The chances were I wouldn’t get all of these questions answered but hopefully I could get a sense and start conversations that would help me develop the piece.

The scratch night took place at The Tom Thumb Theatre in Margate, a cloistered treasure, which is said to be the smallest theatre in the country. A sweetly intimate venue, the close proximity of the stage to the audience would, I hoped, lend itself well to the personal nature of my piece. I wanted to be able see the audience and at times, look them in the eye.

I was last on stage and throughout the evening my nervousness was reassuringly replaced by excitement, adrenaline and an eagerness to just get on stage and do it. My performance flew by in a humid blur of words and faces, looking out to very familiar faces and new faces and saying the words out loud that had consumed and terrified me for years. At times it wasn’t easy (there are certain parts which still feel scary and dangerous to say out loud) but through my vulnerability and fear I felt a strong connection with the audience and could sense their engagement with what I was saying.

Buzzing, post performance, I was greeted with responses of “Oh god, that’s just like me!”, “That reminded me so much of my sister” and even an enthusiastic, “it’s really nice to hear someone talk about death!” I was also asked “where did all that material come from?” and at that point I realised that for the people in the audience who have known me for a very long time there was probably no question that I was talking about myself, but for others who knew me less well, or not at all, it seemed the connection wasn’t necessarily that clear cut.

The performance provides me with a frame and therefore a certain distance from the material within that space, but in order for the audience to connect with it, and believe it (whether they think it is about me or not), there needs to be a rawness, and emotion, in the delivery. Finding the balance between the personal, straightforward confessional element of the show alongside the performative action is what I’m really excited about exploring. This will be crucial in creating and developing a strong piece of theatre. If I say ‘I’m exhausted’ then I need to really be exhausted and I have to find a way to fully communicate the frustration that comes from the rituals and routines. I have to go through something on stage. I’m also beginning to consider the aesthetics of the piece and I’m continuing to write. And now I’m itching to get back in to a rehearsal space to try things out, to experiment, to get things wrong and to get things right.

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Laura Jane Dean is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine