Scratch Festival

Written for the London Theatre Blog, 11 September 2009

Battersea Arts Centre’s Scratch nights have always been about risk-taking and experimentation, and with Freshly Scratched – one of the two parallel programmes in this year’s Scratch Festival – the venue’s staff are taking almost as big a risk as the audiences and performers.

The scratches – ten-minute conceptual pieces and works in progress – that comprise Freshly Scratched have been selected purely on the basis of written applications. So though the event’s curators presumably have some inkling of the sort of thing in store, when it comes to opening night they’re in the same boat as the public: experiencing the acts for the first time. What little foreknowledge they have is offset by the greater risk they’re taking; while the audience risks just £5 each on the unknown quality of the acts, the organisers stake their reputations as judges of artistic quality.

On the festival’s first long weekend we’re treated to a wordless bromance enacted between two skinny white men with moustaches, tethered by guy ropes to opposite ends of a ridgepole tent; the surprisingly gripping spectacle of most of a tin of treacle dripping slowly down the trembling back of a naked man; a group of people narrating their losing battle with gravity; and to fellow audience members forced to abandon their roles as passive spectators and physically ward off a performer’s intimate advances.

It’s exhilarating to see the curator stand up following a performance and exhibit the same breathless uncertainty the audience is feeling. Because the BAC’s staff lead by example and don’t leave all the risk-taking up to the artists, the BAC becomes an environment in which risk-taking is the norm, and acts must push more boundaries than anywhere else in order to appear more than usually innovative.

And this is only the first round of this year’s Freshly Scratched: while these scratches are themed around Reasons for Living, the next two weeks will feature acts inspired by Democracy and by David Lynch. So it isn’t too late to share that opening night sensawunda with the people who make it all possible.

Not only that, but the Festival also incorporates the Graduates Festival strand, showcasing an assortment of talent hand-picked from the graduating classes of experimental theatre courses nationwide – including a live video installation in the bar, the chance to communicate with yourself in the year 2014, and a particularly intense and exhilarating example of audio-directed performance. I challenge anyone to find a similar volume of similarly brave art for £5 a ticket.

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