Scratching the Surface

Last Sunday, I was lucky enough to have a short play chosen to be performed as part of Aberdeen Performing Arts’ first event in a three-part Scratch Night series taking place across 2015. Scratch nights give up-and-coming playwrights the opportunity to see their developing work performed in front of an audience for the first time. This is primarily for the writers’ benefit as it allows them to see where any issues lie in their script or where improvements can be made, but it also opens up opportunities for actors and directors new to the scene to work alongside professionals and develop their skills. The plays are performed script-in-hand, use as little set as possible and, in most cases, the same group of actors perform in two or more of the plays throughout the night. The actors’ transformations between vastly different characters has been my favourite aspect of these events as an audience member – if you haven’t been to a scratch event before, I recommend you do so soon to experience this!

Sunday’s event had a ‘Black Gold’ theme and so each of the eight plays had some relation to oil, with several focused specifically on the industry in Aberdeen while others were more oblique in their references, which led to an engaging mix. There was even an international feel to the night as one of the performances was composed of three excerpts from a Canadian play written by Katherine Koller set during Canada’s great oil strike of 1947. Find out more about all of the plays via the online programme here.

Having been unable to attend my rehearsal due to work commitments, I was a little nervous to see my play performed not knowing how the preparations had gone. I’ve been part of three similar events before while developing work as part of a playwriting programme run by APA, so I’d been used to seeing the process of the directors working with the actors first-hand, and had been able to suggest changes or provide context for my work when necessary. Usually I didn’t have much to say in these sessions as I found that the directors had really got what the work was about and they often improved it before my eyes, particularly when it came to stage directions and the pacing of the dialogue. It was a welcome relief that, within the first couple of minutes of Sunday’s play, I saw my writing had once again not only been understood by the director (Cameron Mowat), but had been enhanced by the reinterpretation of some of the stage directions, and Paul Hughson and Meg Fraser’s brilliant take on each character. The audience thankfully laughed when I’d hoped, and the more serious moments in the play were handled really well given the piece changes tone quite a lot in such a short space of time.

My favourite plays of the night were Every Time You Go Away by Laura Miller and ESSO S by Adam Coutts. Laura’s play successfully compressed the development of one relationship across several years into ten minutes, exploring the tensions that arise for a couple when one is always disappearing offshore. It accomplished the tricky task of being both funny and moving throughout. Adam’s play went for full-on laughs with a young oil worker struggling to decide which wrapping paper would impress his father most – it was a great end to the night and featured top comedic performances from Michelle Bruce and David Rankine. I thought that these two plays had the most potential to be expanded into longer productions, unlike my own which depicted a job centre appointment and so is probably best kept as a ten-minute piece.

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After the performances, we were asked to take part in a Q&A session with the audience, led by professional playwright and actress Lesley Hart. All Q&A sessions are awkward, but none more than a panel of writers who suddenly become quite shy when asked to talk about their own work! It also doesn’t help that it’s hard to see out into the audience with the only lights in the room focused right into your eye line… Out of the darkness, it was quickly noted by one audience member that a negative view was taken on oil in the majority of the plays. While one writer joked that he was probably just jealous he doesn’t work in oil and make a tonne of money, another rightly argued that drama doesn’t often come out of positive situations. I also passed comment on the fact I was influenced by the current job crisis in the city which isn’t exactly all sunshine and flowers. I think we may have missed the point that was being asked though as it was probably about the fact there seemed to be an overall attack on oil exploration itself at times, and on the effect it has on Aberdeen’s inhabitants. I did try in my play to voice some of the positive sides of the industry, such as it being fortunate given the decline of other industries in the area such as fishing, but I do find it hard to be positive about the rampant materialism and inequality visible in the city today, as well as the larger global implications of oil exploration, and don’t see how any writer could really put a positive spin on these.

Another audience member commented that only two plays used Doric (one of which was mine) and that they would have liked to have heard more. I personally think that two out of eight plays isn’t bad, and that this is pretty reflective of the use of Doric in Aberdeen city today, which has declined faster than it has in the shire where I was brought up. While I often use Doric in my work, I try to ensure that my writing still tackles universal themes, and that it doesn’t rely on local jokes and references; this sort of parochialism has its place in productions specifically targeted at local audiences such as pantomimes, but it can only be a misstep in the long-term for those hoping their work will reach out to a wider audience and will lead non-Doric speakers to an interest in the dialect.

One audience member commented on the fact she preferred this scratch event compared to the last one which featured excerpts from the plays the APA playwrights’ programme I was part of had written. I could see her point given that a self-contained piece will be more satisfactory for an audience rather than something which may appear out of context and hard to follow, as the Canadian piece had been at times on Sunday. Lesley Hart argued for the need for scratch events to showcase work in progress, which is the main reason they ever came about in the first place. The audience member conceded that, in future, it should be about finding the balance between an emphasis on ‘process’ for the writers’ sake, as much as a satisfactory ‘product’ for the audience. I agree and hope that the following Scratch Nights do still allow room for more excerpts from larger works in progress to be performed, although this is a little less likely given that the each event has been themed which will provoke most writers to produce short pieces pertinent to the theme, rather than risking writing something larger to only send in a section of it. However, while the next event’s ‘Northern Lights’ theme may be a tad too restrictive, the final event, ‘My Aberdeen’, does at least allow for a larger possibility of playwrights sending in excerpts from a longer work if they are prone to writing about the city.

Whether or not I write something for the next two scratch nights, and whether or not it is accepted, I look forward to going along to watch these events and would encourage everyone to go to at least one, if not to submit their own writing. All info on how you can submit a play, as well as when performances will take place, can be found on the Aberdeen Performing Arts website here.

  • See more of my previous theatre work on the Drama page.