For some artists, the thought of letting an audience into the very early stages of development is something that will send them into a blind panic. It’s a delicate balancing act – early work in progress is, by its very nature, a fragile thing, but there is also a danger that by being too close to the piece, you risk becoming ensconced in a creative bubble.
For Ipswich’s Pulse Festival though, eight companies have been brave enough to share early work in exchange for audience feedback. That feedback offers artists a wealth of opportunity. The ability to test audience reaction, to gauge laughs or to just see who the piece feels in front of a live audience.
As ever, the range of work being tested at Pulse is impressively varied. Drama, poetry, monologues and movement spanning a day that sometimes challenges audiences to take bold steps to imagine a finished product but at other times shows a virtually finished product.
For writers such as Kristina Gavran and Kazuko Hohki there’s the chance to showcase their storytelling ideas while poets Francesca Beard, Christopher Brett Bailey and Annie Siddons use their respective slots to road-test ideas for some promising wordplay. Tiata Fahodzi offer a poignant look at family grief and for Old Trunk Theatre and Ira Brand, there are tantalising glimpses of bigger pieces in development.
Across the day, there’s a buzz in the air, random conversations with strangers about the pieces just seen, chances to engage with the artists about their work and how they see it developing. It’s a shared experience that sees the traditional barriers between performer and audience removed. This is more like a theatrical social club coming together to share ideas and to make the process smoother.
For participant Christopher Brett Bailey, testing material at the Scratch Day ahead of his performance of his established show This Is How We Die, there are two main options for an artist taking part in an event such as this. “Scratch Days, or Work in Progress, is either an opportunity to showcase a small chunk of something finished at finished quality and make it like an extended trailer to get people interested in the project, or it’s the opportunity to present something that’s a genuine risk. Either way it’s a great opportunity for an artist.”
Bailey can see the benefits for himself as a performer but does worry about what audiences take from such days. “I think the audience gets a raw deal because the audience is told it’s not finished and it’s not going to be that good. So they come in and watch it through sort of weird lens. That stops them from fully engaging with it and stops them from having a good time when some work doesn’t need polishing to make it a finished thing.”
He continues “I feel that it often keeps people from seeing the finished thing unless what you did show was brilliant. So I feel like there are pros and cons to it but in my process it’s always been helpful and has definitely stopped me from turning down some avenues I might have gone down, if I was only following my own instinct.”
While audiences need to invest their time in scratch performances, Bailey believes the format also requires artists to value their viewers. “It does presuppose that you actually care what the audience thinks of something before it is finished, which is true of a lot of people but maybe not true of the best ones.”
So did Bailey find his appearance at the Pulse Festival Scratch Day useful? “Yes, it felt useful and after touring the same show for nearly 100 performances it’s nice to go out there and feel genuinely really vulnerable and scared of what happens when I turn the page!”