Theatre Critic and Journalist

Battersea Arts Centre’s new digital platform goes from scratch to itch

Battersea Arts Centre’s new digital platform goes from scratch to itch

Published on Guardian Culture Pros, 31.08.2012

All manner of artists have done well out of Web 2.0. There are countless examples, from comedian Bo Burnham to indie duo Pomplamoose, of undiscovered creatives coming into prominence through canny use of online platforms. Oh, and some singing Canadian kid called Justin.

Broadly speaking though, theatre makers haven’t benefited in the same way. Social networks and self-publishing might have expanded the promotional possibilities for live work, but, unlike sketches and songs, that work itself doesn’t translate neatly into digital forms. Where it has, in the cases of NT Live’s screenings or livestreamed performances by National Theatre Wales, the process has required significant resources and expertise, neither of which can be readily mustered by emerging independents.

It’s an issue of which David Jubb, co-artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), is acutely aware: “Obviously there are great things like NT Live, but for my money, theatre is not exploring the full creative potential of what digital engagement might be.” However, in a characteristically forward-thinking move, BAC is hoping to change that.

Today sees the launch of a radical new digital initiative called Scratchr. It is very much an extension of the BAC’s scratch methodology, whereby artists expose work-in-progress to audiences at various points in the development process and build on the feedback.

Scratch began in 2000, dreamt up by Jubb and then artistic director Tom Morris, now of Bristol Old Vic. An audience of 40, mostly friends of the artists involved, watched the first scratch night. Now, though not without its critics, scratch is used all over the world, from the Sydney Opera House to the RSC. At the BAC itself, there’s now a regular and willing audience, eager for some creative involvement by proxy, and the formal development ladder has given way to a looser, more accommodating system. “We’ve consciously made it a lot more flexible because a lot of work goes one step back, two steps forward,” says Jubb.

Together with his co-director David Micklem, Jubb started considering the possibility of a digital equivalent 18 months ago. They never intended to replicate the existing model online, but hoped to extend its possibilities, knowing, as Jubb puts it, “that it would change, that it couldn’t remain the same.”

“One of the earliest realisations was that live streaming might be one of the least important aspects,” says Jubb, who felt the shoestring that scratch inevitably necessitates would make a “crap” viewing experience of little benefit to either party.

That decision saw Scratchr shift into the realm of social network. BAC dropped its initial developers, a live-streaming company, to pair instead with Carl Morris and Tom Beardshaw of NativeHQ, the company behind digital elements of National Theatre Wales’ productions, including The Passion of Port Talbot and The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning.

The site aims to use existing online tools (YouTube, Twitter, comment boxes) “to enable people with creative ideas to come together to share and develop them.” To do so, says Beardshaw, who has a background in anthropology, requires some sort of incentive: “Reciprocity is often at the heart of social interaction, so there has to be some kind of motivation or incentive for anybody to get involved and put effort into thinking about somebody else’s ideas.”

As such, NativeHQ proposed a new element to scratch called an ‘Itch’, which, says Jubb, “is pre-scratch, just an idea, maybe for a show or a radio play or a story that you can share at that inceptive stage and see if anyone wants to scratch it with you.”

Eventually, anyone will be able start an itch, posting it onto the site to see what feedback comes, thus fostering a community of sorts. The aim is to attract other artists interested in collaborating or producers capable of turning the itch into an actual scratch. Scratches are then documented online through a series of digital assets – videos, audioboos, images etc – with audience members (and other artists and producers) able to provide feedback and further ideas en route.

On one level, Jubb believes this allows BAC to “uncover idea and talent that it might otherwise take us years to find.” More importantly, though, it makes scratch more than a snapshot seen mid-process, encompassing the whole process, from start to finish. “One of the exciting things about it is that it demystifies the theatre-making process,” Jubb added. “Audience members can track a piece of work or an artist, enter into dialogue with those artists and come to understand how things get put together.”

Of course, there are concerns, not least the potential for trolling –presenting unfinished work is a delicate activity. Done live, an unspoken social contract exists between audience and artist. Online, that could easily get lost or willfully obliterated, leaving artists vulnerable. Jubb recognises the need “to develop a culture of behaviour” in order to carry those “conventions into an online space.” Accordingly, rather than launching as a finished product with a bang, Scratchr will start softly and evolve – “a scratch of a scratch,” Jubb calls it. Beardshaw says there’s no other way: “When you’re developing social software, you need a community to be playing with it, trying to break it.”

For Jubb, however, that’s part of the excitement: “Anything decent on the internet gets adopted and adapted and appropriated for different purposes. It’s almost bound to happen with this.”

Not only will this improve the site, it also restores the flexibility of scratch that might otherwise be curtailed by the reliance on a fixed set of digital assets that won’t suit every process or artist. “This isn’t going to be for everyone,” Jubb admits. “We’re not going to force every artist at BAC to use Scratchr and loads of artists won’t want to go anywhere near it. That’s totally fine. It’s just another tool. If it became an alternative [to live scratches in the building], it would be a disaster.”

Nonetheless, Jubb hopes that the digital version might have an impact comparable to the initial scratch process. Not that he’s counting his chickens: “It might go absolutely nowhere or it might become a global creative tool for sharing ideas. The reality will probably be somewhere in between.”

Photograph: Battersea Arts Centre

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