It’s a typical cold winter’s night in London. The kind of night when all you’d like to do is eat a ready meal in frot of the tele in your Pj’s. Instead, I find myself lining up along Hackney’s canal front, outside The Proud Archivist, a very cool event/bar space. It has been transformed this evening, into an intimate theatre for a scratch night, providing writers the opportunity to have their material tested out on a live audience.
The room is jam-packed, and in each row, people sit cheerfully squished elbow-to-elbow, sipping on wine out of plastic cups. I’ve come alone tonight to support a friend who is performing, so of course take a seat at the very front in an attempt to throw her off. Although I am solo, I don’t feel like a loner for long. Everyone in the audience is excitably chatting to one another and the whole room is buzzing with enthusiasm and a creative energy that is completely contagious.
Seven short but exceptional pieces are performed throughout the evening halted only with a intermission long enough to grab another wine, have a chat and scribble down some feedback. The directors and writers who introduce their work, do so with such pride and passion that you feel excited to be part of the development process. The actors who perform, create such an electricity in the room with their talent, it leaves you lost for words. There are moments of total joy and others of complete heartache.
This was an evening that took me by surprise. Something that could have easily felt pretentious, or like a high school play rehearsal was put together with great purpose and professionalism. This was an evening that gave new and talented writers, directors and actors the chance to showcase their art, and an evening that let the audience enjoy a high standard theatre experience for a fiver.
I met up with the two young female directors who are responsible for the scratch night evening called Drift Shop. Emma Wilkinson and Jess McKenna, both aged 23, met last year whilst interning at the same theatre. Emma, who studied at Cambridge university for four years is now doing her MA at Ealing Studios in London, and Jess studied for three years at King’s College London. Both girls have an immense amount of passion and charm as they talk eagerly about what Drift Shop offers, how it is set apart from other scratch nights and their ambitions for the future.
So ladies, what inspired the idea for you to start your scratch night, Drift Shop?
Jess (J): We are both come from directing backgrounds rather than a writing ones. I think it’s quite a common thing for early stage directors to do these scratch nights and get involved in them, but even that can seem like quite a daunting task. To send your CV out to people and think ‘oh god! I only have a few credits’.
I feel like there’s a bit of a gap in the industry where there’s scratch nights or rehearsed readings and you can have that very pared back kind of thing. It’s that or you have to come up with a perfect script that you send around to every theatre in london in the hope that someone gets back to you. So we are trying edge into that gap a little bit and make it easier to improve, not harder! We want people to give it their best shot, get feed back and move forward with it.
Emma (E): Yeah definitely! I’ve had some experience with other scratch nights where it all felt a bit austere and exclusive. We wanted to use the traditional idea for a scratch night but create something that had our personalities in it with an emphasis on it being quite collaborative.
The idea is to showcase and support new writers, how can they apply?
E: We have an open submissions process on our website. There is a page with instructions of what we are looking for with an email address to send submissions to. Last time, we got about seventy or eighty submissions from all across the globe.
80 submissions! How did you choose which pieces to showcase?
J: With lots of reading! So I think we all had different processes of selection which was actually quite good. For me, it wasn’t necessarily about a perfectly formed idea or play. It was about something interesting in the writing and a little spark there that made me think, “this could be really interesting to watch. Something where the writer will get a lot out of the process to develop or improve it.”
E: I had a kind of similar mind set to Jess with this. I have specific things I look for when looking at writing, and for me, it was pieces that dealt with issues in quite an important way. You only have a few minutes on this stage, so i was looking for something that was thought provoking or emotionally challenging. A piece that may have dealt with something that I had never seen dealt with before on the stage.
Are the actors chosen by the directors and writers or can they apply themselves to be part of Drift Shop?
E: Some of the creative teams came pre formed, not all of them, but some did. Largely speaking, what will happen is we will pair pieces with directors and either help the directors out with actors we think will be good. We also have an open submissions form for actors so they can write to us, we can look over their CV, and meet with them or see a show real. Then, we can keep them in mind for parts if something suitable comes up.
So you mentioned that you go to other scratch nights. What do you think sets Drift Shop apart from the rest?
E: There are some scratch nights you go to, where every performance is script-in-hand, or really casual. I think even though we want it to be informal and a propelling atmosphere, that doesn’t mean the performances need to be under prepared. I think we can get away with it being quite informal in a social way if we are actually quite prepared in a more creative way, because otherwise, it’s just a big goop and we don’t want to be goopy now do we..?
J: I think bringing the audience into it is something I haven’t experienced before with scratch nights. I’ve been to many in traditional black box theatres and you feel like you’re supposed to be the typical quiet audience-goer. Laugh in the right places, feel sad in the right places. With us, what we aim for is to create a relaxed environment so people can have the reaction that comes naturally to them and can say to the person next to them, “I wasn’t to sure about that one” or “that one was really good.”
The audience’s feedback forms are to provide comments to the writers. Did you get many back?
E: At the end of our first Drift Shop evening, we had around thirty feedback forms given back to us. Just being able to provide the writers with that number after the process was really useful.
Going through the feedback was amazing! It opens your eyes to personal taste in a way that you know exists but until you see it in practice, haven’t experienced. It’s absolutely bananas. I had my personal favourites based purely on what affected me the most and then I read feedback forms that would be like “ one star. Self indulgent. Didn’t get it!” You’re like wow, humans are all different.
What kind of night do you hope it’s providing for the audience?
J: So you pay £5 on the door to come in and I definitely think at least one of the seven plays is going to leave an impression. Even if not every single one is to your taste, I think every audience member will have a really unique experience and find something in there that they love.
E: I would hope that it’s entertaining and inclusive. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from but if you’re here and watching, we hope that its thought provoking and engaging and in our particular setting, you feel able to give feedback.
Before going to Drift Shop, I wasn’t even sure what a scratch night was but it was truly outstanding. Got a wine, met some really cool people and I enjoyed all of the pieces. The environment is so welcoming and genuine so you should be very proud of what you have created.
J: Oh, that is so good to hear!
E: Yes, very good to hear because as much as that is what we want, there are always dangers. We want it most, to be useful for writers. It’s still important that lots of other creatives come, and thought provoking discussions are had, but you don’t want it to stray into something that is pretentious. The choice of venue and having loads of cheap wine contributes to having quite a relaxed atmosphere.
Have you got dates for any future Drift Shop events?
E: The next one will be on the 27th of April.
J: This time we will push more for online ticket sales so we have a better idea of numbers. Last time we did sell standing tickets but we don’t want anyone to feel like they were just shoved in a corner and not able to see anything.
What ambitions do you both have for the future of Drift Shop?
J: My dream would be to get some established fringe writers to write things for emerging directors to get their hands on. I know from my perspective as a director, it is so hard to make yourself unique in a crowd of people who want to do the same thing.
E: Something I would really like to do with Drift is.., have you seen Grand Designs? And then they do Grand Designs revisited. I really would like to push the idea where in around half a year, we have an evening which is in a longer form where we can see how pieces have developed just to keep encouraging, structuring and nurturing their development.
J: Yeah absolutely, Drift Shop revisited.
Drift Shop is a monthly scratch night held at The Proud Archivist in Haggerston, in East London.
For anyone who would like to have their writing considered for Drift Shop, or if you are a director/actor who is interested in getting involved, you can get in contact with Drift Theatre via their website.
Written by Emma Grimmond
Photography by Charlie Gallienne-Schmidt