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Written byNatalie Fraser

Illustration byLia Pikus

Images byAdrian Loader

The spaces scratching an itch for South African Theatre Performers and Artists.


In South Africa, despite our country’s inexhaustible supply of talent and resourcefulness, a successful career in theatre, and the arts as a whole, remains a rare achievement. For makers, there is an understanding that the creative process can be lengthy, frustrating, and solitary, with little promise of financial success and space to grow. In the best-case scenario, this phase of development serves as a character-building hurdle. However, at worst, in an environment where persevering through these challenges rarely results in support and increased opportunities, these will be the moments where most artists choose to abandon their projects or even careers in favour of something more sustainable.

In recent years, some of Cape Town’s most beloved performance venues have shut down, including the Alexander Bar, The Intimate Theatre, The Raptor Room and perhaps most shockingly to many The Fugard Theatre. Those venues still managing to keep the doors open do so with a Ratanga Junction-esque threat of an any-day-now closure. Theatre, at its core, seeks to gather people into a shared space and story. The loss of these spaces means a loss of gathering. To make this community-orientated work in isolation, with no middle ground between the writing desk and opening night at the theatre, is counterproductive to the intentions of live performance.

“To make this community-orientated work in isolation, with no middle ground between the writing desk and opening night, is counterproductive to the intentions of live performance.”

In this climate, it is particularly difficult for creators to keep their drive alive. Internal motivation and Concerta can only do so much after all. There is a broader issue at play—limited funding for the arts. Creators cannot afford to create, and attending concerts, productions and readings is not the top priority for many people considering the cost of living. This is where the ‘scratch night’ model comes in and is proving to be an essential service for South African artists.

A scratch night offers artists a low-stakes, low-cost opportunity to try out their material at any stage of development, whether it’s a polished piece, the opening scene of a play not yet finished or an experimentation with a new style of music. Participants are given a few minutes to present their work to a receptive and encouraging live audience. The premise is simple but the role these events play in keeping our makers making and, by extension, our creative industries going, is significant. In Cape Town initiatives like Play Things, Soapboxing, Body Politic and Working Title are giving a platform to seasoned performers and amateurs alike.

“In our industry, when you want to make something really bad you have two options,” says Capetonian theatre-maker, Andi Colombo. These options are either to self-produce—a costly venture with no promise of financial return—or to seek funding. “You keep applying for money and festivals, and you keep pitching your show and eventually you might get some money to make something. But then you haven’t made anything in months and months and months.”

It is during these times, when creators may lose motivation, confidence and creative fitness, that an invitation to simply create and share, with no expectation or financial pressure, provides relief. Among the ways that these spaces accomplish this, Colombo elaborates, is by “allowing you to be creative as a maker, to continue making, and continue to understand that you have value as a maker, that you have the ability to make.” 

In saying this, Colombo touched on a key issue—the space for makers to be creative is limited and exclusive. The time, budget and support limitations within which the majority of artists operate do not allow for the luxury of error and experimentation—both vital components in the generation of new work and the growth of emerging makers.

“My very wise mentor told me that your first show is always your autobiographical one,” says Sophie Joans, current showrunner of Play Things and founder of Spark in the Dark. “Then you try to do a weird surrealist one and then only after that you start getting good. But getting to do that is really inaccessible.” 


Founder of Play Things and The Alexander Bar’s Upstairs Theatre, Jon Keevy, echoed this sentiment. “Most writers don’t write enough,” he says attributing this largely to the unrealistic cost of producing a play. Creators can’t take the time to write short pieces or experiment and try new things. “The cost of failure is too high. It’s exclusive to people who have the ability to fail and try again.”

Scratch nights provide financial freedom as well as freedom from a review-orientated performance. These events attract open-minded audience members, many of whom aren’t necessarily regular theatre goers. Performers aren’t at risk of a scathing review or being gonged off-stage. Instead, they are presenting to an audience that has actively gathered to support those finding confidence and inspiration through vulnerability. The impact of these nights extends beyond the performer leaving with a boost in of self-confidence. For instance, Play Things and Soapboxing alone have spring-boarded or revived several now-successful productions.

Andi Colombo’s Double Star found its way out of her “delete this now” folder and onto the stage of The Baxter Theatre, as did I Want To Write You A Submarine, which later took her to the Toyota US Woordfees Main Stage. Sophie Joans’s Dog Rose, Flower Hungers and Île went from five-minute scenes at scratch nights to award-winning runs at The Baxter Theatre, National Arts Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival

The communities built and connections fostered in these gatherings are an important outcome. Jon Keevy’s career as a game writer was launched at a scratch night, after a written-on-the-day script intent on getting his friends to say dirty words on stage (aptly titled, Dirty Words), caught the attention of a game developer in the audience. These events have the capacity to organically lead to career-defining collaborations and opportunities that many wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

And while pumping much-needed new work and new makers into our industry, scratch nights are also attracting a fresh generation of theatre-goers. Many young theatre-makers are making work intended to reach an audience their age. Unfortunately, this is also the age group that are coming to live performances less and less. A scratch night’s line-up varied, inevitably attracting a diverse audience where someone who came to watch their friend’s stand-up set discovers an unexpected love of poetry or a musician they wouldn’t usually seek out. “It provides a platform for the audience to find the kind of work that they want to see and to keep watching,” says Colombo. “What I find is, I see more and more people from these nights then coming to watch my plays, and that’s super exciting.”

Despite the closures of numerous theatre and arts venues, we continue to see new ones emerging—a testament to our insistence on making space for emerging makers. Both audiences and creators are leaning more towards and embracing the pop-up and adaptable models that ensure the sustainability of South Africa’s creative industry. Whether it be in a church hall, a courtyard, or the backroom of a restaurant, artists will continue to find ways to gather and create alongside one another.

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