Banter, Boredom, Beauty and Balloons: Hatch Scratch 13 at Embrace Arts

Text: Wayne Burrows
Photography: Julian Hughes

Hatch Scratch 13 [image credit Julian Hughes]

The last time Hatch ran a scratch night at Embrace Arts, during Hatching Space in 2012, audience feedback was invited in the informal setting of the cafe, over a running buffet, but for this year’s version the forum is a slightly more formal series of chaired discussions, with the artists – programmed in four linked double-bills running through the evening – prompted with questions from the audience in a series of discussions variously chaired by Nathaniel J Miller and Michael Pinchbeck from Hatch, Michaela Butter  from Embrace Arts and Helena Goldwater from Circuit Festival.

Hatch Scratch 13 [photo credit - Julian Hughes] (5)

The idea, of creating a space where sketch versions of performances in progress can be presented, with mechanisms built in to gather feedback about what works, what may not work, and any suggestions for further development that might occur to anyone present on the night, is, of course, exactly the same as before. Over the night, the material on show ranges from very polished to very raw; highly considered to ‘we’re just trying something out here’; very technical multi-media presentations to completely lo-fi ‘one man and a spotlight’ numbers: in other words, the kind of range you’d expect of a scratch night. Where to start? Well, the beginning is usually a good place…

Ollie Smith & Mufaro Makubika: The Review Show

Hatch Scratch 13 [photo credit - Julian Hughes]

Unfortunately, the beginning happens a bit later than scheduled. A slightly delayed Nottingham to Leicester train and some bad luck with pedestrian crossings between Leicester Station and Embrace Arts ensured I arrived at the venue about ten minutes after the 6pm start time. With no admittance permitted till the interval of this first double-bill, I sit in the café, at a table designated for responses to the performance by Ollie Smith & Mufaro Makubika that’s still going on inside, open my laptop and begin to type: there can be no review of The Review Show. It seems apt. Whatever happened during the performance itself, the one show billed as self-reflexive resists feedback from outside through the intervention of a firmly closed door and a front of house usher who isn’t to be persuaded into flexibility.

Hatch Scratch 13 [photo credit - Julian Hughes] (2)

But since The Review Show promises – as its title makes clear – to stage nothing more than a review of itself by Makubika and Smith, perhaps the resulting review of that review would, anyway, have proved so ludicrously meta that this entire blog might have collapsed in on itself and formed the critical equivalent of a digital black hole. This impression is reinforced when Smith remarks during the discussion later that: “We set it up to be un-reviewable. If it succeeds in getting good reviews, it’s failed in its intention”. Someone in the audience protests: “I liked it. It was good”. Smith beams and replies: “So we failed”. Which, if I’m keeping count correctly, means they succeeded, but because of that failed, and so succeeded: ad infinitum. Perhaps it’s just as well I didn’t get to witness The Review Show after all.

Hunt & Darton: BOREDOM

Hatch Scratch 13 [photo credit - Julian Hughes] (3)

Once I was allowed inside the venue, it was to see another show that flirts with failure as part of its raison d’être. Last seen at Hatch: NEAT performing their horse-themed show Break Your Own Pony, Hunt & Darton have filled much of the intervening time running a cafe (you might have caught them in waitress mode at a marquee in the grounds of Nottingham Castle as part of World Event Young Artists in September 2012) but clearly they’ve decided on a change of pace. In BOREDOM, the duo decide to explore the archetypal mind-set of teenagers on family outings and commit themselves to making a show from a minimum of sensory stimulus: no more than is needed to explore the state of being bored. Perhaps to offset the subject, they’ve dressed themselves from head to toe in leopard-print and gathered an array of objects to show off (a Queen Vic teapot and a golden pineapple among them) but they do promise to be bored. The problem is, try as they might to cultivate a hyper-cool state of absolute, mind-numbing boredom in order to research their new show, Hunt & Darton seem to get inappropriately excited by the least promising things.

Hatch Scratch 13 [photo credit - Julian Hughes] (4)

At one point the whole project is jeopardised when the pair find themselves over-stimulated by several hours in an empty room staring at a pair of curtains or a blank wall; somehow, nothing can ever quite induce the required state because the world in general is just too interesting. The presentation of their ‘research’ grows ever more absurd: they remove the too-interesting walls from the boredom room, only to be excited by the trees and sky outside. Between these dialogues about their own failure to achieve boredom, the duo bring on audience members to have boring work conversations while the two of them interject. Or they fidget with microphones in very faintly suggestive ways, or they stand around throwing ‘bored’ poses. There’s a sense here of boredom as a subject worth exploring in an age of electronic overload and aggressively marketed 24/7 entertainment; there’s also a more straightforwardly comic tone, a bit of Reeves & Mortimer in the way a golden pineapple is held aloft and reverently named; a Smack The Pony vibe in watching two grown women act like alternately over-excitable and bored children. We’re certainly not bored.

Louise Orwin: Am I Pretty/Ugly?

Hatch Scratch 13 [photo credit - Julian Hughes] (6)

Things get a lot darker in Louise Orwin’s Am I Pretty/Ugly?, where Orwin explores the online phenomenon of pre-teen and teenage girls posting YouTube clips of themselves asking random viewers to rate them in terms of physical attractiveness. It all begins predictably enough, with Orwin sitting on the floor in a princess outfit and blonde wig running a phone-camera over her body, from legs to lips, with the resulting footage projected onto a wall while a second screen shows her posed in a manner very like Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #6 while singing along to a pop song. This segues into an introduction to the phenomenon behind the piece, a dance on roller-skates, and finally the trial by social media itself, which quickly descends into some very dark places: comments on Orwin’s own series of staged clips range from supportive to aggressively sexual to ‘just F***ing kill yourself’.

Hatch Scratch 13 [photo credit - Julian Hughes] (22)

The questions Orwin asks of the girls posting these clips – both: ‘why put yourself through this?’ and ‘would I have done this myself when I was their age if the technology had existed?’ – are answered, roughly, as ‘the need for approval’ and ‘yes, very probably’. From there, the most submissive and blatantly appealing of her three online personalities, the blonde and princess-dressed Baby we saw at the beginning, logs into Chat Roulette to fire back some of the comments aimed at her by men on YouTube at some of the (same?) men logging in for sexual conversations with young girls online. Their images and conversations are recorded and re-screened, in a kind of calculated revenge, linked to the toys we’d seen in the opening sequence (mostly Trolls of one kind or another) before the whole performance culminates in a high speed montage of footage from actual girls’ Am I Pretty/Ugly? videos, sourced online, with the multitude of voices pleading for approval accelerated till they hit a disturbing non-human pitch. By the end, it’s all felt like a steep descent into some very mundane species of social and psychological abyss.

Sara Cocker & Nicki Hobday: Age Concerns

Hatch Scratch 13 [photo credit - Julian Hughes] (9)

Luckily, the second act of this double-bill has a lighter and more optimistic feel, as Sara Cocker (last seen at Hatch: Mass getting very lairy indeed with Eggs Collective) and Nicki Hobday (last seen at Hazard Festival performing Sit With Me For A Moment and Remember) join forces to present a draft performance about what it means to get old. Both based in Manchester, and both having worked extensively on residencies in care homes, their cues come not from some well-meaning notion of what getting old might be like but from an encounter with Hilda, an elderly lady who once did their jobs and now happens to live in one of the homes she’d once regularly visited as a professional performer. With Hilda offering advice on a screen above the stage, Cocker and Hobday act out her ideas for the performance they’ve told her they were planning to do tonight.

Hatch Scratch 13 [photo credit - Julian Hughes] (10)

Hilda thinks bonnets, odd socks and dancing are in order, so that’s what Cocker and Hobday deliver, between sections where they discuss the work they’ve done as artists visiting day centres and residential care homes and the people they’ve encountered at social gatherings and tea dances in Manchester. They talk about what it means to get a clear glimpse – in the sprightly form of Hilda herself – of their own likely futures. Above all, they try to get away from some of the generic ideas about ageing that a show on this particular subject by two young performers might have been expected to include. After all, nothing quite says ‘this is about old age’ like a string of truisms about fading memories, the acquisition of wisdom, physical decline and the like. Partly by the fairly simple device of giving Hilda herself a kind of remote directors’ role and the last word of the performance, Cocker and Hobday (mostly) manage to avoid the expected. Mostly? Well, a few of the cliches about ageing happen to be true, some of the time.

Raul Calderon: From My Heart

Hatch Scratch 13 [photo credit - Julian Hughes] (11)

The third pairing of the night is very much focused on dance, with Spanish-born Raul Calderon – familiar to many in the region for his Arts Council role, but perhaps less so for his own background as a Flamenco and contemporary dance choreographer and performer – kicking things off with a question for the audience: ‘what words do we think describe time?’. The audience answers: ‘days and years’, ‘something passing’, ‘something that cannot be turned back’, which leads Calderon to turn on his heel and walk towards a circle of white light on the otherwise darkened stage. He stops at its edge, circles it repeatedly in a series of variations, his heels performing the usually passionate rhythms of flamenco as a kind of mechanical ticking. It’s a hypnotic spectacle, like flamenco performed without emotion, or at least, with the emotion sublimated, repressed and contained rather than outwardly demonstrated.

Hatch Scratch 13 [photo credit - Julian Hughes] (12)

That opening  leads to two further, slightly less resolved sections in which all that repressed emotion surfaces. First, Calderon sits at the edge of the stage and recites a text about love and loss in both English and Spanish while pulling the petals from a rose, then a final segment sees him perform something more nakedly emotional, a dance to invoke the spirit of a lost lover for one final dance together. The ending comes with that lover’s emergence from the ground, leaving us on something of a cliffhanger. The transitions between sections are a little blunt, but during the discussion Calderon explains that this version is a rough edit from an hour long piece, so given more time to bridge the necessary jump-cuts it’s highly likely that this will make for a  powerful piece of work. Unusually for Hatch, it’s a piece that uses a traditional form in a more or less traditional way, wears its intentions on its sleeve and has no fear of melodrama, all of which give it a very particular kind of force in this context.

70/30 Split: Two Do: a performance

Hatch Scratch 13 [photo credit - Julian Hughes] (14)

In 70/30 Split’s Two Do  the dance element brought to the fore is more a kind of tightly choreographed slapstick than contemporary dance per se: think of the Marx Brothers causing havoc with a lemonade seller in Duck Soup or Morecombe and Wise cooking breakfast in time to The Stripper for something I imagine might be close to the core intention. Much of the humour comes from the characters adopted by Sophie Unwin and Lydia Cottrell, the two women making up 70/30 Split, who both seem to believe they’re the ‘straight’ half of the double act – the half that gets to hang on to a semblance of dignity – when the truth is they’re each pushed by the other to be the ‘comedy turn’: the one whose humiliations and failings get all the laughs and most of the sympathy but don’t really allow for much dignity to be retained. Dressed in identical outfits and making much play with paper bouquets, the two act out a synchronised pantomime of co-dependency, in which they clearly need each other as much as they’d like to be somewhere, or someone, else.

Hatch Scratch 13 [photo credit - Julian Hughes] (15)

The general effect is like watching a marriage or long-term friendship unravelling, repairing itself, then unravelling again as the duo move from perfectly choreographed moves to eyeing each-other warily, competing for audience attention, undermining one-another’s attempts to perform solo, and subjecting each-other to small humiliations, before resigning themselves to being together and moving back into synchronicity before the whole cycle starts over again. Unwin and Cottrell have a knack for achieving a kind of precision in their movements that is framed as almost accidental, an image helped, I suspect, by their makeshift costumes, inelegant boots and ability to keep straight faces throughout. It’s comedy played as if the participants think it’s tragedy and the neat twist in Two Do is that this stuff happens in all our relationships: we’d just prefer not to notice and delude ourselves that we, too, still have our dignity.

Wolf Close: It’s going to rain

Hatch Scratch 13 [photo credit - Julian Hughes] (18)

The final pairing of the night gets underway with Dartington trained duo Wolf Close, a company name which could read as something like “lupine energies and raw natural forces lurking just under the civilised surfaces of our everyday lives” or alternatively, conjure up the image of a fancifully-named suburban cul-de-sac straight out of The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin, depending on the emphasis we want to put on the two words that comprise it. The ambiguity proves appropriate: It’s going to rain is a piece where the tension between the call of wilderness and adventure is blatantly invested in two performers who talk about their domestic child-care arrangements between re-enactments of illustrations from Scouting manuals; whose personalities on stage seem drawn as much from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books as contemporary circuits of eco-awareness, art-in-nature and environmental activism.

Hatch Scratch 13 [photo credit - Julian Hughes] (19)

The structure echoes the influences, beginning with efforts to mimic the feeling of being in the wild on a bare stage by means of poses, freeze-frame running and sprayed river-water, and culminating with an outright fantasy in which they use traditional storytelling to take the whole audience on an epic voyage into the heart of some (probably imaginary) primal wilderness without anyone leaving the room. It’s not clear whether Wolf Close are poking fun at the very current cultural phenomenon of armchair encounters with transcendent wild places (at its most clearly visible in the Guardian cult of Nature Writing and a wider British obsession with watching David Attenborough documentaries on TV between trips to Tesco and Asda) or are themselves part of that phenomenon and hope to stir a sense of unironic wonder at the sublime grandeur of unspoiled nature in their audience: probably a bit of both, assuming they’re even entirely sure themselves.

Drunken ChorusJust Like Larry Walters

Hatch Scratch 13 [photo credit - Julian Hughes] (20)

Traditional storytelling is also at the heart of the night’s final piece. Just Like Larry Walters refers to the American truck driver who in 1982 strapped a bunch of weather balloons to a lawn chair, grabbed himself a sandwich and a pack of Miller Lites, then (unintentionally) shot himself up to a height of 16,000 feet and remained there for around 14 hours, during which time he was spotted by several airline pilots. Balloons as a symbol of escape loom large here, and the piece consists mostly of Chris Williams telling a series of balloon-related stories while Sheena Holliday blows up balloons behind him, preparing for a party or celebration of some unspecified sort, and trying, as Williams explains, to fill the stage, or the room, or the whole building, one balloon at a time. While Holliday blows up her balloons Williams spins his stories. They’d like to use the balloons to do what Larry Walters did back in 1982, or to re-enact the story-line of Pixar’s Up (2009) by tying thousands of balloons to a house. He adds some variations on the plot of The Red Balloon (1956), too, in which a small boy finds himself befriended by the inanimate object of the film’s title and, after a few set-backs, is liberated in a balloon-assisted flight over Paris.

Hatch Scratch 13 [photo credit - Julian Hughes] (21)

These re-tellings seem to be pieced together with all the inaccuracies of false memory, as though Williams is describing his own or friends’ experiences rather than stories he’s half-remembered from films and bits he’s read online, but perhaps at this stage in the piece’s development the storytelling hasn’t yet untethered itself quite enough from its sources to achieve the kind of lift-off it seems to be aiming for. But then, like the impossible task Holliday sets for herself, trying to fill the whole venue with balloons in less than 20 minutes, Williams’s fantasies of escape may be deliberately engineered to disappoint. As with Wolf Close’s dream of staging an epic performance that takes us deep into some remote wilderness without anyone having to move, and whatever Williams claims, it seems Drunken Chorus are less committed to actually escaping the mundane than simply indulging the fantasy of escaping through vicariously recycled stories. And isn’t that, in the end, the very thing we generally need to confront about ourselves?

Hatch Scratch 13 [photo credit - Julian Hughes] (17)


2 Responses to “Banter, Boredom, Beauty and Balloons: Hatch Scratch 13 at Embrace Arts”

  1. 1 Victoria Wolf Sunday at 10:40 pm

    So that is how it can feel to be reviewed. We feel a bit frustrated that this is in-part a review of the post-show discussion not the show itself.
    A nice bit of writing, we enjoy the discussion on our company name. And what do I learn of the writer? Smart with a distaste for Attenborough documentaries, anti-supermarket ethics. Not keen on kids I guess. In the show we don’t talk about domestic child care arrangements, unless he means the bit where our daughter says we may all die at the same time and they will lay us all in coffins, a disturbing domestic childcare arrangement.

    A few inaccuracies, related or not to the time passed between event and review? We do not employ freeze-frame running, the idea of this makes us feel a tiny bit of bile rising.

    But the most puzzling bit, are we part of the supermarket going Attenborough watching cultural phenomenon? Yeah we watch wildlife documentaries, taking us to places we don’t even consider going. Do we shop in supermarkets? Yes. Do we try to avoid them? Yes. We are part of this society, we don’t know many people who aren’t, do we poke fun at this phenomena? No, it doesn’t seem helpful or interesting. Do we recognise tensions, ambiguities, struggle? Yes. We are interested in being humans here and now. We reference the inevitability of our ultimate return to that ‘nature’ which we often feel falsely separate to. Some audience members get that, others not so much.

    Thanks, this review has given us some thoughts and will inform our work – ready for more reviews please! Wolf Close

  2. 2 wayneburrows Monday at 2:14 am

    Hi Victoria,

    First of all, glad I caught this (it had gone into ‘spam’ – which is ironic because lots of actual spam has been getting through to the comments lately). And on a couple of points, you might be right: maybe the childcare comment was made in the discussion afterwards rather than in the performance itself (I made detailed notes immediately after the event but they didn’t specify where it came from – the blur is probably relevant in that there did seem to be a sense in the performance of ordinary lives aspiring to be other kinds of lives, which was the real point of noting that).

    There might also have been a better way of describing the various sequences of held ‘movement’ poses early in the piece than ‘freeze frame running’, but again, they were there, and did look to me, anyway, rather like that – a bit like the pictures in old manuals showing how to lift a stretcher or perform some other movement. In general, though, I think my comments just reflect what the piece made me think about (and perhaps try to work out for myself what the piece might have been thinking about): more descriptive than a fixed opinion on it one way or the other, which is the brief I follow in all these pieces.

    It certainly isn’t a review: just a few thoughts written down in response to having seen it. So I can admit I enjoy some nature writing and David Attenborough docs myself, and think there’s nothing wrong with either, but you must admit there’s an irony in the way such things are placed in our society – which it seemed at least some parts of the piece were riffing on in ambiguous ways.

    Perhaps that wasn’t the intention, but it was what it made me think about while watching. In fact, far from being a negative, I think I personally prefer the more ambiguous version to the more clearly positioned one described in your closing comments, since I suspect it’s both more honest about our own failings as human beings, individually and collectively, and could make for a potentially more complex and nuanced kind of performance that explore why more firmly stated environmentalist messages don’t generally seem to be having the impact they need to. .

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