Scratch Nights & Showtime: Etch Theatre

To which I want to reply; that’s all very well my dears, but what about ‘stranger danger’? Didn’t you get told at school, to be careful crossing the road? And that women shouldn’t walk alone after dark? Don’t you know it’s a bad time to be graduating, the economy is in shambles! Didn’t anyone tell you about government cuts and that holidays were expensive and that STD’s are on the rise in London and that our burgeoning obsession with avocados has GONE TOO FAR?

You can’t just do things, you know.

Frankly, it’s a paradox. We appear to have all the prospects in the world, from opportunities to travel, to education, to grant schemes, yet we seem less and less inclined to choose seemingly precarious paths. They shouldn’t be precarious – we’ve been set up with all the safety nets possible – but we’re still too scared to plunge.

I already knew I had to write this piece on grassroots theatre, when in a fortuitous set of circumstances I found myself seated next to Vicky Featherstone at a breakfast for UN Women. Here at last was someone who could help me order my thoughts on theatre, entrepreneurship and art! Here at last was someone with knowhow and guts and gall!

If you don’t know Vicky Featherstone by name, you ought to know her as the magical creative and artistic director of London’s Royal Court Theatre who’s knack for hooking new talent approximates a conjuring trick. Her celebrity status in Theatreland is supported by having been selected to set up the Scottish National Theatre and by her outspoken support of women in the arts. If you’ve somehow missed all this, you might have heard the story of how she sold her grandmother’s piano and took a show to the Edinburgh Fringe on the proceeds.

“It was different back then,” Vicky said. “Nowadays people have a much better idea of what failure will feel like. Besides which, everybody feels watched. Social media is amazing, but it makes everyone a lot more aware of themselves. In my day it didn’t matter. I sold my granny’s piano and I didn’t really expect anything to come of it anyway. I’d be lucky to get a minor mention in a newspaper and even then it would be forgotten the next day. Everything is online forever now.”

People of previous generations took bigger risks. They didn’t consider as clearly as we do all the things that could go wrong. Maybe they didn’t care. More importantly than that, Vicky stipulated, there was “no end goal”.

In Vicky’s day, an actor after drama school would try to join a rep theatre for several years and build their reputation. They could write letters to imminent directors and ask for experience. They could show up on doorsteps. Nowadays, there’s only a handful of rep theatres left. Companies don’t have the income to keep actors full time, and there’s no chance of getting noticed with a well-written note… Everybody is simply swimming in applications. The creative world, sadly, is one which is champing at the bit, poor both in time and money.

So I guess — if you can’t do it alone, pair up? This is exactly what best friends Lucy Hollis and Ruth Milne thought when they set up Etch Theatre in 2014. Etch began with a series of scratch nights and expanded into other performances, a residency at the Pleasance, and has worked with over 400 emerging artists.

For Lucy and Ruth, who met at youth theatre at the age of 14 in Edinburgh, the stage and all its trappings are a way of life. They attended separate drama schools (Lucy The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and Ruth The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) but remained close and reunited when working as actresses in London. It is the same ‘no end goal’ mentality of which Vicky Featherstone talks about that also seems to have shaped Lucy and Ruth’s project. Etch Theatre was born out their desire to keep showcasing new work and springboard new talent. And this is precisely what I like so much about their company: Etch is an enabler, a solution. Those eager for a chance to break into the industry can apply with their work. Lucy notes they love to see the ripple effect that taking part in one of Etch’s productions can have on the careers and professional relationships of those involved.

Of course, Etch is also entertainment. Using their wide network of writers, actors, directors and other theatre folk, Lucy and Ruth found not only a firmly loyal audience, but also partnerships to help them in their endeavours, especially with venues like the Pelican in Peckham. With a penchant for progressive theatre, they have an interest in provocative topics, not the sort that alienates viewers by being too experimental, but which titillates the mind, tickles us and tempts us to broaden our views.

But most of all, Etch is a labour of love. Despite their drama training, Lucy and Ruth function primarily as producers of these shows and scratch nights, since they didn’t want to turn Etch into a vanity project to propel their own careers. Lucy and Ruth’s remarkable dedication gives the company a rare integrity. There is no underhand aim to churn out Andrew Lloyd Webber style blockbusters or even make it big in the bank account. Despite both Lucy and Ruth working full time on the side, they’re not out for profit. They are dancing to their own tune, and luckily it’s one others want to hear.

Etch is a headlong jump taken by two brave artists to build something new. It is a community, and a cause.

Etch’s newest production Pandora is opening on the 7th of March for one week at Pleasance Theatre. For more info and tickets please click here.

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