Scratch Culture

Houdinis of Bewilderland by Kevan Manwaring part 5


Countless initiatives are taking place below the funding radar. One approach that John Bassett (whose work includes ‘Nothing Changes’, an update of Robert Tressell’s 1914 classic working class novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist) took was to host ‘scratch theatre’ nights, where a couple of unproduced scrips are read out by professional actors. This provided an essential platform for new playwrights to see their work performed and the audience’s response, who paid what they thought the evening was ‘worth’. This scratch-culture can be liberating – rather than waiting for the magic wand of funding, launch a project drawing upon pooled resources and an audience’s good-will, who often respond to work that is experimental if they feel included in the process. They get the twin benefits of feeling ‘avant garde’ and a patron of the arts.


Recently a new theatre collective was born in Stroud (1st February, 2016), the Gloucester Theatre Workers Collective. Their top 5 goals are to:

1. To promote theatre (in all its forms) created in Gloucestershire throughout the county and beyond. 2. To encourage theatre “workers” of all ages and abilities. 3. To find, equip and run new venues across the county to enable longer runs of shows. 4. To help promote new writing by writers of all ages. 5. To share skills through interdisciplinary workshops


Rather than adopting an elitist approach to the arts, GTWC, wishes to be as inclusive as possible, all too aware of the resistance to the arts created by hard times – when everyone is watching their budget, such ‘luxuries’ are the first to go, but without art, life is merely survival:


  1. To ensure we create and promote theatre for EVERYONE at affordable prices for all whilst not undervaluing our work.


Welfare State International[i] and other theatre collectives have adopted similar ‘community-arts’ approaches over the years. WSI, although now dormant, offered an exemplary role model for this approach:

Founded in 1968 by John Fox and Sue Gill, Roger Coleman and others, Welfare State International was a loose association of freelance artists bought together by shared values and philosophy.

WSI first became well known for large-scale outdoor spectacular events. When the company began, taking art out of theatres and galleries into the street was considered revolutionary. The company’s name was originally ‘The Welfare State’ offering art for all on the same basis as education and health.

Under the Welfare State umbrella, a remarkable group of engineers, musicians, sculptors, performers, poets and pyrotechnicians invented and developed site-specific theatre in landscape, lantern processions, spectacular fireshows, community carnivals and participatory festivals. These creations were by turns beautiful, abrasive, didactic, provocative, disturbing, wondrous and even gently therapeutic.

Some big events such as “The Raising of the Titanic” (London International Festival of Theatre 1983), ‘False Creek’ in Expo ’86, Vancouver, and the biggest lantern festival in Europe (Glasgow City of Culture 1990) have become touchstones balancing the aesthetic with the social.

Welfare State International also exported artists, ideas, prototypes and artworks nationally and internationally.

‘Engineers of the Imagination’, the WSI Handbook, spread ideas and techniques worldwide and is still essential reading for artists working in the community. Many artists and companies in Britain and abroad have been influenced by Welfare State’s vision and practice.[ii]

Such large-scale efforts might seem intimidating to those starting out or isolated from other practitioners, but collectives can begin in the home. Essentially the partner-team, Shane Wolfland and Matthew Hammond, Exeter-based Cartwheels Collective offer a range of artistic activity: creative writing workshops, spoken word performances, publications, open mic nights, story theatre, stand up philosophy, and a radio show. They used their monthly spoken-written bulletin to offer free content to creative peers, plugging themselves into the network which they wished to be part of. When initial funding petered out, they appealed via the bulletin for sponsors, which has resulted in gratefully-received windfalls.

[i] [accessed 16.02.16]

[ii] [accessed 16.02.16]

Previous: Humanifesto

Next: Magic Hat


This article was commissioned by Doggerland. An alternative version is available in print form in their latest issue, along with other thought-provoking contributions.  Check it out. Available from:

Keep in touch with Doggerland – an inspiring initiative by & for radical artists and writers.


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