Director’s Diary

by Jonathan Kaufman (Oct 2023)

Perfection is overrated. Enter the world of Scratch Nights.

A theatre show is usually a finely-tuned, nuanced and intentional product, where the actors have explored and practised every emotion, every gesture, through weeks of preparation. The sets and the costumes will be expensive and immersive. It’s a thing of polished perfection.

And then there are Scratch Nights. The actors have barely rehearsed beyond making sense of the script, and rely heavily on the typed pages they clutch in their hands. The costumes and sets are two bin lids and a plastic Christmas tree at the front of the stage. It’s as raw as it can possibly be.

Why would you want to see that?

We have been presenting our own Scratch Nights since 2013, an extension of our scriptwriting classes that started in 2011. These allow us to showcase new writing in a fun, safe, and supportive environment.

Why scriptwriters love Scratch Nights

For beginner writers, sharing your work for the first time can be nerve-shredding, so we take it at a run. We stage several of these 10-minute plays over one evening: script-in-hand, minimal scenery, props and costumes – and usually just two days’ rehearsal. Writers get to see their work through the brains of real actors and a real paying audience, and the feedback they receive is invaluable.

Why actors love Scratch Nights

Actors love participating in our scratch nights too, as they never quite know what they’ll be asked to do – a variety of characters in a wide variety of short pieces: comic, dramatic, surreal, dark, surprising… It’s a stretch for all their parts.

Why audiences love Scratch Nights

The audience love the unfiltered, fresh reactions that the actors still have to the script, before the polish sets hard. And, as one reviewer said it: “If you don’t like that play, there will be another along in a few minutes.

At most of our Scratch Nights, audiences can vote for their two favourite plays – with the winning playwright receiving a small prize (usually a bottle of bubbly) and an enormous lift to their confidence. This competitive element gives the night an extra buzz, as the writers bring their friends and family to support, and there’s real excitement when we hand out the voting slips.

Audiences have packed out our venues for all our Scratch Nights, which come in three brands:
Love Bites – 2013
Love Bites Again – 2018
Love Bites: 3rd Time Lucky – 2020
Love Bytes: Futureshock – 2023

(yes, 600 seconds equals 10 minutes running time!)
600 Seconds – 2017
600 Seconds Conflict – 2018
600 Seconds Futureshock – 2022

And now the Postcards brand. Our first Postcards in 2019 (those heady, pre-pandemic days!) was commissioned partly by Arts Council funded organisation Pen to Print, based at Barking Library.

We (my playwright sister Lucy and I) asked our writing students to pen short plays inspired by real holiday postcards, based on the front picture and a short quote from the postcard’s text. Writers would ‘free associate’ and create a short playlet featuring a small number of characters in a holiday setting. End results were often somewhat removed from this suggested theme, the associations thoroughly free.

The first Postcards event showed over two nights in 2019 – at Barking Broadway and the Sydenham Centre. Ten plays and their writers competed, with Claire Buckle’s play The Turning Tide winning in Barking, Darren Bird’s piece Papa clinching the prize in Sydenham. Andrew Platman’s play Cycling was runner-up on both evenings!

The next Scratch Night is on Saturday 28 November 2023: Postcards Part 2 – booking now.

The Reviews

Some audience and writer comments about our Scratch Nights over the years:

  • “We thoroughly enjoyed Spontaneous Productions’ 600 Seconds event in July 2017. It was amazing to see such inspiring and original work from new local writers, sticking strictly to the 600 second / 10 minute limit. The writers cleverly crafted very imaginative drama and comedy, which made for a highly entertaining evening. Great fun!” (Ramona Metcalfe, audience comment)
  • “A very entertaining evening – excellent performances all round and it’s wonderful to have such an event on our doorsteps in Sydenham…I also had a piece I’d written performed at Love Bites, and it was a fascinating experience to see it brought to life on the stage.” (Rachel Firth, audience comment)
  • “The acting was great and the constraints placed on the writers in terms of time and lack of props created focus pace and interest. A great evening “ (Daniel Harwood, audience comment)
  • “As a writer I was delighted with the interpretation of my play, and seeing it brought to life on stage in front of an audience was an incredible experience.” (Jane Walker, audience comment)

Scriptwriting Courses

If we have ignited your interest in scriptwriting, you can join us:

ScriptHub Beginners – starts after Easter 2024.

ScriptHub Intermediate group – this is for more experienced scriptwriters wanting an informal forum to share work in progress.

Young child eagerly awaiting the opening of the theatre curtainsFOR PARENTS | FOR THEATRE GROUPS

The arts have long been celebrated for their ability to inspire creativity, build confidence, and foster empathy in young minds, but with the rise of digital entertainment, the value of live theatre in child development is often overlooked, especially in exploring their own emotions and having a shared language for them with their parents.

Here is a comprehensive guide detailing how parents, theatre groups and other organisations can help your child to get the most out of their theatre experience.


1. Exploring the Theatre Scene

The theatre world extends far beyond the grand stages of West End or Broadway productions. Your local theatre scene will be diverse, from small professional theatre groups like Spontaneous Productions in South London, to community plays, amateur theatrics and school productions. Attending local performances not only supports your community’s artistic endeavours but also exposes your child to a variety of theatrical styles and stories.

Many local theatre groups offer workshops tailored for children. These events can teach children about various aspects of theatre, such as acting, costume design, or stagecraft, and help them better appreciate the show. Enrolling your child in theatre workshops or classes can help them further explore their interests and develop new skills, whether it’s acting, singing, or dancing.

2. Pre-Show Preparation

A successful theatre experience starts long before the curtain rises. Here are some pre-show activities that can enhance your child’s development and enjoyment of their time out with you, and create an extended theatre experience for you both.

Show Discussion and Familiarisation

Invite your child to ask questions about the show or general theatre experience, and discuss how live theatre differs from television and cinema. Talk about the show’s storyline, characters, and themes.  This primes your child’s mind for the show, and promotes critical thinking and a deeper understanding of the art.

Picture-Book Reading

Picture book open at a mysterious night scene of houses with all their lights on, and two moons. A girl is moving down some rocks with her petsIf it is a classic story, such as Aladdin, read a picture-book version together to introduce your child to the story and characters. When your child sees the scenes repeated from the book, they will experience the thrill of recognition, and can appreciate the plot more deeply. If the theatre show is then very different from the traditional version, that will give you something extra to discuss later.

Meet the Cast

If the theatre offers it, arrange for your child to meet the cast before the show. This interaction can humanize the performers and make the experience more engaging for your little one. They will be excited to see their ‘favourite’ when they appear up on the stage.

Behind-the-Scenes Tours

If the theatre offers it, a behind-the-scenes tour can be an eye-opening experience, providing insight into the work that goes into producing a show. Plus, it can inspire curiosity and appreciation for the technical aspects of theatre.

3. During the show

Observing your child’s reactions

As the lights dim and the curtain rises, pay attention to your child’s reactions to the performance. Are they laughing, clapping, or expressing curiosity? These emotional responses are excellent indicators of their engagement and can provide valuable insights into the aspects of the performance that resonate with them. By being attuned to your child’s reactions, you can later tailor discussions and activities to reinforce the themes that captured their imagination.

Encouraging active engagement

While maintaining proper theatre etiquette, encourage your child to actively engage with the performance. This can be as simple as quietly whispering predictions about the story, or gently tapping their feet to the rhythm of the music. Active engagement helps your child to develop their analytical skills and better understand the story’s narrative, making the theatre experience more meaningful. If the show is an interactive one, encourage them to join in whole-heartedly. Join in with them!

Asking open-ended questions

During intermission or quieter moments, gently prompt your child with open-ended questions related to the performance. For example, ask them about their favourite character, or what they think will happen next; perhaps develop several possible and highly-improbable versions. These questions can stimulate their critical thinking and imagination, helping them process the story and its themes more deeply. Be mindful of your surroundings, of course, and keep conversations discreet so as not to disturb other audience members.

4. Post-show activities

Post-performance discussions

These allow your child to further explore the themes, emotions, and ideas presented on stage. Ask open-ended questions about their favorite moments, characters, or scenes and listen attentively to their responses. This not only helps them process and internalize the experience but also demonstrates the value you place on their opinions, boosting their self-esteem.

Connecting themes to everyday life

Theatre often presents valuable life lessons and relatable themes that can be connected to your child’s day-to-day experiences. Discuss how the story’s themes relate to their own lives, whether it’s the importance of friendship, overcoming challenges, or being true to oneself. Drawing these connections can help your child develop a deeper understanding of the world around them and foster empathy, resilience, and self-awareness.

Creating at-home theatrical experiences

A simple but decorated cardboard mini-theatre, with cardboard cut-out actors.
  • Create Your Own Play Encourage your child to create and stage their own play at home, inspired by the show they’ve seen. Transform your living room into a makeshift stage, complete with costumes, props, and a captive audience of family members, friends, pets or toys. If space is a challenge, create a miniature theatre out of a cardboard box and create cardboard characters.
  • Two children are playing dress-up at home
  • Dressing up Raid your wardrobes or dressing-up box to recreate the costumes and scenes they saw in the show or create vastly-improved ones.
  • Post-Show Colouring-In Session Organize a colouring-in session featuring images related to the performance to help your child process their experience. Ask your theatre if they have any specially-created ones for the show.

Encouraging creativity and imagination

The theatre can spark your child’s creative instincts, so seize this opportunity to nurture their artistic side. Encourage them to draw scenes or characters from the performance, or write their own stories or plays. By participating in these at-home productions, your child can experience the joy of storytelling and self-expression while developing their creative and social skills. This can help them process their experience, express their thoughts and feelings, and further explore the themes and characters they’ve encountered.


Theatre groups can extend the theatrical experience for children by organizing various events, workshops and creative materials either directly or via partner groups:

  • Workshops and Classes: Offer theatre workshops or classes to help children further explore their interests and develop new skills.
  • Art Workshops: Organize art workshops for children to create their own art inspired by the show. This hands-on activity can foster creativity and self-expression, while also helping children connect with the performance on a deeper level.
  • Reading Sessions: Hosting reading sessions featuring the story from an upcoming show can help the little ones understand the show better when they visit the theatre, especially if it is a more complex story.
  • A colouring-in image of Abanazar/Jafar

    Abanazar/Jafar colouring-in PDF

  • Picture-books and activity books: Theatre groups can create picture-books, activity books and colouring pages based specifically on their show’s characters and costumes, to reinforce the child’s understanding and memory of what they watched. These books may include puzzles, mazes, and games that are inspired by the production, helping children to think critically and have fun with the show’s themes and characters.
  • Q&A Sessions: Host Q&A sessions with the cast and crew following the show to deepen children’s understanding of the performance.
  • Parent-Child Theatre Workshops: Organize parent-child theatre workshops to provide a bonding experience while introducing both generations to the world of theatre. These workshops can cover various aspects of theatre, such as scriptwriting, acting, or stage design, fostering collaboration and shared learning.
  • Relaxed Performances: Host ‘relaxed performances’ that are tailored to accommodate children with sensory sensitivities or special needs.
  • Art Exhibits: Organize art exhibits related to the show’s theme or production elements, giving children an opportunity to explore visual arts and gain a broader understanding of the performance.
  • Immersive Theatre: Experiment with immersive theatre experiences where children become active participants in the story. This interactive approach can create a more memorable experience and help children better understand the story and characters by putting them in the middle of the action.
  • Outdoor Performances: Hold outdoor performances to create a unique and engaging environment for children. The change of scenery can help capture their attention and make the performance more memorable.
  • Technology Integration: AR, VR, and AI: Theatres can incorporate [augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR)] experiences to offer a fresh, innovative way for children to explore the world of the show. These cutting-edge technologies can make performances more immersive and interactive, engaging children on a deeper level.
  • Volunteer Opportunities: Theatre groups can offer volunteer opportunities for families, allowing children to become more involved in the production process and understand the value of teamwork and community service.
  • Accessibility: Ensuring that performances are accessible to children from diverse backgrounds, including those with disabilities, is essential for promoting inclusivity and equal opportunities for all.

Jonathan Kaufman 23 September 2019

So it’s official…our Christmas show will be The Snow Queen – a magical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story of the far north, and inspiration for Disney’s Frozen.

We can’t wait to see Lucy Kaufman’s original script, which will update the show to present day Scandinavia. And we have some surprising ideas for staging – both at Sydenham Centre and Sydenham Library. I’m particularly excited to stage this show, as it’s been in the pipeline for many years. Look out for a teaser in the next two weeks, and confirmation of show dates – likely over two or three Saturdays from 30 Nov to 14 Dec.

Jonathan Kaufman 16 September 2019

It’s September…though I can hardly believe it! Nine months into the year and we’re just about to open our 7th show this year, and 10th family show since we started Upstairs at the Sydenham Centre in Spring 2017.

Pinocchio has followed hot on the heels of our sell-out Alice in Wonderland, and we’ve barely got our breath back before we’re back in the rehearsal space putting our fantastic cast through their paces. With the help of vocal coach Harriet Firth-Clark, the actors are using their very best operatic voices to sing Paul Tornbohm and Yumi Mashiki’s intricate songs – based on famous arias, and the results are amazing. With music this emotional, the show can’t fail to move the audience to tears!

And how wonderful to again be working with Spontaneous regular Hjalmar Norden, who along with newcomer Valeria Iacampo, are choreographing the big musical numbers. Valeria brings great balletic grace and comic timing to her role as Pinocchio, and Hjalmar has multiple roles, switching effortlessly between Geppetto the Carpenter, the sly Fox, and the malevolent Puppet Maestro. Completing the cast is the multi-talented Jimand Allotey, last seen as Anansi the Spider, who makes a magical Blue Fairy, a conniving Cat and a heartbreaking Harlyqueen puppet.

The show starts Sat 14 September and runs for five weekends until Sun 20 October.

Photo credits: Mark Drinkwater

Jonathan Kaufman 19 Aug 2019

So some rather unwelcome news last week, when I discovered the Brockley Jack Theatre is staging a new, modern version of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde in September. This meant some rapid rescheduling of our programme – which was due to include Lucy Kaufman’s new, innovative adaptation of the same story in November – and the difficult decision to postpone our own version to a later date. We hope to bring Stevenson’s classic tale to the Sydenham Centre in due course, so watch this space…

Meanwhile, our new autumn schedule now includes an exciting follow-up to 2017’s portmanteau evening of tales of psychological terror Frighteners. Our new show, FRIGHTENERS 2019, will feature playlets written by south London playwrights and members of my advanced writing class ScriptHub. Thrilling and chilling stories of the supernatural, expect shivers up the spine and some shocking dramatic moments!

We will confirm show dates very soon, but provisionally the show is scheduled to run over four nights starting Fri 8 November.

Jonathan Kaufman 17 Aug 2019

Apologies for the absence of director’s diary entries in the last month, things got very busy for us with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, so I’m now taking a well-earned rest before our autumn season kicks off in mid-September with our magical new version of Carlo Collodi’s classic tale PINOCCHIO. But here’s a short update on what we got up to this summer:

Alice in Mayow Park was our most successful show yet, with over 1500 people coming to performances over 8 days. Miraculously, the skies stayed clear for us, with only rain before and after performances, not during the shows themselves. In fact, we were blessed with sunshine on many occasions, usually as the audience walked into Wonderland!

You can see some fantastic photos from the shows by Jan Nordén (and Mark Drinkwater) here.

Feedback from audiences was uniformly fantastic, with many asking us if we will be making open-air theatre in the park a regular, annual event. The good news is – yes! We are now planning another show for families next May & June – The Tales of Beatrix Potter, featuring characters such as Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, Jeremy Fisher and Mrs Tiggywinkle – plus a show for grown-ups in July & August – the front-runner is currently The Tempest, but other ideas are very welcome!

There’s something very special about open-air theatre, and we loved moving our audience from location to location. The logistics of getting nearly 300 people walking through a rabbit hole wasn’t easy, but great fun all the same!

Thanks to everyone who came along to the shows, and huge thanks to our amazing volunteer team who made the experience so enjoyable. See you next summer!

Jonathan Kaufman 29 June 2019

Finishing a script is hard – not least because it’s never easy to know when it’s quite done. Sometimes they change in rehearsal, but a good script should be ready to share with the cast when you don’t feel you can add anything more without spoiling what you have. So what a joy to have finished not one, but two scripts this weekend!

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is complete – with just a few lyrical tweaks to be made with composer Deborah Garvey – and I’m very happy with it. What Lewis Carroll would make of some of my own jokes, and if he’d even recognise it as his story, is another matter! But I hope I’ve been true to the original – it’s certainly full of the wonderful English surrealism that makes his book such a masterpiece.

Let’s hope we can do it justice when we start rehearsals in a week’s time. Favourite scene? The one with the Caterpillar, hookah pipe and all. Favourite song – probably the Mad Hatter & The March Hare singing ‘Why Is A Raven Like a Writing Desk?’ followed closely by The White Rabbit’s rap of course, that’s me channelling my inner Stormzy…

Then I put the final touches to the first draft of my adaptation of Pinocchio yesterday. Co-written with Valeria Iacampo, this is a faithful version of a brilliant book – and a completely mad story – by the 19th century Italian writer Carlo Collodi. I hope I’ve included everything that people will know from the (gulps) Disney version – though I haven’t called the Cricket Jiminy. Our version will feature some very innovative puppetry effects, and songs based on well-known Italian operatic arias (and one French), so leave your memories of the Disney film at the door, and enjoy!

Now, next up is our new adaptation of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde – which my playwright sister Lucy starts writing very soon. We had a brilliant discussion in the week and came up with a very original way to stage this well-known story.

So, watch this space for updates…

Jonathan Kaufman 22 June 2019

Day 3 – Barking

Friday, and we’re at the Broadway Theatre Barking for the tech rehearsal of Postcards.

This means our first chance to get into the ‘space’ and get used to the size of the stage (it’s four times larger than Sydenham Centre’s) and the acoustics. It’s a 300-seater, so you need to be loud to be heard!

The cast are excited, as always, to get into the performance venue, whereas I’m focused on getting through 10 playlets in four and a half hours; never a simple prospect. We’re also working with the Broadway Theatre’s tech team, which means things take a lot longer than usual (I run my own lighting and sound at Sydenham Centre.) But after a slow, sticky start – we abandon using radio mics as they keep playing up – we get through all ten playlets, working through their lighting and sound cues and ‘prop business’ and we’re ready…

First performance – always a nervy experience, but it goes well on the whole, with only a few technical glitches to mar the performances, which are brilliant. The audience is delighted, the writers of the pieces particularly thrilled to see their work brought to life. And the voting is fairly smooth…Claire Buckle’s play The Turning Tide coming out tops, with Cycling by Andrew Platman the runner up and Posh by Jas Knight in third place.

Perhaps not surprisingly, two of out of these top three playlets are written by writers from north of the river. Can South London do any better when we’re in Sydenham the next day? Only time will tell…

Day 4 – Sydenham

Back Upstairs at the Sydenham Centre is like coming home, and having already performed the show once the tech rehearsal here is a dream. I’m back in my comfort zone on the lighting and sound desk, and we get through the playlets in two hours – topping and tailing most of them (not running the whole play, but skipping from technical moment to moment to save time).

By 7.30pm a very large audience has gathered…

It’s another brilliant show, with many in the crowd telling me how much the standard of the writing keeps improving with each scratch night that we do. And this time, South London does indeed come out on top, with all three top placed plays written by writers from my own ScriptHub writing class: 3rd place is Fran Burke’s Postcards from the Island, 2nd place is (again) Andrew Platman with Cycling, with very worthy winner Darren Bird’s play Papa romping home with 39 votes. Darren is absolutely thrilled, telling me our staging of his play is exactly as he imagined in his head. We’re elated, shattered, and relieved that it’s gone so well. So that was Postcards, another triumphant scratch night for Spontaneous Productions, and already Lucy and I are planning the next one!

If you’d like to sign up for one of my scriptwriting classes, with the chance to see your work performed on stage, see details here, as we’ll be updating the September schedule very shortly.

Jonathan Kaufman 20 June 2019

Another rehearsal day and six more plays to stage, including some of the more unusual pieces.

Co-director Lucy Kaufman and myself have fun with the cast, solving some the more difficult staging issues – for example, how do you show characters fixing a broken down car when said car has to be off-stage? Cue ingenious ideas about turning a baked bean tin into a piston the characters can tinker with on-stage, plus the ingenious use of sound FX of course. Another play has to convey the idea of both cycling and driving – again, without much of a budget, we have to use our imaginations and some simple staging devices, plus sound FX.

This is one of the pleasures, as well as frustrations, of taking untried pieces and making them work on stage – inviting the audience to suspend their disbelief just enough, but not cheating them. After all, the human imagination has an amazing propensity to envisage things it can’t actually see.

So now to today’s tech rehearsal, which elsewhere I’ve explained is where you run each scene – or playlet in this case – with all the costumes, props, lighting effects and sound cues. It’s the first chance for the lighting/sound operators to see the show and know what they have to do – plus the actors get to try out quick costume changes and the size and acoustics of the theatre space. It should take about four and a half hours, we hope. Though I have known tech rehearsals to last two days!

And then tonight…the first performance. Will we be ready? Of course, the magic of theatre will ensure that we will be!

Jonathan Kaufman 19 June 2019

First gathering of the cast for Postcards, and a lot of fun reading the scripts and staging four out of the 10 playlets.

Finding your way with a new script is always exciting – and challenging – as you try to get to grips with the author’s intentions. New writing means these are pieces that aren’t tried and tested, so often there’s lots of discussion about characters’ motivations and ideas for staging: whether to go for naturalism, or melodrama, or high comedy. The actors are all brilliant. Knowing they don’t have to learn the lines and will perform ‘script in hand’ really liberates them, so they can make quick decisions about characterisations and accents etc.

Already, we have our favourite pieces of course, and we’re always trying to guess which playlet the audience will vote their favourite. Often it’s a complete surprise, as collectively audiences see things we’ve missed, and can appreciate a performance on the night that we didn’t quite see in rehearsal.

Then there’s finding bits of costume and odds props – for it doesn’t matter how many times we encourage the writers to keep these to a minimum, we always have to source a few key props, in this instance a chameleon, a stetson, a Panama hat, a casserole dish, an old suitcase etc. Again, the beauty of the ‘scratch night’ is that the audience don’t expect a fully-staged show with scenery and elaborate costuming. Suspension of disbelief, after all, is what theatre is all about!

Anyway, that’s Day 1 over…Day 2 tomorrow, and six more plays to ‘put on their feet’ as we say…