Scratched Out - an interview with Dean Atta

I spoke to Dean Atta about the making of Scratched Out. As well as a writer and performer he also runs workshops. It's clear how much he wants his students to succeed. You 'sold' this to the Lyric without them actually having seen it - did your theatre company have a clear idea of how they wanted the show to be from the beginning?

From the beginning we wanted the show to be as authentic as possible. The story was very clear but we each had our own sense of the characters. R&D Productions is myself Dean Atta, Tracey Duodu and Richard Hale. We are three unique individuals all with different talents and life experience. Embarking on a project like Scratched Out we felt close to the story and characters in different ways and for different reasons. We opted for more unknown actors with their vocal and rapping ability taking precedent over anything else. I think we made the right decision, the cast really connected with their characters and with each other exactly how we believed they could.

How much of the process was collaborative, can you tell me about it. For example did you respond to the needs of the story with the lyrics or did you write the lyrics first?

The lyrics were my job, the music was Richard’s and the dialogue was kind of up for grabs. Tracey came into the production team after script was written and help us move from script to show, focusing particularly on choreography and styling. However, Tracey was also involved at the very beginning in a scratch performance of the show for Richard’s MA in Musical Theatre at Mountview Academy last summer, in which a group of actors, including Tracey and myself, workshopped and improvised a 20 minute piece based on stimulus given to us by Richard. He received a distinction for this part of his MA and Paul Clements the Principle of Mountview said we must carry on writing the full piece. At the same time the Lyric Hammersmith were interested to know what else I was working on outside of my work with young people, and Scratched Out seemed the most fitting project to bring to them.

Did you find that as a performer and poet yourself the actual lyric writing came relatively easily to you?

I have written a few plays and monologues in the past and in my own poetry there are narratives threads and characters, but it was real a challenge to combine lyric writing and storytelling and keep the seven voices in Scratched Out distinct and at no point slip into my own style. I think I did really well because you really wouldn’t recognise these lyrics from anything you’ve heard from me in the past. I was heavily influenced by the creative writing workshops I run with young people at the Lyric and in schools and youth clubs across London, I felt it was my duty to tell the stories of these young people I had met and worked with over the years. I tried to ignore newspapers and other media. At no point did I want the show to become preachy, stereotypical or boring. I became slightly schizophrenic whilst writing this show, but I really felt like I knew each character inside and out, there is so much more to each of their stories than we could present in the 60 minute piece that you saw.

When I was watching it I felt that to retain integrity there had to be a senseless death, which brings me on to my next question. How important is it for performance poetry and music to raise difficult issues in today's culture and do you think it can make the changes we seek?

Words are intellectual and music is visceral and combining the two has the ultimate impact. It takes a certain type of person to go to a performance poetry show and just listen to people talk. But almost everyone listens to music. I have realised this even with my own work and my debut CD Reason & Rhyme (on which two of the five tracks are produced by Scratched Out composer Richard Hale) is music and spoken word combined, and this is the way forward for me. Being a part of Scratched Out has taught me a lot about myself as a writer, my fellow artists as colleagues and my audience - who want to believe that change is possible. But the change can’t happen on the stage, screen or stereo - it has to happen in the schools and on the streets!