Stan's Cafe: One looks, marvels and understands
Site Specific: Performing The Camp
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Why you should work with children and animals

Years ago we would set out Stan's Cafe's mission statement by describing Elizabethan explorers sailing off into the unknown, mapping new territory, bringing back treasures and taking audiences to see new sights. Now, almost twenty years later, we finally have a project that can live up to this metaphor and perhaps take the edge off it's pretension.

The Camp is a rare example of Stan's Cafe making a pure site-specific performance. Our commissioning brief was to make a performance to showcase the spectacular wonders of the Shropshire Hills[1]. Our successful proposition, to establish and live in an ancient/futuristic campsite for 48 hours, was inspired by the Iron Age hill forts we saw in those hills. Entering production this idea was then shaped by the character and specific challenges of the chosen performance site on Earls Hill. The event happened this site and will not be repeated anywhere else.

Because there was no shared audience experience, no script, no video and few photographs, this essay acts as map of that place and a record of that time. Because performing the piece was an intensely personal as well as collective experience what follows is a mix of my perspective with that of Amy, Craig and Graeme.

Getting Cold Feet.

I approached the performance with an acute, fearful sense of foreboding.

The Camp couldn't be rehearsed it could only be prepared for, like an expedition. We didn't know who we would meet or how they would react to us, we could only agree strategies for their engagement. We didn't know when we would be alone and for how long but knew we needed to know why we were there, so we tested ourselves with questions, backstories and logical tests. We wanted to be ready for all eventualities.

Brain scanning to identify where our vulnerabilities might lie; physical vulnerabilities, creative vulnerabilities. We would be wild in uncharted territory, trusting our instinct, our wisdom, our wherewithal, our stamina. Working alongside, or working in spite of Nature? Wet weather provision topmost on my list of concerns.

Several days on. The memory lingers intensely, and is hard to shake off.
It was an experience to share but also to savour alone.

The performance started on Friday night with weather as brutal as late July can offer, it rained a fair bit on a mixed Saturday and extended respite came on a lovely Sunday. We had a modest stream of visitors some visiting us intentionally, some meeting us accidentally. On both nights more than a dozen people stayed with us, sleeping out and eating round an open fire.

We took off our watches and abandoned our phones.

Leaving the world of phone-signals, watches and clocks, to commune with each other and the landscape felt vital. Time no longer seemed important, we were no longer controlled by it. The Camp felt like a moment out of time. There was no urgency. We ate when hungry and slept when tired. I saw countless images aching to be photographed, but this way of thinking had to be abandoned, we were living for here and now, the next meal and the coming night. We were present, standing on the surface of the earth as it turned.

I thought about the people who had lived here thousands of years ago. I admired their resilience. I thought a lot about the homeless having to continuously endure the elements. It made me thankful.

We have each adopted a tarpaulin in lieu of a waterproof costume, I'm sitting out the rain on a log thinking of Tehching Hsieh[2]. I can't believe we've been so over optimistic about the weather, my thesis is proven: we're pathetic.

Damp grass, damp groundsheet. Water dropping from the skies, dripping from trees; water climbing upwards through absorbent materials.

I think that footwear will make or break us. I'm feeling grateful for the small things; the comfort of well-fitting boots, the comfort of a damp sock that is at least warm.

I choose these shoes as they are the most rudimentary I could find and as a consequence I'm now thinking of trench foot and Vietnam War films of the 1980s, the phrase 'getting cold feet' is no longer merely a figure of speech, my enthusiasm is low and I marvel at how sensible Amy, Craig and Graeme are to be properly shod. I was glad to be with the people I was with.

We felt the hard work necessary simply to stay warm and fed.
Firewood was abundant, everywhere and I was amazed that it lit so easily, given the wood's dampness and the rottenness of so much of it.

A thick rotten stick starts to steam and then, from its jagged broken ends, a host of minuscule ants emerge, frantically climbing up away from the flames; their world has taken a change for the worse, abruptly unfathomably and catastrophically. We look down on their lives from beyond the fire.

We concoct stews from random collections of vegetables and find it delicious and nutritious. We have vegetable stew for every meal except breakfast when we have porridge. I was perfectly happy with our diet, though every stew we ate could have been improved by the inclusion of more potato. I note that potato remains my favourite vegetable. I don't care about the grubbiness of our tools, or our hands; I don't care about the rainwater in our pot, the green-wood smoke infusing our every mouthful, our clothing, our breath.

I'd been thinking of the Anthropocene; and here was the opportunity to contemplate it on a (plastic) plate - to consider how much our lives have left the earth, how much the urban mindset conveniently forgets the means of production from which food and fuel, and yes, culture, emerge.

Quail eggs prove a surprising hit - even the most worldly wise visitors appear never to have tasted them before. I maintain an insistence they are tiny chicken eggs from tiny chickens; no one was fooled - at least not for long. It's all a facade; the water is from a tap barely 500m away; the food isn't local sourced and 'bee juice' is from a German discount store with a scrap of honeycomb added to add a faux foraged feel. We're doing our best, we're drinking mint tea.

We share our food with visitors and in turn they share rare treats with us. We experienced the kindness of strangers in simple transactions: a thin slice of cake, a hunk of homemade bread, a lump of 'sugar bean mud'. We have toothbrushes to trade, we seek a new 'fire starter'.

Interactions with visitors were enjoyable. Most were accepting of our fiction and interacted in a playful and inquisitive way. Conversation flowed from fiction to reality seamlessly. The two worlds merged.

Our personal fictions can be difficult to sustain; awkward or disingenuous, too liable to slip onto the wrong side of the sharpened blade of pretence. The rules of engagement require some to and fro and must be recalibrated on each separate encounter. I struggle with some and the fiction evaporates. Talking with the Wildlife Trust and Friends of Pontesford Hill, knowledgeable locals, I wish I'd been better prepared with knowledge of tree identification. Our evening's guests dwell on the actual not fictional.

We'd imagined that the glow of the evening campfire would be the ideal for the rolling improvised twisted historical storytelling technique we had been practicing, but our visitors seemed to be enjoying the truth too much for us to launch into our deception. The Camp invented itself as it went along, changing its parameters according to its visitors. Openness and honesty are the tools which lubricate this community. We met some lovely people and were privileged to hear their own stories of travel and adventure. We listen to their stories; it feels a privilege to be in their company and to share this unlikely moment together with them. They have been waiting for this opportunity, longer perhaps than we have known ourselves. Perhaps we are time travellers and they knew about us long before the idea took shape?

Alone on the hill top innocent strangers regularly ask "what are you doing here?" I say "waiting for my family," they seem happy with that. We improvise a coy, flirtatious dance back and forth across the line separating truth from fiction. Our preparations serve me well, I am ready with all the answers and some of the questions.

The interactions with children felt particularly special. Our curiosity about the past (their present) allowed them to question the function and necessity of everyday objects. They recognise the broken plastic figure of Shaggy, but how do you explain Scooby-Doo, The Mystery Machine and television to people who appear not to know anything useful?

A boy calls to his friend "there's a man up there who knows NOTHING!"

Children teach us the first couple of lines of the Scooby-Doo theme song. They misremember it - just one generation on and the aural history is already mutating. This was the kind of thing we were interested in, after weeks struggling find a way to integrate a local musician's songs into The Camp it's now clear that poorly remembered TV theme tunes were always going to be far more apt for our performance than anything more considered.

Folk memory founded on redundant contemporary tropes and crap idioms from pop culture is exciting to dwell upon; back into a world of Riddley Walker[3]. Plastic detritus as future treasure. Stan belongs in this world.

Although lacking sleep, I felt surprisingly energised. Being in the fresh air awakened me. I felt cold, wet, hot, tired, energised, fit, unfit. Gravity and that hill are our implacable foes. Travelling from the low camp to the high camp was a significant commitment. Carrying bags of sand to the summit I recall the opening shots of Aguirre, The Wrath of God[4] and Sebastian Salgado's photographs of gold mining in Brazil, I remember with humility that what we are performing is an act of decadence.

Ludicrous, potentially dangerous, dragging the fire bowl to the summit was a challenge of epic proportions, eclipsing even memories of Canute's Sisyphusian ordeal in Kendal[5]. Nothing great is easy and this was far from easy. Our success was perhaps the greatest individual triumph of the weekend, an achievement of Fitzcarraldian proportions[6].

There were moments that will become company legend.

We shared a commitment to going beyond what can reasonably be expected in order to create for the audience something unexpected. Carrying a smaller fire bowl to the summit would have been considerably easier - but what would have been the point? I kept thinking 'it could be worse, we could be building bloody Stonehenge'.

We had to pause the ascent in order to change into our costumes. The final push to the summit would be part of the performance and all the better for that.

Our costumes were of a whiteness that promised to bear the marks of the forest, of the terrain, of the territory. Rope bound material over shoes added an extra degree of difficulty and hazard - no wonder civilisation invented leather and laces, buckles and zips and velcro - why didn't we set this performance in a utopian future of intelligent fabrics and anti-gravity fire bowls?

Holding the flag felt important and imperative. Having to withstand the wind felt empowering.

Regularly, I think how amazing, Amy, Craig and Graeme look in their costumes in this landscape, especially holding that flag. These are moments from an extraordinary other reality, a massive rainbow, a roaring sunset and an epic wind.

There were moments of sublime beauty as I stood on the hilltop alone with the flag looking out across the countryside in all directions.

The flag acted as a beacon for the locals/visitors. They commented that it could be seen for miles and that they'd used it to detect our presence upon traveling to the hill.

This was our presence in a distilled image, validating us.

I could imagine those who had visited still having a connection with us once left as they looked towards the flag.

The incredible Saturday sunset will stay in my mind for many years to come. The 'overnighters' shared this sunset with us. They wouldn't have been there looking that way if it hadn't been for The Camp, this is what the performance was for, this was our commissioning brief accomplished.

Driving home in the van was something to truly treasure; dirt, exhaustion, warmth and delirious hilarity in the aftermath of our communal adventure. The moments of sublime beauty will prevail long after the moments of damp, sleepless misery have disappeared from memory.

It was a hardcore, gentle performance. I wanted to stay I was happy to go.


[1] The Camp was commissioned by Heartland, a collaboration between Arts Alive, The National Trust (Trust New Art), Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Corndon and Stiperstones Landscape Partnership Project and Ben Osborne.

[2] For his One Year Performance 1981-1982 Hsieh spent 365 days outdoors in Manhattan. An image from this performance of him under a tarpaulin is used on the front of the DVD documenting his performances.

[3] A seminal novel by Russell Hoban set in a dystopian future that resembles the past.

[4] Werner Herzog's film starts with an extraordinary sequence in which all the contents of a conquistador camp are carried up a treacherous path in the Peruvian mountains by local tribes people.

[5] In 1993 Graeme and James struggled in vain to carry a water butt up a muddy hill to Kendal Castle for a performance that was later cancelled by the organisers due to terrible weather.

[6] For his film Fitzcaraldo about a man obsessed with dragging a paddle steamer over a hill in the rainforest, Werner Herzog grew obsessed with dragging a paddle seamer over a hill in the rainforest.

James Yarker with Graeme Rose, Craig Stephens and Amy Taylor September 2017
Photograph credit with thanks to Ben Osborne

Gained a first class theatre degree at Lancaster University. He co-founded Stan's Cafe in 1991 and has directed all the company's significant productions since then. As a result of this work he has been invited to guest lecture at Universities across the country as well as to present papers and demonstrations at conferences in a range of contexts at home and abroad. With Dr. Mark Crossley he is co-author of Devising Theatre With Stan's Cafe published by Bloomsbury Methuen.

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