Stan's Cafe: One looks, marvels and understands
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Set In Our Ways

This talk was commissioned as part of Mayfest by Theatre Bristol.

It was presented to an audience of theatre makers.
The text here was embellished to rococo extreme with 'amusing' anecdotes from the theatrical stage, many of which can be found elsewhere on this website.

14th May, 2008 The Tobacco Factory.
 
I've never fancied the compromise of being a part time artist. Being a full-time professionalism was always the aim. Of course that isn't what I am now. I don't work for anyone but Stan's Cafe, and haven't for maybe a decade, but as Artistic Director of a theatre company I am inevitably both an artist and a businessman. I'm making art and running a company.

Running a business in normal circumstances is challenging, for artists the challenge is increased. We are hampered by a whole host of ambitions and principles that are in direct conflict with common business sense. Public subsidy is designed to help resolve this contradiction, and some of us are lucky enough to benefit from this, but the challenge remains. We must find a way of being 'business like' in support of our artistic projects. We dream dreams and must then find ways to realise them in the real world.

If Stan's Cafe we were more of a business we'd have a better name. We'd stage known plays by known authors or do adaptations of existing popular books or films. As it is we exclusively devise our own original productions from scratch. Good business sense would be to knock out at frequent, predictable intervals, shows which, though different from each other, are consistent in their form and tone. Instead we pursue whatever ideas interest us in whatever directions they lead us, regardless of what art form they may wander into and whether they are 'the kind of thing we do'.

Here I gave examples of Be Proud Of Me, Broadway Hertz and Of All The People In All The World, all radically different projects created in 2003.

Some time around 1997 our officer at the Arts Council challenged us with a provocative question. 'If you were ever going to make it wouldn't you have made it by now?” Our answer was 'what is your definition of 'making it'? By our definition we are pretty much there'. Of course looking back now, a decade or so later, it is clear that we were both wrong; we hadn't made it but we were about to start doing so.

This short talk is focused (if any of my talks could ever be accused of being focused) on the dialogue between Art and Business, which has helped Stan's Cafe 'make it' or at least make it this far.

FUNDAMENTAL ARTISTIC PRINCIPLES


I think everything Stan's Cafe does stems from a few basic principles. Some of these principles we held from the off, others we have adopted along the way.

Rise Above Fashion: This is about putting substance over style. About your work having integrity for what it fundamentally is rather than what is superficially appears to be. Don't chase the zeitgeist. Have a good reason behind everything you do. Build your house upon the rock so when the winds and tides of fashion change it won't be blown or washed away.

Here I mentioned Canute The King being very uncool, but liking it very much.

Make What You Yourself Would Like To See: This is about being honest with yourself. Does it work for you? What would you think if you had rocked up at the theatre to watch this thing that is in front of you? If you think it's rubbish then everyone else certainly will. If you think it's brilliant then may be someone else will. Make the thing that you want to see, but that no one else is doing.

Be Open And Generous: In what? In everything. Spread good karma, what goes around comes around. Theatre thrives on communication so be open. Don't be a mean bunch of arses, because everyone knows everyone and people love to gossip. If you're in this for the long game then the work experience kid you treat like dirt today will, much faster than you can possibly imagine, be looking to book theatre companies for the venue they run or festival they curate, and they sure as hell won't book you.

Also, though it may feel like you are in opposition to people in other companies, there comes a point when it is in all our common interests that the whole sector flourishes. If everyone else is shit but you then rather than everyone flocking to see you, everyone will just stop going to the theatre assuming you're shit too. Mayfest is an example here in Bristol, of how a few of you have created a scene, where one of you would be merely an oddity.

Of course in some ways it's easier to be generous when you are successful. You have more stuff to share, physical, intellectual and emotional. This principle has developed in us over the years.

Respect Your Audience, Give Them Work To Do: Ensure audiences have a way into your show. We're open and generous to our audiences because, as old theatre hams, we want to "make 'em laugh and make 'em cry". Yet, at the same time, as an audience member I love being given work to do, things to thing about, puzzles to solve, poetry to sing in my head with my own chiming thoughts. At this point I tend to point people to Howard Barker's essay Honouring the Audience that can be found in his collection Theatre of Catastrophe, which isn't a book you'd immediately pick up if you fancied being part of a Theatre of Triumph, but it is well worth a read.

Believe In What You Do: because it's going to be tough, and if you don't believe in it then no one will and you're doomed.

Here I told the story of It's Your Film rescuing Stan's Cafe from doom.

But Don't Think You're Gods Gift: this leads to arrogance, not being generous, not thinking about audiences, it makes you slack and lazy and ultimately bitter or loathed or both.

If It Seems Like Fun, Do It: if you're not having fun, and I can't imagine you are doing it for the money, then why the hell are you doing it? If something seems like fun then that fun will be infectious and everything will become easy.

Here I mentioned the vanity projects Pieces For The Radio Vol.1 and Pieces For The Radio Vol.2 (Comfort Hour).

BUSINESS PRINCIPLES


Keep Overheads Low: don't spend money on things that aren't necessary Making the art is central to everything you do and everything else must facilitate that. It sounds obvious, but money is tight, so why spend it on things that aren't pushing the agenda forward. I now don't know where every penny goes, but I know where it has come from, and have personally earned a good proportion of it, so I still require a bit of persuading that expenditure, such as carpet tiles for the office, shouldn't be band under this principle but allowed under the following principle.

Spend Money When You Need To: Occasionally it is important to spend and spend big. Top notch publicity print to create a good impression with potential promoters, paying for a press agent to try and get us reviews, doing a show we know we will make a loss on, but which we know important people will see. Of even just buying a huge round of beers for the cast when they deserve a thanks.

Here I spoke about both Lurid and Insane and The Cleansing of Constance Brown, and why they were worth throwing so much cash at.

Always Be Helpful and Deliver On Your Promises: Everything is dependent on collaborations. I did a bit of work in a venue's marketing department and was amazed at how unhelpful some companies were towards people whose job it was to get audiences in to see their show. You're in for the long haul so you need a reputation for being reliable and easy to work with.

Don't Promise Too Much: It's tempting to over extend yourselves in order to get a commission or a gig, but you have to be realistic in order to stick to the previous principle. You also have to try and realise the true value of your work in order not to undercut other companies (this isn't about forming a cartel, but it is about us not driving each other into the artistic equivalent of a sweatshop). Because I'm so enthusiastic about work and optimistic about what is possible I am a terrible at negotiating deals, so in principle I get our Associate Producer or General Manager to do this job. Of course occasionally promising to do too much for too little and nearly killing yourselves to deliver it is, if not sensible then certainly rewarding.

Here I spoke about the ridiculously involved thing that was Framed.

Develop A Varied Portfolio: I wish I could say that it was a coolly taken strategic business to develop a portfolio of five varied shows, continually available which ensure that we have something to appeal to almost everyone.

Here I identified the current portfolio shows introducing Home Of The Wriggler in the process.

Think Laterally and Make Connections: Try and extend the life of everything you do. Try and make everything you do give rise to something else. Think creatively about partnerships and opportunities, how can an idea be applied to another context.

Here Dance Steps was identified as a project in the early days of its exploitation, open for opportunities and connections.

Have A Bottom Draw: related to the previous principle. Having a stash of ideas waiting their chance to see the light of day means that you can respond to opportunities and make connections. It is a way of reacting to opportunities whilst proactively getting one of your pet projects off the ground (or out of the bottom draw).

Here the five year gap between thinking of The Black Maze and getting it commissioned was 'mentioned'.

Take Risks, Up To A Point: speculate to accumulate. The more things you make the greater the chance that one of them will be a hit, so it's worth taking the risk to make something new happen. It's always impossible to anticipate how things will turn out.


OTHER PRINCIPLES


Endure: just keep going and it will eventually become easier. You will know more people and more useful people. More people and more useful people will know you. Other people will have given up leaving the field clear for you. You will get better at what you do. It took us 2 years to get our first bit of project funding, 10 years to get British Council attention, 12 years to get our first revenue funding and 17 years to get revenue funding from Birmingham City Council. It's a long game, endure.

Say It and It Will Happen: it sounds corny, but if you set yourselves objectives, If you state what you are aiming for then in so doing you will make these things more likely to happen.


MORE THINGS WE HAVE GOT 'WRONG'


Not Having A Portfolio: here I told the embarrassing story of declining a gig in Munich with Ocean Of Storms in 1997 because we wanted them to take 'the new show'. We should have leapt at the chance. We've still not played Munich and it was a further three years before we got our first proper gig.

Branding: Think about the theatre companies that you know well and how you would parody them for the amusement of your friends knowing friends at the drunken end of a pretentious dinner party. I suggest that the eclecticism of Stan's Cafe's approach makes it easy to parody individual shows but not the company's style. What makes us difficult to parody also makes Stan's Cafe resistant to branding, which complies with the first Principle against fashion, but made it hard work to sell the company. We tended to just confuse people who tried to label us. I think we are through that now and in the great position of being a kind of brandless brand - you should just expect the unexpected.

Diversity: Maybe if we had been ruthlessly focused on going down a single path we may have got further in that direction than we currently are. But in every other way it wouldn't have been so good.

Modesty: we're getting slightly better at this, but for years and years we haven't talked enough about how good we are. You can get a long way with a good talk. We want actions to speak louder than words, yet if we had been more accomplished self-promoters we would be much more successful than we currently are. For years we complained about being ignored, until a member of our board said “have you told people about who you are, what you do and how good you are? How else are they expected to know?” Which is a fair point!


REGRETS


I don't know. In some ways I regret not having a 'proper job'. I'd like to be more confident that I'm going to be able to give my daughter the financial security she deserves. I would like to earn enough to give my wife more flexibility in her work. In theory I'd like an equally rewarding job that wouldn't take me away from home so much, in practice I suspect this is as good as it gets.

At this point the audience were set a series of quandaries to discuss and respond to:

You're fed up of only being asked to present your most popular show. A promoter you know well comes to you asking to book this show for their big budget festival. What do you say?

No, don't have It's Your Film, which loads of people have had already, be specially, go down in history, commission The Black Maze!

Someone wants to commission a show for the local Metro line. You don't do street theatre. What do you say?

You examine why you don't do street theatre, think of how you could do a piece on the Metro that doesn't require you to do those things and pitch them Space Station.

You are negotiating with a festival in Rio De Janeiro about taking a show there, but it feels like it might not happen. A very solid offer comes in to do the same show at the same time in Leipzig. What do you do?

Realise you'd have to get the set rebuilt if you were going to perform in Rio anyway, so you can accept both offers and send performance teams to both cities to perform It's Your Film.

You've committed to doing an important show in your home city but just days before it's due the only space you can find is a foul, freezing old factory space. What do you do?

Throw money at the problem. Try and make things as comfortable for everyone as possible. Make the audience feel like they are in on an adventure. Use the performance as an opportunity to communicate a message about how much you need a permanent rehearsal/performance space.

You committed to doing a show in a ruined castle on the top of a hill for a festival. When you arrive on the day you realise you have wildly underestimated the challenges of this undertaking. What do you do?

Pray that it rains and the festival cancels before you have to (this was a very long time ago)!


James Yarker 14th May


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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