A paper given to Students at De Montfort University, Leicester.>
I've filled this slot for three years now and, being rather busy, I was hoping to trot out the same old schtick for you lot as for your predecessors. Unfortunately, having read back the original version of this talk I've realised the future isn't what it used to be and I no longer agree with myself. So I've had to put some work into this, I hope you find it useful.
How many theatre shows have you seen in the past year?
Now take away those that your mates have been in.
Now take away those you have been obliged to go and see as part of a course.
How many shows have you seen in the past year?
I've seen 9.
Four were abroad (other shows in festivals we were appearing in), one I was chairing a discussion after and another was a free press night ticket. I've actually paid to see three shows this year and all of those were performed by mates.
That is a disgrace.
What proportion of those shows were in Leicester or your home town?
Theatre is dying and I'm letting it happen. I used to be part of theatre's life support machine. I used to charge around the country administering first aid. I used to be the man clever enough to work out the show had ended and brave enough to start the clapping. I used not to blink about travelling from Birmingham to Coventry, Nottingham, Leicester, Tamworth, Sheffield or London by public transport to see shows which I suspected I wouldn't enjoy but felt I ought to see.
How many of you have seen anything by Stan's Cafe?
We've never performed in Leicester or Derby for that matter, or Sheffield, Glasgow, Bristol, Newcastle, Norwich, Southampton, Bournemouth, Plymouth, Swansea, Exeter, Hull, Middlesborough, Blackpool, Aberdeen or Halifax. We haven't performed a stage show in London since 1996.
You are forgiven for not having seen us.
How many of you had heard of Stan's Cafe before you were told I was coming here this evening?
The Guardian is the only newspaper to regularly preview our shows. We've not had a dedicated review in the national or local press since 1996. We were last on British TV in 1998. The only dedicated review we've ever had in Live Art Magazine, our 'trade paper', was for The Carrier Frequency, our revival of someone else's show. The arts editor of The Birmingham Post has claimed to be 'allergic' to us.
You are forgiven for not having heard of us.
I'm sometimes amazed I've heard of us.
Who are we?
Of those who had heard of Stan's Cafe, what did you know about us?
Weirdly, considering that litany of apparent underachievement, we are supposed to be one of the countries more successful alternative theatre companies.
This year we've performed in Douai, Dieppe and St. Ettiene, Hamburg, Vilnius, Rakvere (that's in Estonia), Belgrade and Zagreb. We're about to go off to Leipzig, Lisbon and Rio De Janeiro (that's in Brazil).
We've made the last five shows under commission and have another three commissions in the pipeline.
We've just been nominated a Key Regional Organisation by West Midlands Arts, which basically means they've promised us three years of funding.
So what's going on? How can we be so successful and so pitiful at the same time?
In the last two years a minor miracle has taken place.
A review commissioned by the Arts Council of England concluded that theatre had suffered chronic underfunding. Central government has increased money going to the arts and released a wave of money targeted directly at theatre. Now theatre companies only a year or two old are getting £10,000 to make maybe their second show. Now on an almost regular basis you can see shows by such major international figures as Robert Wilson and Pina Bauch without having to travel abroad. Star turns by Nicol Kidman, Jerry Hall, Woody Harrelson, Kyal McClaughlan, Kevin Spacey and Madonna have given London theatre some kind of chic. Rick Mayle and Ade Edmunson act in Beckett as well as Bottom. The Fast Show has a stage incarnation, as does The League of Gentlemen. Ben Elton and Patrick Marber have turned their attentions from TV to theatre. Theatre de Complicite, Frantic Assembly, Trestle, Improbable, Right Size and Debbie Issit all demonstrate that the mainstream and West End aren't totally closed shops. In schools and universities more people are studying theatre than ever before. Theatre should be on the up.
As a punter the theatre scene feels desperate. There's nothing coming to Birmingham, that I want to see. There's nothing coming to theatres for miles around that I want to see. I don't know what's going on. I don't know what's worth seeing. When I do see shows I either feel like I've joined a cult, or I'm the last remnants of a religious movement or I'm sat amidst a million students who've been told to see the show and are watching it like it's an essay subject not a piece of art. There now seems to be an establishment will for theatre to thrive and a public apathy about seeing the damn stuff. But frankly, who can blame them, the public?
In the olden days when I was watching theatre I used to say it was like following a rubbish football team. None of your mates understand your obsession. You persuade one of them, preferably with a car, to come with you to see something. It turns out to be crap. They hate it and ask why you bother. You say you once saw four great shows in a row and you've lived on the memory ever since. Great theatre makes it all worthwhile but most theatre is shit.
Theatre's not unusual in this way, most of everything is shit. Most films are shit, most novels are shit and most music is shit. The key difference is that there are a host of critics, reviewers and mates to tip us off as to what's good and what's bad in these other forms. In these other forms we've got a huge choice, we can access not just what's current but the classics from the past. I've just discovered a fantastic band from the sixties called The Beatles you should check them out sometime if you can get hold of any of their stuff. The Living theatre's classics from the sixties are lost for ever and legend. We don't have to put up with shit in other forms. With theatre we can only watch what's with us here and now.
It's pathetic, living in Birmingham I have practically no choice as to what I can get to see. I no longer have the time or head space to roam the land looking for stuff that once upon a time used to come to me. When people say they don't like theatre it's more likely that they mean they don't like bad theatre, join the queue.
I want you to take a moment to recall the experience of watching a great piece of theatre. I don't want to know what it was, who performed it, what happened or any details like that. I just want you to describe to me to me: what did it feel like?
That's the future of theatre, stuff that does that to you. I used to be prejudiced against pantomimes and musicals and well made plays and pretty much anything with a plot. Now I've softened my stance and I've decided I like everything that's good and nothing that's bad.
I believe the thing that lies at the heart of theatre, that makes it so stunning when it's great and so appalling when it is bad, is it's liveness. You must get a buzz from its liveness. Theatre must move you. It must make your brain work. It must show wit and intelligence and credit you with both.
I love theatre's power as a machine for metaphor. All Stan's Cafe's work seeks to twist its form to back up its content in a kind of double whammy, both elements articulating key ideas driving the show.
We attempt to keep a number of shows in repertory.
Simple Maths (1997): an hour long show with no speaking, no story, no mime, no dance and nothing much happening. An exercise in giving audiences the raw materials to make their own narratives.
It's Your Film (1998): a four minute long performance that looks like a film which is performed live to one audience member at a time. Commissioned for Bond Gallery, Birmingham.
The Carrier Frequency: a physical theatre show we revived from a video recording of Impact Theatre's 1984 collaboration with the novelist Russell Hoban (not in repertory).
Good and True (2000): four people talking round a table. A surreal police interrogation, very funny.
The Black Maze (2000): originally made for art galleries this year we converted this sensory art installation so it would fit into the back of a seven and a half tonne truck.
Lurid and Insane (2001): a kind of musical premiered in a farmer's barn.
Space Station (2002): three astronauts on a new station on the Metro line in the Black Country.
I believe the future of theatre lies in more people making more theatre better. This will lead more people to be more enthusiastic about theatre, it will encourage more people to come and see it, m ore media to cover it and so on.
What is better theatre?
What is the future of performance?
The question should not be 'What?' but 'Who?'.
Who are the future of performance?
I know it looks unlikely but it's true.
James Yarker 9.10.02