Stan's Cafe: One looks, marvels and understands
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Stan's Cafe and Birmingham's ArtsFest



A brief paper written for Birmingham Conservatoire's festival celebrating the work of Heiner Goebbels.

I have been asked to speak for between 5 - 10 minutes. I'm aiming for seven and a half.

Stan's Cafe is a theatre company. We formed in 1991-ish with the intention of devising original theatre shows. As an independent company we have had the freedom to decide for ourselves what constitutes a theatre show and we have been consistently flexible in our definitions. The company has developed so that it is able to offer an evolving portfolio of highly contrasting projects available for touring at any given time. We have a full time staff of three backed up by a wide range of associate artists who engage with the company on a project-by-project, giving us the flexibility to draw on a wide range of skills as required for each new artistic undertaking.

At Stan's Cafe we aren't interested in hierarchies; we are interested in ideas. We are interested in how ideas coalesce and how form and content inform each other. Although these originating ideas tend to be mine, how they evolve is strongly determined by all the voices in the rehearsal room. Ideas are central; egos need to be left at the door because whatever serves the idea best will always carry the day.

As a devising company we do not believe in the notion of a single authorial voice, are never beholden to a playwright, almost never start with a script and often create shows without words. Where there are words there is a good chance these will have originated with performers working in improvisation. Where I have written text it is almost always reordered, redistributed and revised by the performers. In our interrogation show Good and True (2000) it eventually became difficult to recall the origin of any given passage of text.

Where text is limited or absent, music may rise in show's mix to fill the gap. The Cleansing Of Constance Brown (2007) has just eight words before Nina West's score effectively renders all other speech inaudible. Nina's creative voice is loud within the show; action becomes choreographed to her music, which in turn becomes almost a design element, pushing the audience back from the action to watch in a more cinematic way.

A cinematic mode of viewing was at the heart of our hit four minute long performance It's Your Film (1998). Here a Victorian theatre trick, Pepper's Ghost, was the motor for the show. Exploring ways to harness this design idea generated material, which in turn gave rise to the show's narrative.

Whilst the narrative of Home of the Wriggler (2006) stood separate from its design, its blocking was directly determined by design solutions. Mark Anderson was charged with building machines that would enable the show's cast to generate all the power required to run the show live on stage. The demands of these dynamos dictated who powered what machines at any given time and the nature of the low flickering light generated led to a particular physical patterning of the show's action and its performance style.

Be Proud Of Me (2003) had twin formal rules:
1: language should be limited to quotations from tourist phrase books (a rule we later generated an exception to)
2: the whole piece should be performed in front of projected slides. This second rule brought our first full collaboration with photographer Ed Dimsdale. Demands worked in both direction, sometimes Ed would send us photographs unsolicited to inspire the devising process, at other times we would place orders with him for images we required. His images led us to develop a sophisticated grammar for the show's image system.

Having collaborated with our photographer, the next ambition was to collaborate with our long-term graphic design partner, Simon Ford. The opportunity came with Dance Steps (2008) the first of The Steps Series, which is now on its twelfth edition with Olympian Steps (2012) currently being installed in Handsworth and Aston Parks. In these projects foot and handprints, mixed with text bubbles and other symbols applied across a venue, become instructions for mini DIY dramas. Simon pushes a strong graphic vision whilst we lead on narrative concerns and the physical experience of audiences as they attempt to puzzle their way through the action.

The Steps Series is one of the more obvious examples of our principle that audience members should be regarded as collaborators. In another, Tuning Out With Radio Z (2010), set in a late night radio station, audiences are asked to co-author the show during its performance via SMS messages or online via a message board.

More subtle, but equally valid, is the ambiguity, poetry and conceptual space left within all shows, encouraging audiences engage with the staged action with their own thoughts, emotions and experiences in an attempts to locate what for them will become an authoritative reading.

For Space Steps (2009) we worked with secondary school students and teachers to transform their brand new school into a space ship. We have extensive experience working on arts projects with young people from four years of age up to undergraduates. The principles always remain the same, communal devising, searching for the key ideas and finding the forms and content that best articulate them.

Finally, it is probably worth noting that Stan's Cafe is not a full and true democracy but I like to think that my ego is relaxed enough to do what is best for the show whatever that means to my place in the flattened hierarchy of the devising process. Whilst making our rock musical Lurid and Insane (it was better than it sounds), the musical director spent long periods with the cast writing and rehearsing songs and I was largely under-employed it was what the show needed and I couldn't have been happier, I wasn't needed.

James Yarker 22nd March, 2012


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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