MAC – An Arts Centre.
A decade has past since the first fleet of huge budget Capital Lottery projects was commissioned.
Now, with all these flagship projects launched, and deep into the era of depressed ticket sales
and Olympic plundering, MAC finally has its day in the watery sunlight. With the building and
its programme closed for a £13M refit and speculation mounting in some quarters as to how New
MAC may or may not resemble Old MAC this seems an apt time to reflect on an institution which
has played a crucial role in the development of Stan’s Cafe and which may, in some ways, for
better or worse, be the definitive Arts Centre.
Key to understanding MAC is to recognise that it is an Arts Centre in the fullest sense of
the term. Within a building that had been added to piece-meal for over 40 Years, people could
watch films and dance, listen to concerts both indoors and outdoors, view visual art in a range
of galleries, experience touring theatre and productions produced in house, including professional,
semi-professional, amateur and youth productions. People could make their own art, whether it was
painting, drawing, pottery, music and or any of a host of other specialisms. They could participate
in drama or dance workshops, yoga or aerobics. The building also played host to conferences, meetings
and talks. It housed arts companies and provided, de facto, a cafe, bar and toilets for Cannon Hill
Park, which it opens out onto. This enormously broad brief and rigorously open and inclusive agenda,
led 200,000 people to the centre last year and presented huge challenges to the fabric of the building,
its facilities and its staff. As our recent installation Dance Steps suggests, MAC is a kind of arts
version of the NHS, offering the people of Birmingham and the wider region cradle to grave arts provision.
The scope of this vision means that whilst some areas of provision are of an excellent, others disappoint.
Criticisms of any one area of MAC’s operation tend to miss the point, even if MAC were to never truly excel
in anything except being and Arts Centre, this in itself this is a truly worthy enterprise.
Those brought up in Birmingham in the 70s & 80s often say their first experience of MAC was watching the
Cannon Hill Puppet Theatre there. As a new-comer my first encounter was attending some Cinema’s less
commercially driven enterprises there and witnessing some of Theatrical and Dance’s more off beat undertaking’s
(in defence of the dance, it was usually only off the beat when it meant to be). Over the years I’ve been
inspired or to some degree influenced by a huge amount of art in this Arts Centre…
…a screening of the monumental Andre Rublev, Battleshjp Potempkin transfixing on the big screen,
Stalker (at home we threw a Stalker themed party to celebrate the event – vodka & root vegetables,
Spartan living conditions and a pair of hair clippers in the front room should anyone be inspired),
then of course there was the unwatchable and somewhat offensive Hands which from the write up I had
hoped might emulate its Soviet predecessors, but didn’t…
…Javier De Frutos,
Random Dance, Dogs In Honey (in the days before Steve Jones became
and Dawes, NVA,
Jean Jacques Perrey and dozens more of the advised and ill-advised, each laudable in their
own way, even if lamentable in other ways …
When you start a Theatre Company it’s tough getting gigs; no one has heard of you and,
if you’re devising your own stuff, no one has heard of your stuff either. You need someone
to step forward and place their trust in you. For us Dorothy Wilson, then Director of Programming
at MAC, was one of those people. She believed it was the duty of an Arts Centre to encourage local
arts companies. She booked Memoirs of an Amnesiac sight unseen. Having seen that she let Perry Como’s
Christmas Cracker into the intimate/tiny Hexagon Theatre and having proved ourselves not to be total
chancers Dorothy became an advocate for Stan’s Cafe and later, when we grew more formally organised,
she became the company’s first Chair and steered us patiently through our infant years.
Between 1994 and 2000 Stan’s Cafe devised five studio theatre shows in The English Room, MAC’s beautiful
second floor rehearsal space overlooking the park. We came to a financial arrangement whereby in some wizardry
of close up financial magic Dorothy partially transformed performance fees into rehearsal space. Now we had
a reliable and supportive somewhere to devise, rehearse and premiere new shows things could really start motoring.
In many ways The English Room was a fantastic place to devise, it was dry, clean and relatively warm; it had
electricity, a music system and ducks to gaze at in times of trouble. There were refreshments and toilets downstairs
along with friendly faces in the corridors. The Arts Centre was helping us make art.
In 1997 we acquired some flashy video editing kit and business had become brisk enough for us to need an administrator.
Operating out of my bed-sit was no longer a viable option and once again MAC stepped in to provide. Geoff Sims, then
the centre’s Director, graciously rented us a converted toilet as the first proper Stan office. It was cheap, secluded
and very warm; it gave us access to accounts on both the venue’s photocopier and franking machine as well as unofficial
access to a guillotine, laminator, binder and other exotic office hardware. In moving into MAC we also moved into a
supportive community. MAC’s staff were almost universally friendly, welcoming and helpful, always up for a bit of banter
and distraction. Other resident companies enriched things further. Geese Theatre
, who work within the prison and probation
services, had an office across the landing. Caliche’s South American rhythms drifted
up from the office bellow. Craig
Denston’s fantastical puppet and mask creations were visible hanging in his workshop beside the English Room and below
him SAMPAD had their office. It was an eclectic mix and fun to have around.
As any good Arts Centre should, MAC also introduced us to a nexus of exciting local artists, a number of who would
eventually become our collaborators, including Mark Anderson and Helen Ingham from
Blissbody, Brian Duffy and Robert
Shaw who at the time were Stylophonic and are now, amongst other things
The Modified Toy Orchestra
and Mighty Math respectively, Jony Easterby and Pram.
Key to making these connections was performance programmer Alan James, who
went on to become Head of Contemporary Music at the Arts Council and is now an independent producer.
Alan’s first passion was music so he had a good ear, but he’d had experience in theatre so his eye wasn’t bad either
and when he got the programming job he set about building a strong knowledge of contemporary dance. Alan’s programming
was strong but inevitably hemmed in by alternative demands on MAC’s performance spaces and it was perhaps as producer
that he had his greatest impact, bringing together people and projects, making things happen. From our perspective this
era of MAC’s history reached its zenith in 1996 with Barclays New Stages helping bring fascinating shows to the venue
and making possible, amongst other things, the major outdoor sonic art event 7/8 of A Second. Through the MAC connection
Alan became a friend of Stan’s Cafe. He introduced us to much of the music that acts as our mental soundtrack to those
years, including Biosphere, whose haunting Substrata played throughout early rehearsals for Simple Maths. In a personnel
shake up that re-jigged many things at MAC Alan’s post disappeared and he moved on to produce the Forward festival for
Birmingham City Council, which commissioned Good and True and the Revolutions event for which he had the vision to
commission The Black Maze.
Of course like all children (adopted or otherwise) the time came for us to leave home. We’d grown too big for our room.
We wanted our own identity, clearly distinct from our parents. In rehearsals wanted freedom to stay up late, play loud
music, throw parties and make a terrible mess. We’ve pretty much lived in squats since then and it’s mostly been foul
and uncomfortable, but we couldn’t have made any of the last theatre shows at MAC so the bold move has been vindicated.
We have made way for others to be nurtured and of course we’ve returned regularly with any show that will fit.
So far the story sounds like one of a parasite and its host, a simple leach dynamic, but hopefully the true tale
is closer to one of symbiosis. Our collaborations with the Education Department suited both parties and our theatre
shows and video made with Stage2, then the venue’s Youth Theatre were great successes. When MAC sent us on our first
foreign gig, to Theatre95, Cergy-Pontois in 1994, we acted as ambassadors and advocates for the venue and we played
that role for many years and even now, long after we ceased to be resident, we continue to feel that loyalty.
Co-producing The Cleansing Of Constance Brown with MAC off-site as the last ever performance in their long running
annual Moving Parts season was a privilege and an echo of our relationship staging our crazily ambitious show Canute
The King, in Moseley Road Swimming Baths with the heroic Simon Gowan amongst the MAC staff who helped make happen what
should never have happened.
And so we reach 6th April, 2008. MAC is closing for its refit. All the staff, many of whom we have known for over a
decade, are being made redundant and dispersed. We were are in at the close with Dance Steps, a commission to mark the
occasion, an installation to take visitors to a dozen different corners of the building, to tell the tale of how the
building has staged key scenes in many people’s lives. It may well not have been all things to all people, but it has
been an enormous number of things for Stan’s Cafe amongst others, a true centre for the arts.
There will now be an intermission, let’s hope the second act lives up to the first
James Yarker, October 2007
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