Stan's Cafe and Politics
Coventry University's Centre for Media, Art and Performance commissioned a talk about
Stan's Cafe and the place of politics in its work. This is the text from which
that talk was extemporized.
This evening, for the first time, I have been asked to talk about Stan’s Cafe
and our relationship with politics. I'm excited about this talk because I've never
been asked to give it before and because it's not an easy thing to address. I'm not
going to attempt a complete and coherent picture, there is no single story to tell.
Here I am going to toss out a host of ideas, the stimulus and primer material
for a future PhD thesis.
As with many patterns the picture of the Political Stan's Cafe can
only be discerned from a distance. Time has given me the distance to
see a picture that was initially obscured to me. What time can never give
is the distance of an external perspective, so this account will not be
definitive and should only ever be read in conjunction with this yet to be
written - yet to be started - PhD thesis.
At Lancaster University, when key yearly members of Stan's Cafe were studying
Theatre in the late (very late) eighties and gaining our degrees in the
(admittedly very early) nineties there was an awful lot of politics happening,
but not much of it to us. Thatcherism had pummelled vast swathes of Britain,
including the Coal Miners, to a pulp, Neil Kinnock had shown Labour's Militant
Tendency the door, the Cold War was over, the Berlin Wall had come down, Nelson
Mandela was packing his bags, as was Margaret Thatcher. Apathy seemed like a
viable option to most. The threat of student loans galvanized some, but didn't
look like the stuff of great theatre. Similarly Section 28, which made it
illegal for Local Authorities to 'promote Homosexuality', was cause to protest
- and we did - but not from the stage. In truth, maybe I was slightly jealous
of my Gay friends, a bit of persecution at least gives you a stimulus, something
to respond to, as white, heterosexual, middle-class, male I was clearly on
the up side of any social injustice that was going not a hint of persecution
there - poor me!
EARLY STAN'S CAFE
Identity politics felt theatrically hot in the hands of Gay artists
at this time, particularly with DV8 recently having wowed so many of
our contemporaries with their show
Dead Dreams of Monocrome Men.
Looking back on the first three proper Stan's Cafe shows it is clear
that identity was more broadly a thing to grapple with at this time.
Maybe just for me, as almost a late adolescent, trying to find a place
in the world, a voice of my own.
Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1992) was a simple show that sounds complicated. Graeme
and Rick wanted to do a show about the eccentric and very private French
composer Erik Satie. I was uncomfortable about Graeme pretending to be Erik
Satie, but happy about him pretending to be Eric Smith pretending to be Erik
Satie who, by the end of the show is pretending to be his hero, the Greek
Philosopher Socrates. It's a show about obsession, hero worship and loneliness.
It's essentially a one-man show and a lot funnier than it sounds.
Canute the King (1993) was a two hander in which Graeme plays the eponymous hero
who is an amalgam of the Canute of legend, Edward VIII and Prince Charles
(whose marriage at the time was in deep crisis). He is facing up to the
responsibilities as king and husband.
Bingo in the House of Babel (1994), was made after I'd been reading up a lot
on artificial intelligence and so attempts to poke around in the heart
of what makes us humans and who we are. It is set in the section of the
Einstein Brain Library which answers the question, would Einstein like a
cup of tea or coffee.
I was aware at this time of voices criticizing the new generation of theatre
companies (including us) for being a-political. From my perspective leaving
university at 21, starting a professional theatre company and putting our work
out in public to be shot at was scary and difficult enough without trying to
solve the problems of the world through these shows as well.
On reflection l think it could be argued that as artistic outsiders we could
be deemed alternative voices of resistance. Our non-linear, anti-Aristotelian
aesthetic meant we were refusing to reinforce the mainstream and instead were
promoting the possibility of alternative ways of looking at the world and
alternative value systems. Maybe just setting out to be not-for-profit
theatre artists working collaboratively generating original work about
living in the contemporary world could, in itself be read as a political
act. As could the fact that even now that we are a successful theatre company,
who could spend all year working on our own work, we still chose to work in
schools with young children, helping them gain the creative confidence and
skills they will require to fend for themselves successfully in the future.
MID-AGE STAN'S CAFE
Your PhD thesis could then argue that as Stan's Cafe, as grew in
experience, confidence and numbers it started to move on from identity
as a dominant theme and move into a phase in which we looked to disrupt
transactions between audience and performers more dramatically. We were
aware that Roland Barthes had already announced the 'Death of the Author'
and happily embraced the notion that the reader of a text shares in its
creation. The theatre we had been making always left philosophical space
for the audience to fill. The stories that we told audiences, almost
precisely because they weren't stories, were never completed by us, but
left open for interpretation, speculation and appropriation by the audience.
In Simple Maths (1997) pushed this idea to new extremes. We refused to dictate what
action is worthy of an audiences attention, where they should look, or what
any stories within the piece might be. As the title hints, the mechanics of
Simple Maths is driven by a mathematical process rather than the vision of a
writer. Such stories as emerge from the performance do so from the audience's
interpretation of - or fictional projection on to - sequences of mathematically
The audiences' physical and fictional relationship with the show is
challenged in It's Your Film (1998) where, watching voyeuristically through
a rectangular aperture they see a live performance that pretends to be
a film and ultimately reminds the witness that they have been watching
a live performance and that they are fictionally cast in the performance
as the third protagonist. In the piece's final scene they act as audience
to their own performance. They are both witness and protagonist in their
own live action film.
By way of extension, The Black Maze (2000) places audience members within
the set on their own without any performers. They are tasked with navigating
a twisting dark corridor of visual, aural and tactile effects, challenged
with passing through hidden doors and finding a fabled ‘corridor full of
stars'. On their journey they become the main protagonist in - and witness
to - their own adventure story.
This strand of work has recently been extended with Dance Steps (2008),
commissioned by MAC in which audience members, alone or in groups, follow
a series of vinyl instructions, foot prints, hand prints, script fragments
and of the icons, pasted around the arts centre and in so doing act our a
series of narrative incidents.
This sense of disrupting hierarchies makes me think of Carnival and
Festive Days on which the high are made low and the low high. Between
days of festival it falls to the Jester to stand outside convention and
problematise the mundane to make us look at it afresh. This playful impulse
lies behind the projects I have just mentioned and a series of small commissions
made around the same time. Most specifically Space Station (2002) in which
astronauts waiting at a new station provoke startled reactions on the
Worlverhampton - Birmingham metro line. Also in Broadway Hertz (2003) in
which sounds from throughout the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham were remixed
in a broom cupboard off the main foyer. Inside sounds from the Gents toilets,
the box office telephone conversation and a motion picture screening would
often be mixed together in the same space, stripped of their hierarchy.
MATURE STAN'S CAFE.
Although Of All The People In All The World was first made in 2003 it
is more tidy if we think of it starting not the week after Broadway Hertz
opened, but in 2005 with the first World Version, presented in Stuttgart.
Thus we can cluster the company's three most conspicuously political works
within three years of each other and, crucially, after the birth of my daughter.
Being a company living in and working from Birmingham the threatened closure
of the Rover car plant in Longbridge was a powerful and galvanizing event.
To witness the city's response to the threat was highly charged and inspiring.
I knew I wanted to make a show about the plant, globalisation and who so many
people are brought together to make such a small yet complicated object.
Scrolling forward we had only just got our act together to make this
Longbridge show when the rescue deal eventually fell through and he plant
closed. Suddenly our embryonic show was in danger of becoming a wake. Around
the same time I learnt I was to be a father and I suddenly stated looking at
the world, not as my personal playground but party of my legacy. A city with
an uncertain financial future, a globe with an uncertain climate, potentially
heading for disaster. The company we wanted to see stay open, could have been
a success if it made many, many more cars to burn more fossil fuel. Eve,
through her antics in the womb became the wriggler, humans seen from space
through an alien's telescope became the wrigglers and home could be Birmingham
or the Earth and so, with the addition of peddle power lights and sound
Home of the Wriggler (2006) was conceived.
The next chaper of my only-interesting-to-myself book of anecdotes
around being a Dad tells how on learning that Eve was a girl and thus Eve,
not Adam, or whatever other boys name we had lined up, I suddenly started
viewing the world in a new way. I went from associate member of the feminist
movement to a paid up devotee. Suddenly the stuff I had previously known
intellectually I now felt passionately. Thus in
The Cleansing of Constance Brown (2007)
women are placed very carefully and centrally within the show,
always considering how they relate to or hold power in each scene).
Of All The People In All The World neatly sums up Stan's Cafe's
relationsip with politics both now and back in ancient history. The politics
is there and whilst it is very up front on occasions it seeks never to be
proscriptive. It is clearly left of centre but it is not party afilitated.
It is not designed to tell audiences what the correct answer is, just to
provoke them into asking the interesting questions. It isn't party political
but it is inevitably left of centre, in American terminology 'liberal' in its stance.
Ultimately Stan's Cafe is not a political company, but its
inspiration stems from the same set of values that feed the politics
I believe in. I am inspired and have a passion for the vast complexity
of the world, for existence and everything that exists in the world, for
its beauty and the beauty of all the people that live in it. I believe
everyone deserves an equal chance in life and the chance of forgiveness.
Ultimately, through Stan's Cafe, I want to share this passion, this love,
these values with the world.
James Yarker, 19th November, 2008
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