A short talk with slides for SE Change Festival

Essay Talk/Lecture  

University of British Columbia, 21 July 2022

In the next ten minutes. I want to talk to you about our performance installation Of All The People In All The World, put it in the wider context of our theatre company Stan’s Cafe and consider what we’re doing in a festival of social change.

I started Stan’s Cafe with my friend Graeme in 1991. We agreed to form a theatre company while eating a full English Breakfast in Stan’s Cafe. A caff is like a diner, it’s good value, it’s unpretentious, it’s outside fashion, everyone is welcome. For all these reasons it’s important to us that we are Stan’s Cafe not Stan’s Café – an altogether different place.

We formed the company wanting to make the kind of theatre we ourselves would like to see. We wanted to work collaboratively devising work between us rather than having any playwright living or dead tell us what to say and do. We wanted to pursue interesting ideas wherever they took us even if the result may not look very much like theatre.

I’m going to leap forward in time to 1998. For reasons we haven’t time to go into now, we made a theatre show called It’s Your Film which, to our surprise was a great hit. We were surprised because It’s Your Film is was just 270 seconds long, is designed to be watched by one person at a time and looks like a film despite being performed live.

Suddenly we were being invited to perform in theatre festivals around Europe. As someone who had grown up on and never left the small island of Great Britain this experience gave me a kind of agoraphobia an existential panic. Suddenly the world was so much bigger than I had ever imagined. Suddenly needed to know how many people I shared this planet with in order to understand my place in the world. I looked up the number


and it turned out that there is a difference between knowing the number and knowing the number.

I thought seeing that many objects would help. The objects needed to be small and cheap, of a regular size and easy to handle. Rice worked well. The only draw back was by my calculation we needed 104 ton of the stuff to see the world’s population. However, by a happy mathematical chance the population of the UK at the time could be accurately represented by a round 1 ton. So we bought a ton of rice.

By this point my thinking had moved on. I was still interested in the big pile of rice, but I’d been listening to a radio programme about babies in the UK prison system. There were 34 of them, they were there not because they had committed a crime but their mothers had. I wondered how many women were in prison. I knew there we many more men in prison but I didn’t know that number either or the ratio. Come to that, how many prison officers were there guarding the prisoners, how many judges were sentencing them and how many police officers were there running around trying to catch them. I realised we could subtract all these mini piles from the big pile and the show would be exponentially more interesting.

It was only once the show was in performance that we realised we could tell stories and jokes, that we could make people laugh and cry just with rice sat on sheets of paper, such is the power of the human imagination and its tendency towards empathy.

Within two years we had our world scale version of the show at Theater De Welt in Stuttgart, then we were performing in arts centres and former shop units and cathedrals around the world.

It’s a flexible tool, we have made versions with children as part of our education programme. People say the show teaches them about the world and calls them to action but it’s not intended to do that, it’s just us scratching an itch.

We have extended the idea to address animal statistics. My favourite being Albert 2nd the first monkey in space. We’ve taken the 1 to 1 scale idea to address carbon trading in the context of climate change and we’ve taken a range of scales to a banquet of statistics with Christ the King Primary School in Birmingham.

Following our Carbon Trading show Theatre Bonn commissioned us to make somethingn for when a climate change conference came to their city. The resultant sculpture recreates a range of banners from 100 years of protest history. You’ll notice the banners aren’t all about climate change, for us that is too direct. When we are asked to create theme editions of Of All The People In All The World we like to approach the theme from all kinds of angles and include material that isn’t connected with the theme at all. We are not interested in ‘telling people what to think’, we don’t make propaganda, we probably prefer asking questions to answering them, or if we do answer a question we like ask a follow up – if this is that where does that lead us?

Our work is eclectic, but it is possible pull themes together from across the work. One is that we resist the notion of a single master narrative, unified perspective or truth. When we attend theatre we don’t like being patronised, spoon fed or bored – we like to be stretched and given work to do, so we try and put those qualities in the theatre we make

You can see Of All The People In All The World as a series of fragmentary narratives that prompt questions and rather than providing closure open up questions. Similarly the stage show Home of the Wriggler tells fragmentary stories of dozens of characters orbiting around the decommissioning of Birmingham’s Longbridge Car Plant.

If you have sharp eyesight you can see the names on the backdrop of the show on this slide.

The Cleansing of Constance Brown looks 14m down a 2m wide corridor at people coming and going across time and space. The audience infers events that are happing in the rooms opening off this corridor. These are corridors of power and our attention is drawn to women in proximity or possession of this power. There is no linear narrative. The audiences are left thinking, the show resonating with them for days after. Despite, maybe because of this many people describe this as one of their favourite shows of all time.

This slide points up another Stan’s Cafe trope, a proclivity to focus on those rarely seen on centre stage. We are given time to be with a cleaner as she sweeps shredded paper from the corridor. Of All The People In All The World embodies those who are often invisible.

This tendency is taken to a further extreme in another of our most popular projects. The Commentators are sports commentators who describe the most minuscule details of every day life as if it is very important.

This idea did not leap fully informed into existence. It span off from a 24 Hour slot car race we ran and which we turned into art by providing a 24 hour commentary on it and streaming it live over the internet. They were so popular that they have been spun off to commentate on the opening of the Library of Birmingham, the Moseley Folk Festival, Birmigham Royal Ballet and with children in school again.

We love working in schools with children and teachers as collaborators. Most recently our show Precious Emily made for Birmingham2022 Festival celebrating the commonwealth games was inspired by the lives of extraordinary weightlifters, Precious McKenzie and Emily Campbell. This followed in the footsteps of Any Fool Can Start A War, which was a history of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

We love working in schools we do it because we love it, not because we’re told to. We are lucky enough to receive support from Arts Council England. They are a


The acronym stands for QUasi Non-Governmental Organisation. Arts Council England seems ever more quasi – Definition ‘apparently, not really’. Increasingly we are being asked how we are ‘serving our community’. What is our utility? How do we justify the money the state invests in us? In the UK there are ever more fervent moves to ‘involve’ audiences, to get them to ‘participate’. Companies are encouraged to ask audiences what they want and then give that to them..

I resist it all. Do you want a 270 second long theatre show you watch on your own? Do you want to look at a room full of statistics converted into rice? Do you want someone to describe everyday life to you in absurd detail? You’d probably never volunteer this as what you’re after, if you were asked if it’s what you want you’d probably say ‘NO’ but our experience is that when people encounter these visions realised their answer is ‘YES, YES, YES’.

Are we instruments of government? This is a festival investigating Social and Economic Change, what Social Change does our government really want? I know what we want. We want to improve people’s lives by giving them amazing theatre to experience.

Shows we have coming up are tours of textile river maps for performances in parks, this one is The Thames and this one is the Volga.

All Our Money which is a dramatisation of Birmingham City Council’s budget setting process. The City Council love this idea but we’re motivated by our own curiosity and the challenge of making this unpromising subject matter into brilliant theatre.

Although we are a theatre company, thanks to lockdown you can see a little of our work online. The Anatomy Of Melancholy is our adaptation of a 400 year old 1500 page self-help book about how to avoid the ferrel disease of melancholy, which we have turned into 35 short video episodes.

The video adaptation is an adaptation of our stage adaptation. Which we undertook as the result of a challenge from a Serbian festival director who suggested we were the only theatre company in the world he could imaging adapting his favourite book for the stage.

The only piece we have devised from scratch especially for the online world is For Quality Purposes about our relationship with people who try to help us via telephone call centres.

There are accounts of all the many shows we have made since the beginning of recorded time on our new website, which launched yesterday.

So here we are, in 2022. Thirty one years since that fateful fry up.

We’re making the kind of theatre we would like to see ourselves. We’re still working collaboratively devising work pursuing interesting ideas wherever they take us.

We are members of many, many communities – here today maybe guests in your community or members of the global community. We serve you by doing what we’re best at, making the best theatre we can.

James Yarker, 21 July, 2022