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 and 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 BabyBird), Lee 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 banterand 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 belowhim 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 loudmusic, 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 theoccasion, 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