Stan's Cafe: Education

Stan's Cafe: Education

Stan’s Cafe’s education work started mostly devising theatre shows with kids. These pieces are attempts to create theatre that the pupils have a strong sense of ownership overand which we are proud of as professional artists. The aim is to allow the material to be the pupil’sown work, shaped and refined by our skill and experience. Whilst we guide children through the devisingprocess we aim never to fully shelter them from the rigours of devising. The richness of the experienceis in the making; the presentation is merely a reward. We look to create pieces with young peoplethat play to their strengths but still stretch them. We always devise shows that are true ensemblepieces with no stars and everyone forced to work for each other in order to make the piece effective.

Early examples of these large scale ensemble devised pieces were: When In The Future They Look Back On Us (1992) which looked at the present through the prism of historic events with The Emmbrook School in Wokingham and No Walls Just Doors (1997) which wasa wordless piece about opportunities and alternative futures, devised with forty young people from Stage 2 Youth Theatre.

Offers started coming in to lecture and devise shows with University Theatre Studies students. Being part the participant’s formal education, these projects bring with them extra responsibilitiesfor allowing all students more autonomy and more chance to shine. What doesn’t change is the thrill of being able to explore new ideas with new people usually with numbers that you wouldn’t get to work with outside the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Early examples of these undergraduate shows were Nightshifting(1998), a twelve hour-long show running through the night, Make Like You Believe (1999), an extraordinarily mixed up version of Star Wars, and District 12 (2002), a web of stories told almost entirely in hundreds of still images.

Around the Millennium our education work shifted emphasis as the demand increased for video projects. Video is more fashionable than theatre and as the kit grew cheaper the possibility of young people making their own videos became extremely attractive for schools, youth groups and the youth services.We found creating video projects in education settings very demanding. The time consuming, technical and hierarchical nature of film making made it a challenge for us to construct working methods that allowed us to stick to our guiding principles of individual expression, ensemble playing and active hands-on learning.

A series of week-long courses created a variety of short videos, not great works of art but often formally innovative and embodying the ethos of our education work. Amongst these were Wright Brother,about a boy whose friends foolishly doubt his ability to fly, Brief Case, following a bag which contains a dark secret, and £14.99, in which a group of friends try to raise money for a pizza. A longer form piece In The Space Provided was made of a series of Saturdays with Stage 2.

The path of our education work has usually be determined by invitations that come our way. In 2002 we were invited to create an animation and documentary video project with Foxhollies Special School, which was the our first experience of working with children with moderate and severe learning disabilities. It was a wonderful example of exchanging skills as the teachers at Foxhollies taught us about working with their students, and we taught them (and ourselves) how to make animation. The resultant piece was called Head to Head and followed an orange idea as it waspassed, head to head, around the pupils. The spoof Making Of documentary Foxhollywood was nominated for a First Light award.

2002 was also the year of our first encounter with Creative Partnerships. We were commissioned to create a teacher training event that explored the importance of risk taking in the creative process. This orienteering adventure round Birmingham City Centre has been run regularly ever since and has spread to Nottingham, Bristol, London, Sheffield, Leicester and most recently, Stoke-on-Trent. Teaching teachers seems like a particularly power way of touching people’s lives.

Two years later Creative Partnerships Birmingham, through Craftspace Touring, commissioned the project which became School Rulers. Working with under performing Year 8 pupils and starting from a questionnaire asking “what ten things would you most like to change about the school” together created ten separate art works each addressing one concern.

We transformed the Canteen and lunchtime experience with a performance.
We transformed the uniform with a sewing machine.
Made funhouse mirrors for the corridors.
We made a piece of video art about detention.
We built models of new wonder chairs.
Virtually redesigned the school on a computer.
We blew up the school with pyrotechnics and photography.
We tested the rules with rulers.
We re-jigged the timetable using abstract art.
And we recruited new staff.

The upshot was a permanently changed canteen layout, a bunch of kids with hugely raised self-esteemand a beautiful publication to cement this transformation.

In 2004 we won a Pulse Award from the Wellcome Trust to adapt our hit performance installation Of All The People In All The World into a performance for and by Year 8 and 9 pupils about, amongst other things, epidemiology and vaccinations. This simple show uses grains of rice in piles to represent provocative population statistics. This piece, which became called PlagueNation, has been performed in five schools, twice through the science departments, once via drama and once we just seemed to hoover up all the troubled kids in a couple of year groups and ended up with them on local television.

Our education work is in constant dialogue with the rest of the company’s work. It is with the twin shows Plague Nation and Of All The People In All The World that the company fuses. This year a team of students flew from Frankley to join young people from Germany to perform the show with us in Leipzig.

Impressed with the quality and imaginative breadth of our education work Creative Partnerships engaged us to guide a cluster of five schools through a creative journey over a three year period. With these schools we have been able to stretch our artistic reach across the curriculum, acknowledging that learning outcomes from creative work are various, rich and have a healthy disregard for subject boundaries.

These five schools have created a whole school Circus Parade, pod-casts, built and flown kites, started an allotment in the playground, made animations and a photographic and sound installation.

Our reputation in cross-disciplinary, cross-subject working has led to us being approached to help a number of schools in their transition to project working in Year 7. Amongst these we have returned to Castle Vale to teach teachers how to deliver Stan’s Cafe work to their students and to help them write it into their schemes of work. We were invited into St. Alban’s School to do an eight day prototype project centred on the idea of a Sustainable School. This project extended the School Rulers model by attempting to focus all elements of the student’s timetable in the project,addressing the notion of a Sustainable School from the various perspectives of Maths, Science, Humanities, Music, English, even, at a stretch, Modern Foreign Languages.

Whilst we still conduct individual workshops and lectures supporting our theatre shows or promoting Stan’s Cafe in general, our favourite form of engagement with the world of educationis one in which we work with teachers and pupils over an extended period exploring new artistic ideas collaboratively and making a real difference to people’s lives.

James Yarker
December 2006