Stan's Cafe: Education

Stan's Cafe: Education

Stan’’s Cafe’’s education work started mostly devising theatre shows with young people. These pieces are attempts to create theatre that the pupils have a strong sense of ownership over and which we are proud of as professional artists. Our aim is to allow the material to be the pupil’s’ own work, shaped and refined by our skill and experience. Whilst we guide children through the devising process we aim never to fully shelter them from the rigours of devising. The richness of the experience is 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 ensemble pieces 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 was a wordless piece about opportunities and alternative futures, devised with forty young people from Stage 2 Youth Theatre in Birmingham.

Offers started coming in to lecture and devise shows with students studying theatre at universities. As part of a student’s formal education, these projects bring with them extra pressure to ensure students have more autonomy and more chances to shine. What doesn’’t change is the thrill of being able to explore new ideas with new people, usually with cast sizes that you wouldn’’t get to work with outside the Royal Shakespeare Company or the West End!

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 became 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 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 over 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 stop frame animation. The resultant piece was called Head to Head and followed an orange idea as it was passed, 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. It is now called A City Adventure. We like teaching teachers, it seems like a particularly powerful way of changing student’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 we 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 students with hugely raised self-esteem and 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 Plague Nation, was been performed in five schools, twice working with science departments, once with a drama department and once we just seemed to hoover up all the troubled kids in a couple of year groups and ended up with them appering on local television.

Our education work is in constant dialogue with the rest of the company’’s work. As when 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 address all elements of the student’s timetables 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 education is 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

Post Script

A lot has changed since December 2006. We continued making novel and ambitious projects in schools with the support of Creative Partnerships until that scheme was scrapped immediately after the 2010 General Election delivered a change of government. At this point we switched our focus from one of projects in numerous schools to long term relationships with a few schools. Our approach is now to talk with senior leaders to identify key school improvement goals that we can help address via our artistic input. These may be curriculum issues, pastoral issues, teacher training issues or challenges of school profile or moral. Once relationships of trust are developed we can also be called in to address smaller problems, challenges or opportunities.

Our first recruit was Billesley Primary School who applied to work with us when they were in special measures and seven years later were juded to be ‘Outstanding’ in all OFSTED criteria. You can catch up with lots of our work with them via this link. Shortly afterwards we recruited Saltely Academy as our first partner secondary school. You can catch up with lots of our work with them via this link.

In recent years we have received an award from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Teacher Development fund which helped us run The Classroom Stage, though which we worked with ten schools from across Birmingham for two years.

The Birmingham2022 Festival celebrating The Commonwealth Games commissioned us to devise ten different versions of a show Precious Emily, about the lives of weightlifters Precious McKenzie and Emily Campbell, with ten primary schools around the city. An eleventh version of the show took scenes and students from all ten shows to make an gala performance for families, friends, Emily and Precious.

As of Autumn 2023 we are working with The Elliot Foundation – a multi-academy trust – on an Arts Council England funded Creative Collaboratives initiative with multiple schools across the west midlands, including George Betts Primary which whom we made Birmingham Blitz to address Year 4’s Local History topic.

James Yarker
October 2023