Notes from a lecture given by James to students at Dartington on 1st November, 2004.
I’m James Yarker, director of Stan’s Cafe; which is a theatre company.
I’ve got some questions to ask you. They’re not trick, no one’s going to grass anyone up.
Hands up if you started your Theatre Studies BA not actually liking theatre very much?
Hands up if, at the start of your degree, you thought theatre was rather more fun to act in than to watch.
Hands up, if you thought film superior to theatre.
Hands up, if you started your degree without a Theatre Studies A level: without an English A level.
Hands up if, aside from school plays, your sole experience of theatre prior to Dartington was Basil Brush in Panto, two Gilbert and Sullivan Operettas, Joseph And His Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat and a clutch of arse numbing nights at the back of the top of the back of some theatre in Stratford being ‘Improved’ by Shakespeare. 
That was me and some of it may well have been you. To be honest it’s doubtful that, nowadays, I would be allowed to be you; I was you way back in the mists of 1987 when me being you was probably fairly common.
It sounds like madness, a career advisor’s worst nightmare, but here I am being me, being the director of Stan’s Cafe (which is a theatre company), so maybe someone knew what they were doing back then; if so, it certainly wasn’t me. Anyway, the point is, until I saw Julian Maynard-Smith sawing a wardrobe in half on stage in Station House Opera’s great production Cuckoo I had no idea theatre could be fantastic. Through this and them and then others, I saw that theatre didn’t have to be plodding stories, or people just talking, or actors showing off.  Now theatre didn’t have to be full of coincidences with everything tied up neatly in the end. Until then I thought theatre was either trivial or alien and either way pointless. In a series of blinding moments I saw that theatre could be complicated and playful, moving and provocative and surprising, challenging, ambiguous and genuinely hilarious. Somewhere in this big bang time the eventual formation of Stan’s Cafe became inevitable.
I was asked about a subjective history of Devised Theatre and I suppose that’s it. Maybe it is as well to add the Great Grandfather, you can’t mess with Bertholt Brecht. There’s probably mad Great Uncle Artaud to credit. The thing is, because theatre’s a live medium and devised theatre tends not to leave published scripts in its wake ancestory is more elusive than it is the visual arts. Reading about Laurie Anderson everyone said she was great, so I thought she was great, I’ve now seen two of her shows and frankly I found both of them, at best, dull. Videos can make bad stuff look good and good stuff look bad, you have to be there
The establishment powerbrokers in the Birmingham art scene were beginning to sweat. Back in 1991 they had started a decade long project call Towards The Millennium, the premise of which was that each year of the final decade of the century they would celebrate a decade of the century’s art, concluding in 2000 with a year of newly commissioned works. Sat around the table were major figures from the Birmingham Royal Ballet, The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Birmingham Rep and so on, they were sweating because the time had come for them to all stage major works from the 1980s and no one quite fancied it (remember this was back in a time when the 80s were still grossly unfashionable). It occurred to me that whilst the 1980s were almost yesterday for most of these organisations, for Stan’s Cafe this was our history. So I put up my hand “We could restage The Carrier Frequency“. They all looked blank so I explained that The Carrier Frequency was regularly sited as a seminal piece of physical theatre but that as it was made in 1984, when we were fifteen and deeply un-cool, none of us had seen it. I explained that I knew some of the original company and thought Stan’s Cafe could find a way of restaging it, if they could find the money. They asked how much. I plucked a sum out of the air, they said yes, the money arrived shortly afterwards and we restaged the show. Russell Hoban sent us photocopies of the original text. Graeme Miller re-mastered the original soundtrack, an anonymous friend sourced me an illicit copy of the documentation video and we were on, reshaping the moves of our ancestors.
People ask who Stan’s Cafe’s audience is. I reply, “people who don’t like being told what to think”; though on the evidence of last Monday night I should say “people who don’t mind being told what to watch”. We’re not snobs. I’m desperate for Stan’s Cafe to be seen as mainstream, the only problem is that the mainstream is too inhibited to join us.
The folk in the black roll neck jumpers moved their weight uncomfortably from foot to foot, surreptitiously they checked wallet and mobile phone; they tried to look relaxed whilst not making eye contact. The kids were relaxed, super relaxed, they’d been to an art gallery once before, earlier in the week, to this same gallery, to visit this same piece. They were super relaxed because they knew The Black Maze and had returned with their families and friends.
I’d been to Frontier Land in Morecombe, it was fairly desultory but at the back was an optimistically named House Of Fun. Unexpectedly, within the wobbly floors and bendy mirrors there was section of corridor that got narrower and darker down its length until, at the point where you couldn’t see where you were going, there was a kink forcing you into an unexpected sideward step. The memory of this moment stayed with me. I imagined a piece built entirely on this black corridor premise. In 2000 we got a commission to build The Black Maze. Three of us worked for nine weeks, from sketch pads and graph paper to simple prototypes. We had bespoke switching and sampling devices made so lights and sounds go on and off when people are at different points in the twisting corridors, or when they pass through certain hidden doors.
The Maze was a half anticipated hit and this Live Art weekend at the Site Gallery in Sheffield proved why. The black roll neck jumper crew and the drug rehabilitation program kids had the same unease about stepping into the pitch black unknown and forcing themselves to walk toward nothingness. Depending who you talk The Black Maze is a fairground ride, a sensory art installation or a rite of passage. We havee rebuilt the maze in a 7.5 ton truck, and it now parks up in town squares, parks, playground and beaches. The Maze resists being classified either as ‘high’ or ‘populist’ art.
As The Black Maze shows, we don’t find ourselves restricted to doing what theatre companies are supposed to do. We fell into talking about bad plumbing one day, probably when rehearsals were going through a sticky patch. I recalled how, as a child I had a bed by a radiator and was regularly kept awake by tapings and bangings and gurglings from around the building. Sarah topped this story by saying she had once rehearsed on the second floor of a building and could hear a cello being played in the basement, again through the radiator. An idea was born and almost two years later we saw a festival called Radiator was offering commissions. We took the hint and got the commission. Unfortunately the plumbing in the Broadway Cinema wasn’t bad enough, or wasn’t bad enough in the correct way. We had to try my fallback idea. I’d learnt that certain early baby monitors used the electrical wiring inhouses as the means of transmitting the signal between microphone and speaker. Unfortunately they were difficult to find and the moment you plugged more than one into a circuit all hell broke loose. We were down to emergency plan C. We hired an enormous amount of microphone cabling and bugged the Broadway Cinema in the least subtle way imaginable. Microphones were placed throughout the building and brought together in a mixing desk placed in a cupboard under the stairs. In here the sounds of the building were remixed. This was Broadway Hertz.
As you will have gathered from what you have seen so far, a mantra of ours is “we do what we want to do”. There seems little point in having your own theatre company and then being stuck doing stuff you don’t want to do, especially if it’s only convention that is determining what you do and don’t do.
Of course it is important that you don’t become conventional about what is you think you might want to do. We were asked to make a piece for the Birmingham Ð Wolverhampton Metro Line (think Manchester trams rather than New York metro). My initial reaction was that we don’t want to do ‘that kind of thing’. But the commissioners were insistent so we spent a morning riding the Metro analysing what ‘that kind of thing’ was and why we didn’t want to do it. The answer turned out to be that we didn’t want us pretend to be people we weren’t close up and outside (outside a strong fictional frame), the worst thing of all would be to have to talk to the public as if we weren’t us. The solution was simple, let’s see if you can come up with a similar or better answer.
The result was Space Station, three astronauts waiting patiently for two days on a brand new station Earth North Central, for a connecting service to the moon and planets.
The latest in this line of performance that take place beyond theatres is Of All The People In All The World (UK). For this piece, For this performance so far performed at Warwick Arts Centre and in Birmingham Cathedral, we arrive with 989kg of rice, a grain for everyone in the country. Over the course of three or four days a team of performers carefully measure the rice out into a host of population statistics and place them in labelled piles. The choice of statistics and their positioning in relation to each other is where the piece starts to gain it’s real power. In June Ð July 2005 the whole world version of this piece will be performed, in Stuttgart with 104 tons of rice, over three weeks, in a disused tram shed.
Here we switch our focus to some theatre theatre work. We join the story once it’s well under way, in 1996 with Ocean of Storms. The starting points for this show were varied.
We were enthralled by the history of the Apollo missions, through NASA videos and various books, including Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.
I was seduced by the physics and metaphors of gravity and orbiting; a space capsule orbiting mission control; a child orbiting it’s mother; the 11c bus orbiting Birmingham; a space capsule returning to earth and a photo approaching an eyeball; the difference between being very close and touching.
We were interested in making a unitary rather than section based show. I wanted to make a piece with just Amanda and Sarah on stage. I was also captivated by the idea of a steel mesh stage with festoon lights under it.
As part of the rehearsal process we were playing with phone calls. I was intrigued that you could be sixty miles from someone on land and not feel far away, but sixty miles up and you’re in space, a long way away. In my mind there was a connection between this and a telephone collapsing distance; a mouth from far away now held close to your ear. I had set up a series of phone calls for Sarah and Amanda to work through. They each had a pile of cards in front of them saying who they were, all the cards were paired, everything was working smoothly (and hence unexcitingly) when some glitch mean the cards got out of sequence. Suddenly the improvisations became difficult and confused, wires were crossed, people where talking to people they should be, they were talking at crossed purposes, conversations and narratives formed briefly before twisting apart. This device became the heart of the show. Into this world of half conversations came the reoccurring figures of an astronaut in a damaged spacecraft and her mission controller. The satellite figures who are mediating all these voices appear to be on a mission, we learn they are attempting to locate a child lost in the city and to somehow bring her home.
HERE YOU WATCHED A SECTION FROM EARLY IN OCEAN OF STORMS.
This manufactured chance discovery became the start of a new phase of Stan’s Cafe work. The next show, Simple Maths, discarded the extended narrative elements and focused instead on the fragmented stories. A game of performers changing chairs was used as the show’s motor, an interference pattern of emotional or physical states lain over the top of this game gave the audience the raw materials to generate narrative readings from what is, in essence, a mathematical process.
HERE YOU LEARNT AND PLAYED THE GAME.
– Five performers and Six chairs in a row.
– A ‘director’ establishes a ‘correct’ order.
– Performers secretly told who they want on their right and left sides.
– Performers enter alone and sits on a random chair.
– Performers take it in turns to move (in the same order as their arrival).
– A move is either to the empty chair or standing up and sitting back down in the current chair.
– No talking allowed and ‘small’ acting preferred.
– Option: hold hands if you have the correct person sat on your correct side.
Good and True was based on a surreal interrogation and gave the audience an easier ride. Here there initially appears to be a single narrative thread but it keeps twisting, unexpectedly, racing off in new directions before being caught and brought back to the core interrogation. This interrogation appears not to be making any progress until, at the close of the piece, an abrupt summing up ties all the threads together in what is almost a mockery of a well plotted detective movie.
HERE YOU SAW A SECTION FROM EARLY IN GOOD AND TRUE.
Hopefully by now, having seen two video clips, performed a bit of sketch of another show and seen all of Be Proud Of Me, you are starting to make some connections. There is development to how we deal with narrative and a sub-plot about the implications of this for the audience.
In Be Proud Of Me you saw a new twist on our exploration of narrative slippage. Here the slippage is in time and space rather than between multiple incomplete narrative strands. There is a single story, but it is radically cut up, rearranged and re-imagined as the central character’s cracks under the stress of a traumatic event.
For Be Proud Of Me we gave ourselves to fairly serious formal constraints, the show would be backed by 160 slide projections and the text would be drawn exclusively from tourist phrase books. We had to learn the rules of how both slides and the books work. It was as if both had their own languages, whose grammar and vocabulary we had to learn. The slide language turned out to be restrained, sombre and dreamlike. The phrase books were either hilariously mad, bland or tortuously metaphoric. Having spent time learning both these languages we then had to try and get them to work with each other. The slides pulled the phrase books into their narcotic dream world, exiling most of the good gags.
The process has been tortuous. Simple things, like bring furniture on and off, became difficult. To give the piece some colour and pace we had to develop a logic in which certain conversations are excused the phrasebook rule. All the time the narrative idea that had helped start the process was been twisted and pulled and reframed to serve the show’s emerging agenda.
It’s possibly been useful my talking about things you’ve not seen, but you know Be Proud Of Me and it can look after itself. For now you’re the academics and I’m the artist. It’s over to you, I’ve done my job.
Good luck and thank you.
James Yarker 1.11.4
1. Of course the tone of this paragraph is harsh. I am in fact indebted to thoughtful parents and a rather excellent Aunt for these generous trips.
2. Name check: Insomnaic & Pete Brooks, Johann Kresnick & The Visual Stage of the Catholic University of Lublin & Forced Entertainment’s 200% and Bloody Thirsty & videos of Pina Bausch, LaLaLa Human Steps and a two part Arena documentary on Robert Wilson that blew everything wide and breathtakingly open.