Stan's Cafe and Politics

Essay Talk/Lecture  
A laughing man agressively smears bright red lipstick over another man's face.

Coventry University’s Centre for Media, Art and Performance commissioned a talk about Stan’s Cafe and the place of politics in its work. This is the text from which that talk was extemporized.

This evening, for the first time, I have been asked to talk about Stan’s Cafe and our relationship with politics. I’m excited about this talk because I’ve never been asked to give it before and because it’s not an easy thing to address. I’m not going to attempt a complete and coherent picture, there is no single story to tell. Here I am going to toss out a host of ideas, the stimulus and primer material for a future PhD thesis.

As with many patterns the picture of the Political Stan’s Cafe can only be discerned from a distance. Time has given me the distance to see a picture that was initially obscured to me. What time can never give is the distance of an external perspective, so this account will not be definitive and should only ever be read in conjunction with this yet to be written – yet to be started – PhD thesis.

At Lancaster University, when key yearly members of Stan’s Cafe were studying Theatre in the late (very late) eighties and gaining our degrees in the (admittedly very early) nineties there was an awful lot of politics happening, but not much of it to us. Thatcherism had pummelled vast swathes of Britain, including the Coal Miners, to a pulp, Neil Kinnock had shown Labour’s Militant Tendency the door, the Cold War was over, the Berlin Wall had come down, Nelson Mandela was packing his bags, as was Margaret Thatcher. Apathy seemed like a viable option to most. The threat of student loans galvanized some, but didn’t look like the stuff of great theatre. Similarly Section 28, which made it illegal for Local Authorities to ‘promote Homosexuality’, was cause to protest – and we did – but not from the stage.


Identity politics felt theatrically hot in the hands of Gay artists at this time, particularly with DV8 recently having wowed so many ofour contemporaries with their show Dead Dreams of Monocrome Men. Looking back on the first three proper Stan’s Cafe shows it is clear that identity was more broadly a thing to grapple with at this time. Maybe just for me, as almost a late adolescent, trying to find a place in the world, a voice of my own.

Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1992) was a simple show that sounds complicated. Graemeand Rick wanted to do a show about the eccentric and very private French composer Erik Satie. I was uncomfortable about Graeme pretending to be Erik Satie, but happy about him pretending to be Eric Smith pretending to be Erik Satie who, by the end of the show is pretending to be his hero, the Greek Philosopher Socrates. It’s a show about obsession, hero worship and loneliness. It’s essentially a one-man show and a lot funnier than it sounds.

Canute the King (1993) was a two hander in which Graeme plays the eponymous hero who is an amalgam of the Canute of legend, Edward VIII and Prince Charles (whose marriage at the time was in deep crisis). He is facing up to the responsibilities as king and husband.

Bingo in the House of Babel (1994), was made after I’d been reading up a lot on artificial intelligence and so attempts to poke around in the heart of what makes us humans and who we are. It is set in the section of the Einstein Brain Library which answers the question, would Einstein like a cup of tea or coffee.

I was aware at this time of voices criticizing the new generation of theatre companies (including us) for being a-political. From my perspective leavinguniversity at 21, starting a professional theatre company and putting our workout in public to be shot at was scary and difficult enough without trying tosolve the problems of the world through these shows as well.

On reflection l think it could be argued that as artistic outsiders we could be deemed alternative voices of resistance. Our non-linear, anti-Aristotelian aesthetic meant we were refusing to reinforce the mainstream and instead were promoting the possibility of alternative ways of looking at the world and alternative value systems. Maybe just setting out to be not-for-profit theatre artists working collaboratively generating original work aboutliving in the contemporary world could, in itself be read as a political act. As could the fact that even now that we are a successful theatre company, who could spend all year working on our own work, we still chose to work in schools with young children, helping them gain the creative confidence and skills they will require to fend for themselves successfully in the future.


Your PhD thesis could then argue that as Stan’s Cafe, as grew in experience, confidence and numbers it started to move on from identity as a dominant theme and move into a phase in which we looked to disrupt transactions between audience and performers more dramatically. We were aware that Roland Barthes had already announced the ‘Death of the Author’ and happily embraced the notion that the reader of a text shares in its creation. The theatre we had been making always left philosophical space for the audience to fill. The stories that we told audiences, almost precisely because they weren’t stories, were never completed by us, but left open for interpretation, speculation and appropriation by the audience.

In Simple Maths (1997) pushed this idea to new extremes. We refused to dictate what action is worthy of an audiences attention, where they should look, or what any stories within the piece might be. As the title hints, the mechanics of Simple Maths is driven by a mathematical process rather than the vision of a writer. Such stories as emerge from the performance do so from the audience’s interpretation of – or fictional projection on to – sequences of mathematically prescribed moves.

The audiences’ physical and fictional relationship with the show is challenged in It’s Your Film (1998) where, watching voyeuristically througha rectangular aperture they see a live performance that pretends to be a film and ultimately reminds the witness that they have been watching a live performance and that they are fictionally cast in the performance as the third protagonist. In the piece’s final scene they act as audience to their own performance. They are both witness and protagonist in their own live action film.

By way of extension, The Black Maze (2000) places audience members within the set on their own without any performers. They are tasked with navigating a twisting dark corridor of visual, aural and tactile effects, challenged with passing through hidden doors and finding a fabled ‘corridor full of stars’. On their journey they become the main protagonist in – and witness to – their own adventure story.

This strand of work has recently been extended with Dance Steps (2008), commissioned by MAC in which audience members, alone or in groups, follow a series of vinyl instructions, foot prints, hand prints, script fragments and of the icons, pasted around the arts centre and in so doing act our aseries of narrative incidents.

This sense of disrupting hierarchies makes me think of Carnival and Festive Days on which the high are made low and the low high. Between days of festival it falls to the Jester to stand outside convention and problematise the mundane to make us look at it afresh. This playful impulse lies behind the projects I have just mentioned and a series of small commissions made around the same time. Most specifically Space Station (2002) in which astronauts waiting at a new station provoke startled reactions on the Worlverhampton – Birmingham metro line. Also in Broadway Hertz (2003) inwhich sounds from throughout the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham were remixed in a broom cupboard off the main foyer. Inside sounds from the Gents toilets, the box office telephone conversation and a motion picture screening would often be mixed together in the same space, stripped of their hierarchy.


Although Of All The People In All The World was first made in 2003 it is more tidy if we think of it starting not the week after Broadway Hertz opened, but in 2005 with the first World Version, presented in Stuttgart. Thus we can cluster the company’s three most conspicuously political works within three years of each other and, crucially, after the birth of my daughter.

Being a company living in and working from Birmingham the threatened closure of the Rover car plant in Longbridge was a powerful and galvanizing event.To witness the city’s response to the threat was highly charged and inspiring. I knew I wanted to make a show about the plant, globalisation and who so manypeople are brought together to make such a small yet complicated object. Scrolling forward we had only just got our act together to make this Longbridge show when the rescue deal eventually fell through and he plantclosed. Suddenly our embryonic show was in danger of becoming a wake. Aroundthe same time I learnt I was to be a father and I suddenly stated looking atthe world, not as my personal playground but party of my legacy. A city with an uncertain financial future, a globe with an uncertain climate, potentially heading for disaster. The company we wanted to see stay open, could have beena success if it made many, many more cars to burn more fossil fuel. Eve, through her antics in the womb became the wriggler, humans seen from space through an alien’s telescope became the wrigglers and home could be Birmingham or the Earth and so, with the addition of peddle power lights and sound Home of the Wriggler (2006) was conceived.

The next chaper of my only-interesting-to-myself book of anecdotes around being a Dad tells how on learning that Eve was a girl and thus Eve, not Adam, or whatever other boys name we had lined up, I suddenly started viewing the world in a new way. I went from associate member of the feminist movement to a paid up devotee. Suddenly the stuff I had previously known intellectually I now felt passionately. Thus in The Cleansing of Constance Brown (2007) women are placed very carefully and centrally within the show, always considering how they relate to or hold power in each scene).

Of All The People In All The World neatly sums up Stan’s Cafe’s relationsip with politics both now and back in ancient history. The politics is there and whilst it is very up front on occasions it seeks never to be proscriptive. It is clearly left of centre but it is not party afilitated.

It is not designed to tell audiences what the correct answer is, just toprovoke them into asking the interesting questions. It isn’t party politicalbut it is inevitably left of centre, in American terminology ‘liberal’ in its stance.

Ultimately Stan’s Cafe is not a political company, but its inspiration stems from the same set of values that feed the politics I believe in. I am inspired and have a passion for the vast complexity of the world, for existence and everything that exists in the world, for its beauty and the beauty of all the people that live in it. I believe everyone deserves an equal chance in life and the chance of forgiveness. Ultimately, through Stan’s Cafe, I want to share this passion, this love, these values with the world.

James Yarker, 19th November, 2008