Stan's Cafe: A Theatre Company

Essay Talk/Lecture  
Stan's Cafe: A Theatre Company Image

Notes from a lecture given by James to students at Exeter University on October 25th 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 questions, 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 Exeter 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 [1].

That was me and some of it may well have been you. To be honest it’s doubtful that, nowadays, I would not 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 ideatheatre could be fantastic. Through this and them and then others [2], 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. Somewherein this big bang time the eventual formation of Stan’s Cafe became inevitable.

OK, at this point there are a series of options for how to proceed, after thirteen years the time of the show-by-show, ‘and then we did this’ talk are over, it would take us days.I thought it may be fun to use a small number of projects to illustrate a few key points.They are practical thoughts as they are aimed to help you think about making great theatre,rather than writing excellent essays. Maybe it is important to start from first principles; as I can’t imagine any of you will have already heard of Stan’s Cafe. We make our own original work. This is one of the thrills of theatre, the immediacyof it, all you need is you and some mates in a spare room and without anyone’s ‘by your leave’ you can soon be knocking up some seriously contemporary action. Your thing takes shape, like a sculpture, in front of your eyes.We didn’t want to bring anyone else’s vision or voice to the stage; it had to be original. Which means it’s difficult to sell, but exciting to make.We make this original work collaboratively, by devising [3].

Next up: We do what we want to do. We believe it’s liberating being a theatre company. It’s a mongrel form already, so why not cross-fertilize it some more. Whyrestrict yourselves? If you have a good idea it should be pursued, no matter what the media. You arrived to Love List, a track from our CD Pieces for the Radio: Volume 1. The text is a ‘found object’, who can work out where it wasfound? [4]

A flip side of ‘doing what you want to do’ entails being open about what you think you might want to do. We were asked to make a piece for the Birmingham Wolverhampton Metro Line. 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.

On 18th November the latest Stan’s Cafe project that ‘proper’ theatre companies shouldn’t do comes on line. a website celebrating, reviewing and promoting domestic festive light displays round Birmingham and The Black Country. Check it out.

It’s probably time to turn to what Stan’s Cafe does inside the theatre, as this is both where we have our origins and remains, in sentiment if not in action, at the heart what we are.

I find it difficult to see patterns in what we do when we’re doing it, but as time passes gaining perspective becomes easier. Possibly because of the political climate of the early nineties,possibly because be were young and still trying to workout who we were and what we may end up doing, early shows seemed to be big on issues of personal identity.

Memoirs of An Amnesiac was a very early show. Graeme, who I founded the company with, and his mate Rick had talked about doing ashow about the highly influential, highly eccentric French composer Erik Satie for years. Graeme would act; Rick would play the piano and now I would direct. I wasn’t comfortable with Graeme pretending to beErik Satie, but I was happy for Graeme to play Eric Smith, a lonely Satie obsessive who would, in turn, occasionally pretend to be Erik Satie. The layering of this device opened theshow up so it could be more playful, it could take on ideas about obsession, biography, loneliness and identity (of course), as well as Erik Satie.

Now the Estonian composer Arvo Part moved from composing ‘percussion section pushed down stairs modernism’, to achingly beautiful settings of religious texts for voice and strings, I can’t see any connection between the two, but maybe musicologists can. It seems an artist’s DNA is fixed and readable in everything they do. Certainly Memoirs of an Amnesiac had loads of what were to be come Stan’s Cafe traits: a lose hold on narrative; a belief in the power of words; a belief in a theatre way beyond words [5] ;an unabashed make ’em laugh make ’em cry belief in moving people; and an interest in exploring the formal possibilities of theatre.

Memoirs of an Amnesiac was followed up by two more conspicuously identity themed shows, one about the nature of responsibility, kingship, marriage and sacrifice (Canute The King ); the other inspired by notionsof artificial intelligence (Bingo in the House of Babel).

I would briefly like to return to this notion of exploring the formal possibilities of theatre. This seems like an entirely trivial point now, but I was rocked back on my heels by the notion that a thing has form as well as content. For some reason I had a really tough time getting my head round the idea that a form might exist, waiting for content to fill it, like a balloonwaiting to be pumped with helium, or air, or water, orfarts. I’m not sure that’s a great example. Maybe better to say a pantomime, the formal structure is there, including the interval in which to flog kids ice-creams, we’re just waiting for the appropriate fairytale to fill that pantomime form out with content. An even earlier Stan show, Perry Como’s Christmas Cracker looked atwhat would happen if you tried to use the content of a Nativity Play to fill the form of a Pantomime (maybe you should complete the diptych and make a Nativity Play with Jack and the Beanstalk as it’s content). I’ll probably get into terribletrouble for simplifying the whole Form and Content thing in such a dangerous way, but you get the idea.

Stan’s Cafe sometimes starts with a formal idea and tries to find the appropriate content to fill (or stretch) it; maybe Space Station is a good example of this. On other occasions, such as with Memoirs of an Amnesiac, we start with an idea for content and must look for the optimal form in which to presentit. As you will have gathered by now this may involve developing new forms of theatre, or we may not find the answer within theatre at all. Usually shows are formed from many ideas coalescing, fragments of content, staging ideas, formal interests and oftenresponses to the previous show (the last one was dialogue heavy, let’s make the next one silent).

In 1996 I was reading Tom Wolf’s The Right Stuff and thinking about Apollo missions. I was interested in ideas of gravity and orbit, how people are attracted to and circle around each other, I was thinking about the difference between being very close and touching, I was thinking of a steel mesh floor with festoon light bulbs underneath it. I was thinking of a show where performers whisper on radio-mics and can be heard abovea roaring soundtrack. We were looking to make a show that was unitary rather than episodic. We were interested in a show that would be quite, after the stresses of making Voodoo City and Graeme leaving Stan’s Cafe I wanted to make a two-hander.

Much of our early rehearsing tends to involve my setting improvisation tasks or games for the performers and them creating more or less inspired material out of it and us editing and re-improvising and structuring andwriting from this. For Ocean of Storms I had set up a game where Amanda and Sarah sat opposite each other eachwith a big pile of cards in front of them, each card carried an idea for a character, they were to speak to each other as if on the telephone (I was interested that with the telephone the person you are speaking to is far away, but their mouth is also very close to your ear). This rather pedestrian improvisation was plodding along in an uninspired way until somehow possibly around a coffee break, the cards seemed to go out of sequence and conversations started cropping up between people who were not expected to talk to each other. Those conversations were fun, funny and sometimes touching, but more powerful were the moments when the performers were grapplingto make sense of who they were and what their relation was to the other speaker. This slippage between voices and characters was the breakthrough we had been looking for.

The show based on interlocking texts, initially with half telephone conversationsmeshing and drifting apart, creating new narratives in their different combinations, and later with the introduction of an astronaut and her mission controller. All of these voices a channelled through the two performers who act as kind of satellite angels searching for asmall girl lost in the city trying to find her way home.

This manufactured change discovery became the start of a new phase of Stan’s Cafe work. Interlocking texts, ambiguous slippages in narratives, multiple narrative combining and building to make a larger narrative. As always leaving space for audiences to think creatively and watch actively.

In Be Proud Of Me you will see 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 showwould 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 themto 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 an off became difficult. To give the piece some colour and pace wehad 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 probably best not to tell you too much more about Be Proud Of Me, so that you can experience it with some degree of autonomy. If you have any questions about it afterwards maybe you should e-mail those questions in via the website’s feedback page

I hope you enjoy the show.


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.

3. Pedants amongst those already anal enough to revisit this text on may, with nasal whines, sneer what about The Carrier Frequency.Well done them, high 2.1s all round. In 1999 we spent two weeks recreating this seminal Impact Theatre / Russell Hobanshow from video. It’s a fair cop, we just wanted to see what this show may have really been like. The Carrier Frequency

4. If you know roughly what I mean by Found Object, but don’t know the art reference check the godfather Marcel Duchamp.

5. DO NOT use the nauseating and meaningless phrase ‘Total Theatre’ in connection with Stan’s Cafe, it So Totally Sucks [sic].