Once upon a time we were frequently asked questions – here are some of them along with their answers. However a book has been published called Devisint Theatre With Stan’s Cafe and for a long time few people have asked us any new questions. The observant reader will spot that lots of the answers here are old and consequently a bit out of date. We’ll try to get around to sorting this out, but it’s not our top priority at the moment. Sorry (why don’t you buy the book).
Who are Stan’s Cafe?
Stan’s Cafe are a group of artists from a variety of disciplines, though primarily theatre practitioners, working under the artistic direction of James Yarker. The company consists of a core of long term collaborators and a range of associated artists. The line up changes according to the project being worked upon.
For a full list of all the Stan’s Cafe people, past and present, visit our Stan’s Cafe People Page.
Where did the name come from?
Graeme and James agreed to form the company whilst eating at Stan’s Cafe, just off Brick Lane in London.
We wanted an unusual name, but one that wasn’t too aggressive, too posturing, a cheap joke, a bad pun or overly earnest. Station House Opera had always seemed a good name, mainly because they didn’t do opera. So there you go…
Oh yes and it’s pronounced Caff.
Where are you based and why?
Stan’s Cafe was formed when both Graeme and James were pretty rootless. Birmingham was chosen as the company’s base for a number of reasons. Graeme had been brought up here and so knew the city. The place was cheap to live in and easy to tour from. Neither of us knew of any companies resembling the one we wanted to form already in the city. We fancied being big fish in what seemed like a big pond. At that time (1991) Birmingham was in the middle of the enormous civic investment programme that built Symphony Hall, the International Convention Centre and the National Indoor Arena. The city centre resembled a massive building site; plans were afoot for the conversion of the old Birds Custard factory into a centre for artists to work in, Hockley was gaining an identity as a media centre. It seemed like an energetic place to come.
The plan has worked well; we are well established in the city with links in to a range of communities. After five years with an office at MAC, the city’s major arts centre, and a great place to work, we have moved to a former factory unit. This new space combines rehearsal, office and storage space with a dedicated video edit room. We hope to use this space to advance our contribution to developing the city’s artistic community. Our aim is to prevent the drain of talent from here to London and the seaside.
Although the company’s office was in Moseley for many years, it’s heart lay in the neighbouring area of Balsall Heath. The clash of cultures, impoverished means and surreal spectacle of this area can be found traced through the company’s work. Elements of sets and props came from the area’s streets, most notably Canute the King. Much of the imagery in the Voodoo City ‘spell’ text originates on the streets of Balsall Heath and Ocean of Storms is woven through with the diary of an astronaut circling the city on its orbital (clockwise) bus route, the 11c. The towerblocks of Highgate appear in the photographic back drops for It’s Your Film.
Now we are in Digbeth. From here we can see Millennium Point, the New Selfridges and St. Andrews football ground. The main line from New Street Station runs past level with our window. Down the road cars are being crushed, dies stamped and metal galvinized. Behind us the concrete of the old inner ring road is being ripped apart by JCBs. We feel fired up at the heart of this city as never before.
How are you funded?
In March 2002 Stan’s Cafe secured Key Regional Organisation (KRO) status with West Midlands Arts. This three year agreement was the first stable funding arrangement in the company’s history. It was used to supplement an income generated through performances, education projects, speaking engagements and the hire of high end video gear we acquired through a capital arts lottery bid in 1996.
The stability and flexibility introduced by KRO money helped take calculated risks and back hunches. One of the first results was the ability to respond quickly to an idea and buy 1,000kg of rice for an experimental piece called ‘Of All The People In All The World’, this show has since repaid this investment many times over. By 2007 KRO had become RFO (Regularly Funded Organisation) status and the grant had crept up to a little over £50,000, representing approximately 1/8th of the company’s turnover. This ratio was acknowledged by the Arts Council as reflecting excellent value and when all RFOs had their funding reviewed in late 2007 early 2008 we were rewarded with increased investment, just topping £100,000 in 2008/9.
This increased investment is to allow us to increase our capacity to deliver our shows, which usefully fit well with the Arts Council’s current priorities of innovation and excellence. We don’t take this money for granted and will continue to be vigilant and creative as to how we get best value from it, so the public’s money will be seen to have been invested wisely in us. We are grateful to everyone who has paid their taxes and bought their lottery tickets. We won’t let you down.
Canute the King (pool version): West Midlands Arts £5k and £3k sponsorship from K Cider.
Bingo in The House of Babel: Arts Council of Great Britain £13k, WMA £2.7k, Birmingham City Council £1.3k
Voodoo City: MAC New Works Trust £10k, WMA £4k, BCC £2k
Capital Bid National Lottery through Arts Council of England £88k
Ocean of Storms: BCC £1.5k, ACE £15k
Simple Maths: BCC £2k, ACE £22k
It’s Your Film: The Bond Gallery Commission £400, WMA £1.3k (for revival)
The Carrier Frequency: BCC £6k
Good and True: WMA £5k (1998) & £5k (1999) BCC £1.7K, Forward Festival Commission £20K
The Black Maze (truck conversion) : ACE £9k & BCC £2.5K
Key Regional Organisation : WMA £30k (2002), £30.9K (2003), £31.8K (2004)
We are devising a show. Do you have any advice for us?
Dear Stan’s Cafe
I saw your show Simple Maths at Portsmouth Arts Centre and really enjoyed it […] We are devising a show at college next term, do you have any advice for us?
Thank you for your recent letter. We are glad that you enjoyed Simple Maths. It is always good to receive such encouragement.
Your project sounds exciting, especially as you have a decent amount of time to explore your ideas. We tend to find that working processes change from project to project and so clearly giving any specific advice is difficult. However you may wish to think about a few things.
Economy of means: Audiences tend to be visually very literate and a lot cleverer than many theatre companies give them credit for. You can therefore strip things right back and still get your story / ideas across. We find nothing more tedious than having something over-explained to us.
Ambiguity: A connected point is that of over-determination. If all aspects of a story are told with exhaustive clarity there remains little room for an audience to play with an idea or setting. This explains why we tend to leave large areas of ambiguity in our work. We like to encourage audiences to actively engage with material rather than simple receive it as if spoon-fed.
Integrity : Even if it’s good, if it’s not part of the idea cut it out. Keep in focus what you are attempting to do. This doesn’t mean become inflexible, it does mean things don’t get in if the main argument for their existence is they “look good”. Cheap tricks tend to be just that, cheap. Only if they support your overarching objectives strongly can you allow them in. Audiences I believe, in the long term, can sniff integrity.
I hope those three points are of some help, if not you can always pop this letter in your note book and pick up an extra percentage point or two.
James Yarker, Birmingham (23rd February 1998)
Do you do education work?
Stan’s Cafe believe that besides its impact on personnel and academic development, working in education represents an important investment in audience development and the future prosperity of the theatrical form. Acknowledging that Theatre In Education is a specialist area in its own right, Stan’s Cafe have engaged in education projects only on their own terms, as an experimental theatre company skilled in the devising of performance work. As a measure of the importance placed on delivering a high quality experience in every context Stan’s Cafe develop projects and workshops individually to suit the requirements of their clients. These beliefs and the policies which arise out of them have resulted in a varied programme of education work.
Our education work includes a range of projects, including devising work with young people and students, film and video courses, a version of Of All The People In All The World and teacher training activity days. We enjoy running workshops in parallel with our touring shows and working with teachers and artists working in education. James is frequently called on to give lectures in a variety of contexts.
Is your work physical theatre? I’m doing a project on the work of physical theatre companies, I would like to come and see your work and ask you why you work in this way […]
Thanks for thinking of us in relation to your project. I’m not sure we can be of much help at this stage. We are not due to tour for a good while and so there is no chance of seeing any of our shows live, which is of course the most important thing for you.
I enclose a few almost random pages printed straight off the hard drive and leaflets currently cluttering up the office. They probably are not of any help but have them just in case.
The term Physical Theatre I approach with caution. We may once have described our work as such, this was slack thinking to be honest. Those who find the categorisation of theatre necessary tend to provide a box to tick and Physical Theatre is one of those. What this term means clearly varies between people and over time. The term possibly gained currency in the mid-late 80s when it was applied to Impact Theatre Co-Op, Rational Theatre and, possibly, Station House Opera. By the early 90s when Stan’s Cafe formed it seemed all companies not relying on a script fell into this category by default. Then the term Visual Theatre started to be used to refer to works less predicated on athleticism or the body but still not ‘text based’. (Now when I hear the term Physical Theatre I think of companies influenced by Berkoff or Le Coq).
The term is clearly problematic: work influenced by Berkoff tends to be heavily, if not leadenly script based, Beckett’s Not I though apparently all about language is in many ways about the body and relies heavily on the physical presence of its performers. Surely the physical presence of performers in front of an audience is one of the characteristics by which theatre defines itself; is the term Physical Theatre therefore a tautology?
Unusually for Stan’s Cafe our show Simple Maths contained no text, but I would resist calling it physical theatre, it was just theatre with no words (or mime).
I would recommend contacting Kaos Theatre, at Brewery Arts, Brewery Court Cirencester, Glos Gl7 1JH. They tour a lot more then we do and are a lot more ‘physical’! Tell them I’ve passed you on.
Who were Impact Theatre Co-operative?
Impact Theatre Co-operative, 1987 -86, were one of the most outstanding visual and physical theatre companies of the late 70s and eaerly 80s. Founded in Leeds and inspired by a variety of post-68 European theatre, visual art, film and literary experiments, Impact developed a spectacular, musically rich style which was both raw and seductive, fusing those elements of performance art which focused on endurance and real-time action, with highly realised fictional locations. Impact made about 26 shows in 8 years including: Ice (1979), The Undersea World of Erik Satie (1980), Certain Scenes (1980), Dammungerstrasse 55 (1981), Useful Vices (1982), No Weapons for Mourning (1983), Songs of the Clay People (1983) and A Place in Europe (1983). The Carrier Frequency was its last major collective piece of work.
Impact’s core members were:
Pete Brooks, now director of Insomniac Productions.
Richard Hawley, still acting on stage and screen.
Tyrone Huggins, now director of Theatre of Darkness, still acting.
Claire MacDonald, now joint editor of journal Performance Research and lecturing in Washington.
Graeme Miller, now producing theatre, music and installations under his own name.
Steve Shill, now a television director.
Niki Johnson, now a relationship therapist.
Heather Ackroyd, still performing and working as a sculptor.
A significant record of Impact’s work is held as part of the National Sound Archive at The British Library.
A book, Impact And After is currently in production, edited by Claire MacDonald.
Heather Ackroyd and Graeme Miller’s post-Impact work is featured in A Split Second Of Paradise Edited by Nicky Childs and Jeni Walwin ISBN 1-85489-099-9.
Is your work in any way autobiographical?
That’s the first time we’ve been asked that, good question!
The answers are:
‘not any more’
‘They are more biographical than autobiographical.
Memoirs of An Amnesiac (1992) drew from the life of Erik Satie.
Canute the King (1993) drew from the historic/mythologic figure of Canute and his wife alongside Edward & Mrs.Simpson, Charles and Di Etc.
Bingo in the House of Babel (1994) wasn’t biography but was set in the library of Einstein’s brain.
Voodoo City (1995) has in its background a newspaper story of a mother who jumped from a tower block holding her baby child.
The earlier shows address notions of identity quite strongly. I wonder in retrospect if that was related to us being young, just starting out in the company and adult life.
In these four shows there are text elements that are quite personal to me particularly the maudlin stuff of Memoirs, the love story stuff in Canute and the nihilism in the other two. This was always heavily disguised and not really the point of the shows, just source material.
Since then there has been no autobiography at all. Unless you count Sarah Archdeacon (nee Dawson) grabbing the names of friends and acquaintances in her improvising, so Ocean of Storms and Good and True are a bit like a fake biography of people she knows (Amanda’s car mechanic pops up in Ocean of Storms as well).
Do you think audiences are important?
I do believe audiences are vitally important in the theatre. They are central to all our efforts and are always in our minds. The notion of theatre breaks down once you remove the audience from it. At this point maybe it turns into some kind of therapeutic exercise and that is of no interest to me.
It is the very fact that audiences are crucial means that they must be honoured. I believe that audiences should be respected and that this respect does not necessarily translate into entertainment, education or communication. There are many theatres in which these qualities are pursued. I regularly attend such productions and rather than feeling respected I often feel patronised, dulled, bored, exploited or excluded. There are enough of these theatres. We need more theatres that respect the audience by asking that they participate in the active production of the work. This is done by leaving the work open, unresolved, resistant to linear interpretation or simple metaphor. For many this creative model for watching brings rich rewards some of which could even be classed as forms of entertainment.
Understanding and communication are fraught terms. Audiences tend to have conservative models for understanding and communication. Often they do not acknowledge the extent of their connection with the work they have seen purely because it does not conform to these models. Once they recognise that to have emerged with a host possible readings and a variety of responses is a valid position they grow more comfortable with their response and become anxious to see the work again.
This form of watching is not the norm. I don’t believe it requires training, but it does require a flexibility of approach and thought. I would hope that more than 20% of an audience would respond positively to any performance but if that relatively small proportion get an exceptional and enduring experience I would rather that than leave 80% superficially diverted. Clearly marketing becomes important here. Without the art changing marketing can influence who comes to see it with what expectations. May be this is a way of bringing more people in and leaving fewer people disappointed. I hope this helps. It’s a little off the cuff but then it’s your dissertation not mine! I urge you to look at Howard Barker’s Arguments for a Theatre. I think it’s fantastic and you will find it very provocative. He is occasionally a bit reactionary, especially about he place of the author in the process of theatrical production, but for the most part he says what I want to say far more articulately than I ever could. James Yarker 15th September, 1999. back >>>
How do you work collaboratively on devised shows?
- How do you agree on ideas?
- When does the technical input begin and how does the entire creative and technical team work together successfully to create a strong, collaborative production?
- What are your devising practices?
You will get a sense of our approach to working collaboratively by reading between the lines in other documents on the website, but here are some other thoughts, shooting from the hip:
As artistic director I tend to bring the core ideas to the table for each new project. These may well have been influenced by discussions with other company members, they may arise out of previous shows we have worked on or common lines of thought, but I tend to set the agenda first off. Then everyone else gets their hands on the idea and there is no real preciousness about who’s come up with what.
I think Stan’s Cafe strikes a healthy balance between discussing ideas and trying them out practically. This balance varies between projects as each present different challenges and respond to different approaches. Thinking and Doing tends to be balanced within working days but it isn’t unknown for a day to be spent purely in discussion. We usually work 10am – 6pm five days per week when devising but discussion can spill over into informal chats when making meals together or sitting around in the pub.
Rehearsals are often recorded on video but only referred to occasionally, usually to clarify details of improvisation, or analyse passages which felt good, occasionally fragments of text or movement will be transcribed from the videos. In early rehearsals I tend to act as an outside eye and chair discussions. In later rehearsals I can get detailed in direction but this process is usually a dialogue. Everyone is active in the devising process and established company members now take familiar roles within discussions. We all have great respect for each other therefore feel comfortable to put our opinions and ideas on the line with each other. We very rarely find ourselves in serious disagreements.
We have no set games or exercises as each new project throws up different problems.
As the shows tend to be conceived fairly holistically integrating technical input tends not to be too difficult. Music is commissioned from people whose style fits the atmosphere we are looking for. We do set design in-house as this evolves organically through the process. When we do work with designers for costumes, props or so-on we try and talk as early as possible and keep from making decisions until as late as possible. We try and give people freedom to do their own thing and ask them to get as close to the process as possible. Lighting / pyrotechnic design will be discussed from very early on and usually added very late.
Most things will be tweaked after the first public performance, the tweaking can be fairly major. We now try and devise over an extended period, maybe working for a fortnight then doing nothing on the show for months, then a couple more weeks before another big break, then a final blitz to make the thing. This gives us time to reflect, reconsider, develop additional material, such as text, between times, and allows the premiere to be a second or third draft of the show.
James Yarker (Jan. 2003)
Why did you revive The Carrier Frequency?
I don’t quite know what it means to be doing this, this restaging thing. On one level it seems so simple, we’ve got this grainy old video of a show, we learn the words and the moves and we do them again, ourselves. Although working from a video may seem strange at first perhaps it is just a new form of notation, apt for a theatre which places equal emphasis on choreography, sound, design and text. When people ask me if I am directing the revival it is difficult to know what to say. If guiding Stan’s Cafe through a full devising process from nothing to a touring show is called direction, how can this process be called the same thing. Helping artists take possession of a piece which was once someone else’s, working on its modulation, light and shade, feels more like conducting. So on one level it is simple, we’re just doing the show again.
Of course we’re not doing the show again. Fifteen years have past. None of us saw the original. None of us saw any Impact shows. The people who made this show won’t be performing this show. Society has changed, along with our vision of the future. Art has moved on, theatre has moved on. In some circles this show will have distorted in people’s memories and imaginations. Audiences are now primed to see a show worthy of reclamation fifteen years after the event. Expectations will be different. This will be a different show.
Stan’s Cafe have been lured to this restaging both by the questions it gives rise to and those it purports to answer. A number of us were taught by Pete Brooks at Lancaster University. We were inspired by his work and that of the other Impact members in their various post-Impact projects. At that time The Carrier Frequency and Impact hovered as a history we knew shaped us, but which we knew we could never really learn because, in theatre, you really have to be there. Now, years later, we have a chance to excavate that history. Birmingham’s Towards The Millennium Festival has shifted its focus to the 1980s. This was the first decade in which video technology was cheap enough to allow small companies to document their work. It was the decade in which we came of age and the decade of our most obvious theatrical heritage. Once the idea of reviving a devised show from the 80s was born there was, for us, only ever one candidate.
I have been taken aback by the passion people have for this show and how protective many still feel of it. For some it was a formative experience for many part of an emotionally charged memory, to hear that it is returning must be a strange feeling. We have approached this revival both an experiment and a celebration. To this end we never thought about a tour and were keen not to present the project as Stan’s Cafe but to bring together a guest cast from a range of companies and backgrounds. We are delighted to have been joined by such a talented team and to welcome audiences from across the country. We have been working under some restrictions which have led to a few compromises, particularly tight finances have restricted our ability to replicate Simon Vincenzi’s impressive design with its rotting concrete platforms. In other areas things have been easy. It is testimony to the vision of Birmingham City Council that this project is been possible. We have been touched by the support and encouragement of Russell Hoban, Impact and their collaborators. We are grateful to them and hope they do not find these performances too strange.
It may be thought that the avant garde should be iconoclastic, working in reaction against earlier generations. In truth, if feels as if artistic generations are very short, and we are driven to build on their best practice. This project is driven by respect and although it is ostensibly about The Carrier Frequency, it is also intended to celebrate a host of lost, but influential, shows.
In (brief) answer to your questions:
1. How do you market your company? eg, posters, flyers, business cards, DVD, CD, website, e-mail, Programmes, the press.
We promote ourselves to many markets in parallel.
Firstly, as we principally tour our work we must market ourselves to promoters, venues and festivals.
Secondly, we have to reach a paying audience, this usually means giving those promoters, venues and festivals that have booked us the materials they need to sell us on to their audiences.
Thirdly, there is a VIP audience of opinion formers, funders and people who can help us in other ways; it’s good to sell the company to them to.
For the first we use direct mail, CD-ROMs and phone calls.
For the second it’s the press, posters and fliers.
For the third it’s the work itself, plush documentation and personal meetings.
The website is a bit of a ‘catch all’.
2. What audience do you focus your marketing on?
We tend to think of our audience as being ‘open minded people’ rather than classifying them by age, gender or social back ground.
3. How important is marketing to you?
The importance of marketing is rarely reflected in the budget, time or effort we put into it. It is very important and we are hoping to put more resources into it from this year onward.
4. Do you market your company in house or do you hire a marketing company to do it for you?
Historically we have always just done this all ourselves, but as of May 2006 we will be giving a marketing company a six month trial. They will be particularly focused on general company profile raising with opinion formers and the media, both nationally and locally.
5. How does the content of your marketing relate to the work that you do?
We try and keep them bound together. There is no point conning your audience into buying a ticket. We try and communicate clearly about the work. In the past we may have fallen into the trap of trying to write copy that would impress our peers rather than our audience.
6. What do you hope to achieve through marketing?
We hope, through marketing, to bring as many people as possible to experience our art and to prepare them appropriately for that experience.
7. Do you feel that your marketing works? In what ways? Could more still be done?
More can always be done. I think it is tricky for us, in our current neolithic state, to judge the success or other wise, or our marketing.
I hope this helps.
How can I work with Stan’s Cafe or get work experience?
Ah, this question again. We admit that at first glance it seems quite daunting.
On average we hold open public auditions every 7 years. This sounds like a tricky joining strategy but Jake, Ray and Sarah all first worked with us following auditions, so expressing and interest and sending us your details isn’t entirely pointless.
We recruit people who inspire us through their performances elsewhere. Amanda, Andy, Bernadette, Craig, Heather, Mike, Nick and Gerard were all ‘headhunted’ in this way. So being great elsewhere and getting us to come and see your shows is a valid tactic. Unfortunately, with burgeoning families and heavy workloads we don’t get out as much as we once did – so performing in Birmingham is good; setting up in our front room is better.
People also get absorbed into the company by osmosis. Ali, Benny, Charlotte G and Jack have managed this, one or two more are on their way and it feels like there’s space for more. It’s a neat thing, a bit like an apprenticeship perhaps. In practice it tends to mean either being around for bit and building up a friendly relationship over time whilst you do your own thing. Osmosis can also arise out of work experience, which can work like a free trial: Kerrie and Charlotte Gr managed this.
We regularly take people on work experience. There is no set formula for this so the person’s age, the duration and type of experience can all vary. The experience can vary some are based on office administration but Shelly came as part of her MA to help design and execute a marketing initiative, Tess helped production manage and deliver School Rulers whilst Paula ended up performing in Space Station. It all depends what we have on at the time you want to be with us and how brilliant you happen to be.
If it’s work experience you are after contact us with clear details of who you are, what you want to get out of your experience, why you’ve chosen us, how long you want to be with us and when.
Can you help me with my thesis / project / essay? Can I interview you?
We hope our website is a helpful resource. If your questions are not answered on the site feel free to send them to us via the feedback form. We always reply and usually answer your queries. However, we are not contractually obliged to do this and it does take some effort so please remember:
We won’t write essays for you
Precise questions are more likely to be answered than vague ones
People who don’t thank us after we’ve put time and effort into answering their questions really piss us off (there are loads of them out there – they know who they are)
We don’t do ‘e-mail interviews’ (it’s too much like being back at school)
Telephone interviews often work and can be fun
We love people visiting us in person to ask questions