Stan's Cafe sets and set design strategies

A man in a bowler hat and suit wedges himself in the corner of a white room.
Memoirs Of An Amnesiac

When Stan’s Cafe started Graeme and I did virtually everything. It was a DIY aesthetic and we fearlessly took on whatever needed doing. Only the presence of Richard Chew prevented us trying compose to music in addition to everything else. Over the years we have gathered a team of collaborators more skilled than us in a host of disciplines and we leave things to the experts; Ed takes better photos, Arvo is better at the lights, Karen manages productions better, Nick is better at negotiating contracts, Charlotte wipes the floor with us as an administrator and Simon’s graphic design leaves us standing. The one thing we have never really relinquished is Set Design. This essay looks briefly at Stan’s Cafe sets through the years, how they have been central to the conceptual workings of the shows and why designers have struggled to get a toehold.

New Stan’s Cafe shows tend to have their origins in clusters of ideas addressing a range of interests and responding to a host of questions. Often in this mix of thoughts is an idea for staging or the vision of what a particular moment will look like. At their most extreme these early design ideas dictate a show’s entire aesthetic long before an external designer is even thought of.

Be Proud Of Me (2003) was predicated on the challenge of using dissolving slide projections as scenery. This decision strongly influenced how all the show’s other ideas were addressed. It’s Your Film (1998) was made as a response to the potential of using a Pepper’s Ghost mechanism, which in turn brought with it certain ideas about the relationship between performers and their audience. It was only when practically working with the Pepper’s Ghost mechanism that performance material started to be generated.

Whilst performing It’s Your Film we started speculating on what its sequel might look like. The obvious approach was to scale up the Pepper’s Ghost mechanism so a larger audience could watch. Imagining the largest piece of glass we could sensibly tour with led us to consider a set just 2m wide but very deep. A long narrow corridor set prompted thinking around the phrase ‘corridors of power’ and so, with the addition of a title, The Cleansing Of Constance Brown, a show was born.

From the first day on a mock-up set it was clear the shape of the playing space would heavily influence the performers’ acting style, how the show was blocked and how focus would be moved around. As expected, the corridor set led us to throw focus off stage. Actions on stage were contrived so as to generate readings as to what was happening in fictional spaces immediately off stage. For Stan’s Cafe the relationship between on and off stage has rarely been this simple.

Bingo In The House Of Babel (1994) failed / or refused to take on the challenge of the off stage space. Its librarians occupied a charred wooden island in space referring to an extended fictional space without ever attempting to reach it. In contrast, just a year earlier, in Canute the King (1993), both Canute and Aelthruda deliver text that propels them to the edge of the set where they pull up short and double back full of excuses. It is ambiguous whether their trips to other parts of their palace are thwarted by the encroaching tide or the physical limits of their fictional world. Is that moment of suppressed panic before they turn back born from recognition that they will soon be drowned or the existential panic that, should they step from the set, they will be annihilated. In Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1992) the flimsiness of the fiction Eric Smith wraps himself in is equally tragic. When he leaves his bed-sit to go to work he is barely concealed by the set, it seems clear he has no work to go to, indeed nowhere to go to at all. The letters that arrive in his absence are obviously ones he has posted through his own letterbox. When he opens the window to see more clearly the stars that twinkle in the sky beyond he is at first confused as they disappear, then indignant as he realises they are merely attached to the outside of his window.

Part of the magic that the performers in Voodoo City (1995) attempt is to levitate their stage to the top of a tower block looking out over the city. When the spell is failing they are at ground level able to step on and off the set, when the magic is in full force they are twenty stories high and in mortal peril. Where the set was when it wasn’t magically elevated remained a vexed question, which we could only answer by piling fiction on fiction. As we couldn’t imagine these people in a theatre performing their rituals in front of an audience so, for our own convenience, we imagined them in a disused warehouse performing these acts without witnesses.

Good and True (2000) treads rather more confidently in similar territories. Whilst essentially a familiar Stan’s Cafe ‘island set’, floating in the centre of the host venue’s stage without wings Good and True had a back wall and advanced central flat that afforded a hidden space on stage. Performers could disappear and return after a pause, occasionally in a new costume, almost always with mugs of tea in hand. Although there are implications that when off stage the performers are in some form of police station the identity of this fictional space remains as slippery as the identities of the characters on stage. When, at the show’s conclusion, Amanda leaves, it isn’t behind this flat into the comfort of an ambiguous fictional space but off the front of the stage into the auditorium and away, with considerable unease, to try out her composite fictional life in the ‘real world’.

By contrast, the figures of Simple Maths (1997) are untroubled by a world beyond the stage and those of Lurid and Insane (2001) were born to be on the stage, so much so that the whole venue becomes a fictional space.

With set design so often wrapped up in the conception of Stan’s Cafe shows there often doesn’t seem an obvious point at which bring a designer in, especially as devising often advances in unpredictable leaps often away from rehearsals regardless of timetabled meetings. With the logic of performance bound up with the rules of the set this is a sensitive area to invite strangers into, so usually we don’t.

We invited designers to submit set ideas for Ocean of Storms (1996) but they just came up with science fiction playgrounds for actors (what else where they expected to do) and all I wanted was the great, monumental steel mesh decking we eventually got built up in Lancaster. The wonderful Miguel Angel Giglio Bravo designed and built the illuminated panel backdrop for Simple Maths which I loved, especially the enormous version that filled the proscenium at the Music Hall in Shrewsbury. On reflection I don’t think we gave Miguel much material to work with, the show needed a kind of limbo setting, which he provided beautifully. I know he had more to offer and would happily have worked with him again, but I could never work out how the collaboration would work. Working with Mark Anderson and Helen Ingham as the design and build team for Home Of The Wriggler (2005) worked well as what was required was less a set more a collection of power generating machines, costumes, furniture props, a floor and, as it turned out, a backdrop. Helen and Mark’s range of skills meant between them they were able to cover about five people’s jobs. Our history together meant communication was simple and direct, much like the results on stage.

From early on The Cleansing Of Constance Brown was to be the show in which we finally engage a designer in a conventional manner. Predictably things slipped. Design ideas evolved before we got round to engaging anyone so when finally we did sit down with a likely candidate she politely pointed out there was little left for her to do. Rather than take the job she passed on the name of a good set building firm. They converted our sketches into workable engineering designs and built the set from these.

Once again we have been open to the thought of a designer but in practice closed in our working processes. How this impacts on Stan’s Cafe is an open question.

James Yarker 30/5/7