Author Archives: Stan’s Cafe Theatre Company

Stan’s Cafe Theatre Company: Life changing opportunity?

You don’t have to dig very far into the history of Stan’s Cafe to find an acknowledgement of the influence of the artist/director Robert Wilson. A BBC Arena documentary showing clips of Wilson’s early works was an early inspiration and Stefan Brecht’s book about this work ‘Theatre of Visions‘ added to the mystique.

Since then Wilson has worked prolifically in opera, theatre and installations and set up what looks like a remarkable performance center (they say Center we say Centre – let’s call the whole thing…) in upstate New York dedicated to making new art. The Watermill Center has just opened applications for it’s annual Summer Program which, if you are a young artist working in almost any field, I insist you look at carefully as it represents an absolutely extraordinary opportunity. You work for a month in the summer with artists from around the world, there are lectures and workshops and practical opportunities galore – you need to pay for your travel there and back but the residency itself is free and accommodation and food are both provided free as well. The competition to get a place must be very fierce but who knows… someone must get on… in fact +80 someones get on each year, why not you?

What an experience it would be, honestly it would change your life – Watermill Center Summer Program

Stan’s Cafe Theatre Company: Time In Time Critical

Traditionally theatre is a place set apart from the tyranny of time. Once ‘the curtain goes up’ at the advertised time and ‘latecomers’ have been admitted or repulsed, chronological time is banished, we are free to be suspended out of time, removed to another era, shuttled backwards and forwards through the ages. In the theatre we are released from temporal concerns; except of course we’re not.

The human bladder is resistant to theatre’s temporal slight of hand, the bum cheeks ditto. Last trains, last buses, last orders and expiring parking meters all remain resolutely rooted in a steadily marching ‘here and now’, dragging us back to glance at our ticking watches in the auditorium’s gloom. Even without these humdrum nagging externalities time is still free to torment us in the theatre; surely genuine prisoners can be no more acutely confronted by time’s implacability than the inmates of a dull theatre show.

In Time Critical we acknowledge all these tensions and do away with furtive glances at watches by placing time on stage. After my brief introduction the show runs for a precise duration, each of two performers is presented with their own allotted time measured out on the competing sides of a chess clock. Throughout the show one or other side of the clock is counting down to zero depending on whose side of the story is being cold. When a performer runs out of time they stop whether their script is completed or not.

The show is designed to allow barely enough time to zip through the material. If the performers lose their way, grow too expansive in their delivery or relax too fully into the audience’s warmth then they don’t make it to the end of their script. In Time Critical, as the title suggests, the tyranny of time is not banished from the theatre but moved centre stage.

Last week we were asked about Time’s position in the show during a post-show discussion. We we re-rehearsed these thoughts on the relation between Real Time and Theatre Time. We spoke about the show modelling the lived experience of a long life in which time appears to accelerate with age, years flashing by with ever increasing speed as your life extends. We spoke about our interest in formal constraints, the restrictions we place upon ourselves and our shows as a source of creative tension forcing us towards invention and fresh thinking. We spoke about this Theatre as Sport racing to an unpredictable conclusion. We spoke about many things, all of them valid, but what we didn’t speak about, because we forgot about it at the time, was Time Critical’s engagement with the existential nature of time.

The show’s original rationale was to celebrate our 25th Anniversary by spending 25 minutes addressing World Events from the last 25 years and 25 minutes addressing Stan’s Cafe events from the last 25 years. With the show’s revival and reworking this year we added a minute on for each side. This huge restriction clearly forced us to made radical choices about what to include in each narrative and how much time to allocate to each event. These choices reflect our choices in life. We each have a limited lifespan of indeterminate duration, we must choose how to allocate this time. We have to prioritise; we have to decide what is a ‘waste of time’ and what is an essential use of time.

In the show Craig challenges Amy/Rochi* about her decision to spend time performing the Defence’s opening statement from the OJ Simpson trial when “there’s a lot [of World Events] to get through”. Such judgements are personal, hence Amy/Rochi’s reply “It’s my time, I’m doing it”.

Of course for many OJ Simpson’s trial was a World Event but for OJ Simpson it was also a personal event and Amy/Rochi’s story is an event in the world and so a World Event, just one that is not the subject to much publicity that OJ Simpson’s story – though it is now the partial subject of a theatre show.

In the tit-for-tat battle that niggles away through Time Critical Amy/Rochi launches her own attack and questions Craig about his priorities:

R/A: Why are you going to the Isle of Wight?
C: To visit my girlfriend’s parents.
R/A: Girlfriend?
C: Yes, Charlotte Goodwin.
R/A: Why’ve you not mentioned her before?
C: We’ve only just met.
R/A: And she wasn’t worth mentioning!
C: I didn’t say that, look I’ve not got time for this.

Sometimes we don’t recognise the importance of certain moments when they happen and sometimes we get caught up in things that are unimportant at the expense of that which is of value.

Immediately after Amy/Rochi has related the appalling horror of the three day Dubrovka Theatre siege, Craig describes Stan’s Cafe spending two days pretending to be astronauts on a fake station on the Wolverhampton-Birmingham Metro Line. Amy/Rochi’s blunt question is intended to carry the weight of conscience: “Why?” Why do we spend our precious time doing this when there are so many other more serious things going on in the world? Stumped for a more articulate response Craig’s answer is despairing, disarming or defiant: “Art”.

So why do we believe in art enough to spend such time on it? In the show we spend lots of Craig’s time re-enacting moment from old Stan’s Cafe shows, why do we value it enough to allocate it this time? Because it helps us process the bombs and the famines, the inventions and disasters, the squabbling and financial exploitations; it is an escape and a reward, it is an alternative world and our own world remade, it is an endeavour to make this place better, this time better. This is why we give theatre the time.

So if the questioner from that Q&A is reading this here is your answer: “time is at the heart of Time Critical in the same way it is at the heart of our lives”.

* Rochi Rampal was part of the original devising team and performed the 50 minute version in 2016. Amy Taylor stepped into the revival and reworking of the show and performed the 52 minute version in 2017.

This post also appears as an essay in the Helpful Things section of this website.

Stan’s Cafe Theatre Company: Training

In recent weeks we have been back working with our friends at Theater Bonn. You may have seen in the news that Bonn is hosting a big United Nations Climate Change conference. More correctly they are co-hosting it with Fiji whose infrastructure wasn’t well suited to accommodating the thousands of delegates and attendant media, activists Etc. Anyway, there is a big Climate Change conference in Bonn, we were asked if we had an idea to contribute, we did, they liked it, we made it, it’s called What When and it’s currently sat in a park that forms the campus for the conference.

I acknowledge that it is possible that history won’t come to see What when as the point at which humanity recognised its peril and stepped back from the precipice of Eco-disaster – it’s not a piece of propaganda so that’s not it’s job – but every journey starts with a single step and continues with many steps and working on this project has changed my attitudes and behavior by one step. Continue reading

Stan’s Cafe Theatre Company: Map Script

Today is the first day of the 2017 Time Critical tour. We pleased to be opening up at New Adelphi Theatre, Salford University with the show, two workshops and a post-show discussion. I am unreasonably excited that we will also be unveiling, hot off the press, the Time Critical Map of The World.

During Time Critical the location of world events are marked on a map of the world in marker pen. Last year, in order to make the map re-usable last year we covered it in transparent plastic, but for various reasons this wasn’t very satisfactory. This year, outrageously, I managed to persuade everyone that it would be a fantastic idea to print multiple copies of our own map of the world so we can use a fresh map for each performance.

As this is our map we have been able to have it designed especially for Time Critical. Printed on it are all the events cited in the show plus many additional locations of Stan’s Cafe activities around the world. I suggested it to designer Simon Ford as a bit of a fun art/design project, he has made a fantastic job of it, though at some cost to his sleep patterns an psychic equilibrium – hence it is being delivered direct from the printers to the venue today, with Amy and Craig having rehearsed with a mock up over the last couple of weeks.

We are accepting other nominations for examples of ‘Map as Script’ – we’re sure ours isn’t the first but are also pretty confident that is quite unusual; the kind of idea that makes no financial sense but which as Stan’s Cafe are morally obliged to pursue.

Stan’s Cafe Theatre Company: Our 1000th blog post!

It’s amazing how quickly I forget how much I love being in the rehearsal room with Stan’s Cafe. Each time I return it is full of anxiety and self-doubt, but subtly I become lost in the collective challenge of making the show as good as we possibly can and I’m in my element. Last week was a complete treat. We’ve been reviving and remaking Time Critical; we’ve driving it into the garage, got it up on the ramp, taken it apart, changed some parts, polished up other bits, tuned it up and by the end of next week it will be revved up and waiting to go.

The first version of Time Critical wasn’t suitable for touring, it was made for our 25th Anniversary and so contained more Stan’s Cafe biography than a neutral audience would appreciate so we’ve had fun putting all those elements through rigorous testing regime and stripped out any elements that are superfluous weight – even bit we love but which don’t work for us enough.

We’ve had one big forced change to the show’s engine as Rochi is on maternity leave and Amy has stepped in to replace her. It has been fun watching Amy reinterpret the material. We gave her the script a couple of months ago and she’s been watching a video that splices together the two original performances. We’ve had fun establishing where the script is definitive and where the video is definitive as the two don’t always line up (a lack of assistant director / or stage manager means amendments we made to the final printed versions of the scripts didn’t ever get transferred back to the computer version of the script.

This 2017 version of Time Critical is 120 seconds longer than the 2016 version and we’ve been having fun deciding how best to deploy this extra time plus the time gained by stripping out redundant material.

Our ambition is for Craig to actually get to do some of Nenad Prokic’s amazing epilogue text from Finger Trigger Bullet Gun the intention was for him to do this in the first version but it had to be jettisoned live in performance in order for Craig to get to the end of his script on time.

We’ve decided to use the rest of our gained time to give more weigh to touching humdrum personal stories that contrast with the drama of world events. A new strand is added that charts Amy’s triumphant journey to the Stan’s Cafe stage (she was a three year old eating jelly as Graeme and James were working on the first Stan show).

It’s been fun making the jokes sharper, the blocking tighter, the chaos more chaotic and our choices more considered. The first version was made in four weeks so we’ve already had a bonus 25% extra time in the rehearsal room with another 25% to come. What a treat, what fun!

Stan’s Cafe Theatre Company: How to launch a book.

The official launch of Devising Theatre With Stan’s Cafe was a proud and long anticipated day.

For many years ‘the Stan’s Cafe book’ held a place in our forward planning but practicalities meant it always retreated into that future at exactly the same pace as the present advanced, so the book never grew closer.

Our principle impediment was the lack of a suitable collaborator to actually write the damn thing. We needed someone who knew our work well and who would share our vision for a highly accessible book, a ‘page turner’ if possible, pitching not at stratospheric levels of esoteric abstraction but at undergraduates, theatre makers and theatre fans. Our ambition was to produce a book that would beread and loved, be passed from hand to hand, grow scruffy and battered.

Eventually, like childhood friends who finally realise they are in love and should marry, we recognised that Mark Crossley, who we had first met in 1997 as a tousle haired drama teacher, had matured into a authoritative, book writing, university lecturing, Doctor of Theatre. We liked Mark, we knew we shared his values, we talked, we agreed, we shook hands, we shaped up a proposal and to our great surprise Bloomsbury Methuen stepped forward to publish our search engine friendly book “Devising Theatre With Stan’s Cafe” simultaneously in Hardback, Paperback and e-Book around the world. All that remained was to write it and this is where Mark came into is own.

We agreed to structure the book around the creative process from the inception of ideas to reception by an audience. Mark then interviewed twelve company members, some more than once and wrote the book from there. I wrote a few bits and pieces, including a Stan in Action section with practical exercises for the end of most chapters. Together we edited the book back and forth.

There were various light touch editorial suggestions from the publishers, a choice of cover, the addition of 24 black and white photographs, proof reading back and forth, Mark working up the index and then a long wait whilst mysterious publishing wheels ground away. Eventually each got copy of the book (paperback) and I set to work creating an online companion for the book, bonus material – photos, videos, links, commentary and corrections (frustratingly it the proof reading wasn’t flawless).

On 25th October we held an official launch for the book at mac and the web element is now live. Let’s see how many copies we sell and whether it gets passed from hand to hand.

Stan’s Cafe Theatre Company: Culture Feast

The Stan’s Cafe team likes to support our colleagues in the theatre industry, especially if this means seeing work by other companies. We’re lucky to have such a great variety of theatre so close by.

What we see less of is work in other art forms. Sometimes this is a time thing – there is a lot of theatre to see after all – but sometimes it’s because we are less familiar with visual arts, contemporary music or dance and we don’t know how to navigate what’s on offer quite so deftly.

In recent conversations with arts organisations across Birmingham it’s become clear that lots of other people feel the same way and as a result we’re all missing out on some fantastic work. So, together with five other arts organisations in the city we have created Culture Feast, a series of six events that encompasses theatre, dance, visual arts and music – all of which can be accessed with a single £25 ticket.

Our guess is that if you are adventurous enough to follow Stan’s Cafe you will be curious enough to enjoy the work that our colleagues have to offer you in their disciplines and that their audience will take the plunge to visit our next production Time Critical.

Having a Culture Feast ticket is a little bit like travelling Business Class to the six specially-selected events, but with the novel twist that it’s cheaper than Economy Class! As a Culture Feast ticket-holder you will be welcomed to each event by a member of the host’s team and afterwards you get to let it all sink in with an “audience exchange” in which you can chat to fellow Culture Feast visitors about what you’ve experienced (like a “book group” but with “contemporary arts” instead of the books).

The first set of Culture Feast events starts with our production of Time Critical at mac, and continues with a dance show from DanceXchange, a videogame with live orchestra at Town Hall, the outstanding talent of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and exclusive guided tours of Digbeth First Friday and Ikon.

We’re really excited to be part of such an interesting and wide-ranging programme.

There will be future editions of Culture Feast, featuring a whole new set of organisations and events so watch this space.

Full details of the programme and tickets are available here: culturefeast.org

We hope to see you here there and everywhere.

Stan’s Cafe Theatre Company: Open Space Coming Soon

How often do you hear about something that sounds stupid or ridiculous, you write it off as such and then, at some future date, perhaps not so far in the future, you find yourself proved utterly wrong. In my case the answer is ‘far too often’ and Open Space ‘conferences’ is a case in point.

If you are fully up on Open Space you can skip to the penultimate paragraph of this post in which I write “It feels too long since the last one which is why Stan’s Cafe have teamed up with mac Birmingham to invited anyone involved in theatre in the region who wishes to attend to join us at mac on 8th November to help answer or at least respond to the challenge How Do We Help Theatre To Thrive Here And Now?

Everyone else stick with me and please read on…

Open Space conferences sound stupid AND ridiculous. They start with no agenda, have no pre-booked speakers, no key-note speech, no panel discussions, no break out sessions, no power-point presentations. Hold on though, there’s the clue, when did you last enjoy a gripping ‘power-point presentation’ or for that matter when were panel discussions anything other than ploddingly awkward for everyone involved?

Wouldn’t it be great to have a conference when you can set the agenda yourself when you turn up, where you can address exactly what you feel needs to be addressed and address it for as long as you want with people who absolutely want to address that exact same issue as you? Well, that’s what Open Space provides. Officially it’s Open Space Technology but I think the use of the word Technology is misleading and encouraged me to think it was a stupid and ridiculous idea back in the days when I did. They’re not ‘conferences’ either but let’s get on with the story.

The story I’ve heard about the origins of Open Space differs from that on Wikipedia but it’s better so it’s the one I choose to believe and retell. Harrison Owen was asked to organise a management conference in the USA. He spent a year pulling it all together, afterwards everyone said it was great, but on close reflection he realised people weren’t praising any of the official program he had so painstakingly put together at great expense, it was to say how great the coffee breaks and social activities were. People got more out of talking to each other on their own terms than following his classic structured Conference Agenda approach. So, chastened but inspired he set about inventing a non-conference that was effectively all social activity.

My first encounter with Open Space was when Arts Council England convened one at The Crescent Theatre in Birmingham. I attended grudgingly in order to appear to be showing willing (politics) and to see if any of my friends were there. I expected it to be rubbish – because that’s the kind of open minded, optimistic and non-reactionary liberal kind of person I am.

As it turned out the curmudgeon was bludgeoned, I enjoyed it. The rules are that if you get grumpy you HAVE to leave a discussion and find somewhere else where you’re happy, chatting to someone at the refreshment table is a legitimate activity even when discussions are raging elsewhere. The glorious thing is that because everyone has the opportunity to talk about what they want to talk about no-one can legitimately be grumpy, if what they want to talk about isn’t being talked about it’s their own fault, they should be talking about it!

And if this all sounds like a happy-clappy, woolly, fluffy ineffectual talking shop then you’re wrong. That first West Midlands Theatre Open Space event (in 2010?) led directly to numerous new collaborations, including the birth of the BE Festival, equipment storage got shared, an audience development initiative started and generally together we gained a greater sense of cohesion and empowerment.

There have been maybe three subsequent successor events each well worthwhile. It feels too long since the last one which is why Stan’s Cafe have teamed up with mac Birmingham to invited anyone involved in theatre in the region who wishes to attend to join us at mac on 8th November to help answer or at least respond to the challenge How Do We Help Theatre To Thrive Here And Now?

We will all be guided and encouraged through the day by theatre’s and our great friend Nick Sweeting – we will delighted if you choose to join us so we don’t have to eat all the biscuits. Thank you.

Stan’s Cafe Theatre Company: The Commentators at Birmingham Weekender

If you can’t be at Birmingham Weekender today you can listen live to The Commentators as they cover all the action from the Birmingham markets. They will bring you detailed coverage of the buying and selling of everything from carrots to dairy based products to mobile phone covers and be there to witness whatever other incidents a market Saturday might throw up.

Keep it here … The Commentators at Birmingham Weekender

Stan’s Cafe Theatre Company: Building Resilience

Nina glanced at the file under my arm “Building Resilience” and then looked at me with pity in her eyes, assuming I was undergoing that familiar mid-life crisis in which artists retreat from a life of creating ephemeral whimsy and retrain as structural engineers. Untrue. I was at Piccadilly Station retreating from two days thinking how we can build the resilience of Stan’s Cafe to insure that if the roof falls in the roof won’t fall in. Essentially the challenge put to us whether we could ensure that if one of our five main sources of income dried up could we ensure we wouldn’t have to turn the lights out and perform theatre in the dark?

Back in 2010 Michael Kaiser introduced his theory of The Cycle to a post-crash audience of shell shocked local arty types. His theory was and remains disarmingly simple – it runs something like this: make amazing art, market it and you like crazy, use the art and marketing to build a ‘family’ who love you and your art, then monetize this love. This love money is then invested back into making more great art and so a virtuous cycle rolls on.

We had these principles in mind back in November when we launched our Scheming Friends initiative. We used a party as an excuse to gather a large group of loving ‘family’ together and us Graeme Rose smashing a 25 Anniversary Cake to smithereens with a cricket bat as the inspirational cue to ask people to support us ‘make more of the different’.

We’d rejected all traditional ‘transactional’ schemes in which donating x gives you y and donating 2x gives you y+z and donating 3x gives you w+y+z. Scheming Friends demonstrate friendship by donating an unspecified amount of money and in return receive occasional unadvertised tokens of friendship in return.
You may have noticed the discreet bright red – support us – tab at the top of every page on this website – that is standing in for Graeme, the cake and the cricket bat.

If you click on the fatal red tab now be warned there is a chance you’ll feel compelled to donate to us, but don’t be too scared as, post-training, I see that we have fallen into that foolish error of quoting numbers to substantiate our claim to be saving the world by quoting empirical evidence such as the number of young people engaged in schools in the city‘s less affluent wards in 2015/16. It was 4,000, is that impressive who knows? How engaged were they? Were they engaged in worthwhile activity or flicking rolled up bits of paper at us while we talked at them?

Darn it, time to set to work on the 2.1 version of that page. If you’re curious I’d click now before it’s truly persuasive.