James Yarker from Stan’s Cafe talks about their new venue

One thing leads to another…

We wanted a large venue to stage a world version of our ‘rice as people’ installation Of All The People In All The World and found a portion of a metal working factory for rent in the Jewellery Quarter, close to Birmingham’s City Centre. We loved the venue and audiences loved the venue. We liked our landlords, A E Harris (Birmingham) Ltd, and they liked us. So, a few months after the rice was shipped out, we signed a two-year lease.

With a big empty space to play with the obvious question to pose was “what can we do here that no one would allow us to do anywhere else?” “Build a massive Scalextric track” was the obvious answer. With a long
track you have to run a long race. 24 Hours was then the only option and coinciding with Le Mans a given. “What makes this art?” was the final question and Having a 24 Hour commentary, the final answer.

The commentary was webcast and to our shock over 200 people listened for an average of over five hours. This led to The Commentators, a spin off project that finds this washed up pair commentating on non-sporting
activities through the lense of sport. More significantly we were interested in people’s shock at the gulf between their experience of the event at home listening on-line versus attending it live @ A E Harris (as the new venue had been branded). This led to some thinking.

Shortly afterwards I attended a conference in West Bromwich about opportunities opening up for artists via the digital media. In this, speakers presented their papers in front of a screen displaying a message board on which the audience engaged in a parallel conversation about the paper and the speaker. This made me think further.


I grew interested in making Tuning Out With Radio Z, a show set in a radio station which would provide a satisfying experience listened to online but deliver far more live as a theatre show. The show would utilise the possibilities of the message board and invite its audience to co-write the show during the performance, which would thus have to be both long and improvised. There were a lot of unknowns in this idea so it seemed sensible to get a handle on the message board element before sorting the rest out. We decided to stage a Brecht play with the message board behind it, but couldn’t find an appropriate one so wrote The Just Price Of Flowers, which didn’t suit the message board idea, so we dumped that and staged this new show @ A E Harris anyway.

We have close ties with both MAC, in Birmingham and Warwick Arts Centre. MAC wished to commission a new show to celebrate their reopening following refurbishment. We suggested a very long performance centred around a single, or multiple sleeping figures, working up some metaphoric juice out of MAC being asleep, and sleep being the state in which the body grows and regenerates. WAC are brave enough to take our shows both ‘sight unseen’ and early. We offered them a couple of different shows, they chose the message board one. Economics suggested that the MAC commission should be a touring show not a one off, but why shouldn’t
a touring show be long and involve sleeping people on stage? The MAC date became three dates and precursors in May to an Autumn tour.


We rehearsed the show in the bleak coldness @ A E Harris. Freaked ourselves out at MAC with two hours of radio and four hours of theatre/radio with most people, even our friends, choosing to stay at home and listen rather than haul their sorry backsides to the theatre. We rethought. We dropped the two hour radio ‘warm up’. We stopped even mentioning that listening on-line was a possibility because if you could be there you should be there and never anywhere else.

Over two nights at ArtsDepot, Finchley in October we reacquainted ourselves with the show and made some progress. A shorter, three hour, duration worked well, there were decent audiences and a good portion of these sat through the whole thing without even nipping out to the loo. We were one sleeper down but
enjoyed the possibilities thrown up by the spare bed, so determined to keep it like this. There were great comments and good reviews, plus the review that was looking for the show to be something we didn’t want it to be, so it wasn’t that and we were happy and they weren’t.

WAC was sold out for a rough old first night. A large school party in helped us focus in further around the message board, how we solicit greater and more sophisticated contributions from audiences, how we
share with them the theme of the show and highlight how their contributions are shaping the show (the problem of slick improvisation is that no one recognises it as improvisation). Nights two and three at WAC were rock solid and exciting now we’re all set for the Tobacco Factory.


We are also all set @ A E Harris. After subsidising the venue hugely over its first two years in order to help build the theatre scene in Birmingham we have now gained some help from the Arts Council in this direction. So as other companies devise, rehearse, perform, workshop, party and confer in the venue we won’t be driven to bankruptcy or exhaustion. There will even be hot water in the toilets and a web presence, alongside the potential for more of the speculative one-off events that lead to a chain of consequences; one thing leading to another.

James Yarker
Artistic Director
Stan’s Cafe
26 October 2010