Wednesday, April 30, 2008


The Big City Plan

In the sky palace, at the grand table, the great lord’s emissary sets out a vision. Conjuring images in the air of the city below in all its different future forms. The sages round the table are here to add their wisdom. Heads nod and lips purse in counterpoint. Highgate is to be transformed. Paradise made over. Trees will break through stone. Wild life will encroach. Desolation will be swept away. Hands will hold hands. Poverty will cease to be.

What a crazy thing it seems to be, to try and shape this chaos. I look out over south East Birmingham. City Planners bag top floors in order to see the world as their model. This view is stunning, but how do you start to mould this thing? It’s a fascinating thing to listen to, an adult version of the games I played out at a child; fantasy cities. Then, on cross-hashed paper I was omniscient, now I feel less than sage.

Of course we’re just meeting with a representative of the dreamers and round the table we are dreamers who have to do too. Our suggestions and questions are too detailed or deferred to a doer who is to follow. In truth, the sky palace looks down on a capitalist jungle. No politburo sits at this or any other table in these towers. The floating vision is to be accomplished through nudging and suggesting and lobbying and bidding and frowning and smiling, all strategies to create the right conditions.

This is The Big City Plan taking shape. I’d urge those of you living or working in Birmingham to look in on it, you may feel more sage-like than me.



Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Wealth's Last Caprice

If my faith had need restoring, this evening would have been the restoration. I took a train out of New Street to Long Buckby in Northamptonshire to see Chris Dugrenier’s latest performance and it was wonderful. The whole experience was a total validation of my belief in theatre.

The show was presented in Chris’ home, though this was by force of necessity, it was also a powerful act of intimacy and hospitality. Chris is lucky enough to live in a home large enough to stage a modest theatre show and thereby she needs no one’s permission or invitation to perform. In a home not a venue, with no marketing team or budget to pull the crowds there were only two of us there, but this didn’t matter.

Chris’ performance style is, like her, unaffected, warm and open. Where the audience’s intimacy could be uncomfortable all I felt was privilege. What an honour to have been invited into a home to see a performance that has been fashioned out of love and desire, totally for its own sake, outside the realm of commerce.

The piece, Wealth’s Last Caprice, is delightfully simple and resonant. Chris has gathered all her worldly goods together, catalogued them, piled them into a modest sized mound and photographed them. Rather than destroying them, Chris then muses with us about her possessions, their relative value and volume, origin and functionality. Inter-woven with this current day thread are a series of vignettes dramatising the readings of some extraordinary historic wills and the two threads are tide together movingly at the show’s conclusion as Chris makes her own will which we witness as a legal document.

The tone is spare, simple and quiet. The material is personal enough to be powerful and yet open enough to provoke personal reflection. Chris does not tell us what to think but gives us space to think our thoughts. This being the first performance the delivery was clean and clear but not slick or totally assured, just somehow direct and truthful. The show also benefited from being written and performed by someone in their second language. The occasionally unusual word choice of turn of phrase coupled with a strong foreign accent means that words are no longer transparent but tangible material, carefully selected and sewn together in an echo of the legal documents, read in a male voice, which haunt the rest of the show

The ritual of is performance event, a gift from Chris and her lover Adrian to us, the two witnesses, was moving but then so was the show, sometimes exquisitely so. This was a ‘work in progress’ but it could easily just have been a short show. There are things you would cut and expand, improve and enrich but it was satisfying as it was presented to us; inspiring and worth more than any of the multi-million dollar films that we can see each and every night in the comfort of our homes slumped in front of the television.

There are two more chances to catch the show on 10th & 11th April, 7.30 at The Assembly Rooms, 17 Church Street, Long Buckby – NN6 7QH. I urge you to go if you possibly can.


Tuesday, April 08, 2008


The Art Of Ideas

Tonight I participated in a diverting, though possibly not very illuminating discussion billed as The Art Of Ideas.

The brief was to talk about how art may be shaped by the place in which it is made. Catherine O'Flynn spoke eloquently about Birmingham Old and New and her love of those places forgotten bits of the old live on in the new. The architect Sam Jacob talked about the Narrative and the place of architecture in Urban Regeneration and this, of better or worse, is roughly what I said...

"First up have to issue one apology and one caveat. The apology is to everyone here who lives in the West Midlands but outside Birmingham, I’m sorry, not that you live there not here, or that once again that you’ve had to travel here from there, but that, for now, I’m going to ignore that there exists at all. The caveat is simply that my thesis is entirely undermined by the existence of Led Zeppelin.

I’m James Yarker, director of Stan’s Cafe, which is a theatre company but which sees this as no impediment when chasing artistic ideas that excite us in whatever direction they take us. We tour our productions across continental Europe, to North America and Australia, but they are all made in here Birmingham and are often born out of, or bound up with, our home the City.

In early shows props and pieces of set were picked up from the gutters and the city’s street corners to act parts in our fantastical dramas.

Voodoo City was inspired by two black cider bottles lined up on a Balsall Heath pavement in a way which could only mean that urban voodoo was afoot and a spell had been written out of this place to exert control over those things in our lives which were beyond our control.

In Ocean of Storms the 11c orbital bus route is ridden as a space capsule, a satellite reporting back to earth as angels search for a girl in a sliver puffa jacket who is lost in the city.

More recently Home Of The Wriggler, set way in the future, tells, in extraordinary fragmented detail, tales of a vast community of people whose lives were bound together by the Longbridge car plant.

I was 21 when I moved to Birmingham to form Stan’s Cafe with Graeme Rose, an indigenous Brummie. I didn’t really care where I was so long as I was doing what I wanted to do. And this big, cheap, dirty, well-connected, energetic, fast developing city suited us well. I loved it because it felt real; for the first time I was living somewhere where people made things. It felt honest. I loved it because it felt alien, I could go to the corner shop buy my tea and return home without hearing a word of English spoken. As the years have gone by I’ve come to realise that either Stan’s Cafe is suited to Birmingham, or we have come to resemble our city.

My perception is that Birmingham is a modest City, it is suspicious of the Flash, or the brash, or the arrogant, or anything that may give off the whiff of pretension, possibly for this reason it has never been fashionable. In fact, certainly for all of my youth it was unfashionable, possibly leading to a sense of self-containment, which may in recent years have burgeoned to self-contentment. Great art is made in this city but its makers do not make a fuss about it and neither does the city. The civic leaders aside, most people seem happy just to be left alone and so ingrained is the city’s sense of modesty that it’s attempts at showing off rarely hit the mark.

Possibly because of this contentment, possibly because of it’s fear of pretension, but maybe because it isn’t a port, or even because it lacks an aggressive regional rivalry, Birmingham has no edge, it isn’t a city that appears to enthusiastically embrace the new or the radical. Stan’s Cafe is making a success of itself here not because of a great local vaunting of the theatrical avant-garde, but because this city provides us with a rich stimulus of sites and sounds and thoughts and challenges to respond to.

In truth, we moved to this city because no one appeared to be doing here what we wanted Stan’s Cafe to do. We were to be the big fish in this vast empty pond. The plan has worked but in truth there was and is plenty of life in this vast pond. People are making things, tinkering, building, innovating, experimenting, fabricating, testing and patenting in workshops, lofts, bed-sits and places where men once bashed metal. This city has a voice, you just have to listen for it as it chooses not to shout at you."

Then there was the usual 'discussion' stuff.

There is another talk tomorrow (Wednesday) then Brian Duffy is in the eye of a musical storm for them on Thursday.



Sunday, April 06, 2008


Farewell MAC

There was a strange atmosphere at MAC today, the last day of the old building before the month redevelopment starts, it was something akin to the last ever day of school. There were lots of familiar Birmingham art-scene faces with some guest stars thrown in too, Amanda was over from Stratford and the RSC, Leo Kay up to direct in The Door, Nick supervising Talking Bird’s magnificent aluminium (?) whale. After most people had explored Dance Steps and Eve and I had explored the swings there was some general standing around at a loss as to what to do. Was this a celebration or a wake? Maybe a celebration for gaining a revamped building and a wake for a staff team who were about to go their separate ways.



Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Dance Steps Delivered

Eve, like most 2/3 year olds I imagine is totally obsessed with stickers, so she was in some kind of dreamland when she walked into the Painting/Drawing studio at MAC. Craig and I were finishing off the last scene of Dance Steps. I never really thought of it as a sticker show, but clearly it is. Eve, Robin and their youthful friends Jack and Tom helped us finish things off.

We’re pleased with the show. It seems to work as we had hoped. Those who commit themselves to the piece seem to find themselves getting hooked. There is a quest element, searching the building for the next scene. Then there is detective work, establishing how the scene should be read. The performance strand follows as participants cast themselves in role. Finally there is the slowly unfolding narrative that binds all fourteen scenes together.

There is a sense that this show has more mileage, that it could work in a great range of contexts and adapt itself to a host of spaces. But that will have to be a way down the line. At the moment my stomach turns as Eve pull out her latest page of smiley face stickers.

Dance Steps can be found at MAC all day between now and the end of Sunday 6th April. It would be great to get some feedback on it….



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