Our Editor-in-Chief, Richard Beck, heads to Birmingham to meet, football mascot Bordesley (pictured), the newly-elected Leader of the Council and the team who created him for Stan's Cafe's ground-breaking play, All Our Money.
Director: James Yarker (JY).
Actors: Aaron Corbett (AC), Shireenah Ingram (SI), Craig Stephens (CS)
Producer/SM: Dominic Thompson (DT)
Many thanks to you all for taking part in this. James, Stan’s Cafe, which locally becomes Caff, sounds more like a greasy spoon than a theatre company, so let’s start with some background. Tell us how it was formed and who’s involved with it?
JY: Stan’s Cafe was a greasy spoon, it was where my friend Graeme and I agreed we wanted to start a theatre company together, way back in the early 90s. He’s from Birmingham so that’s where we decided to set up. Graeme’s still involved as an associate artist. We have an evolving group of freelance artists and a core salaried team of six or so, full and part-time, pulling everything together.
You seem to have developed a special type of theatre at Stan’s Cafe, which you describe as ‘playful and quirky’, but that’s rooted in local affairs and is investigative. How did that come about? Is the intention to create a niche product?
JY: All our work is playful, we enjoy pulling the form of theatre around so it is aligned with the content we’re interested in. This often leads us into unconventional territory. One strand of that is how we strive to explain complex things in a simple way. A trick in this is making the abstract visible. We started with human population statistics, moved on to the 2008 financial crash and now it’s Birmingham City Council’s Budget. It’s not a plan, it’s just part of a fascination with the world around us.
CS: For me, it’s been great taking the show out to community venues, to places that as a company we haven’t performed in before and to see it so warmly received. It was lovely to be able to chat to audience members afterwards - many who had never seen the company before but were intrigued by the subject matter and/or were able to see us because we were performing somewhere so local to their home.
AC: I really enjoyed the tour. I enjoy the creative process but there is nothing like standing in front of an audience and hearing their laughter or seeing the nods of a sympathising councillor sat four rows back. What I particularly enjoyed about this tour was that it wasn’t in conventional theatre spaces. We performed in multiple different venues with different facilities, performance spaces and most importantly audiences. The range of audience that this production engaged was amazing. Which also adds another enjoyment element to the show because you never know what the audience is going to be like that day.
I think everyone should have the opportunity to watch the performance as it’s a great way to find out more about the Council as a whole. I didn’t really know much about the council and what the budget went towards until I was a part of All Our Money but I have a wider perspective of the council now and how things operate.
And it’s also ideal for taking to schools, which is another aspect of what the company does. What form does that take?
JY: We enjoy collaborations and devising, sometimes this is with professional artists and sometimes it’s with teachers and students. We look to have long-term relationships with senior leaders in schools so we can help them address their school improvement plans through artistic projects and we enjoy the challenge and the feeling of being useful.
Let’s move on to this latest production, then, All Our Money. What inspired it?
JY: Origins are multiple. Partly as a reaction against ‘safe programming’ we thought we would take on something that sounds like a terrible idea and make it a success. The City Council budget is something we all have a stake in but very few of us know anything about, so that was interesting and linked with previous shows explaining difficult things.
It certainly comes over as a gamble, but it’s clearly one that’s paid off. It’s an unusual work and one that can be adapted for other settings.
JY: Yes. All local authorities have their budgets, and it would seem weird to tour a show about Birmingham’s budget to other places, so we’re keen on a pantomime approach where the show’s structure stays the same, but we substitute details that make the piece bespoke to where it is. We plan to work with undergraduates at the University of Warwick on a radically different version of the show that explains the university’s budget. Everyone thinks that will be quite contentious. We shall see.
So anyone interested in the idea should contact you?
JY: Absolutely, get in touch.
SI: Yeh. If anyone is interested in experiencing this play or learning more about it, I would encourage them to reach out. The transferability of this piece to other cities and their budgets is really exciting and means All Our Money could have a long future.
Let’s hope so. Well, now we know what we're talking about let's find out how this unusual play fits into your previous acting experience. Does it feel different from other plays you've worked in? What are the things you really enjoy about performing it?
CS: As a Stan’s Cafe old timer making this show has been a familiar process, although this time we’ve had less devising and more using James’ script - you can’t really improvise the facts and figures of a city’s budget - you need to get it right. But as with all Stan’s Cafe processes the actors got to contribute to the development and tweaking of that script - until James said, “Just do what’s written on the page!”
But the very varied type of venues required some adaptations to our performance levels - one day we were in a vast echoey Victorian swimming pool (it was drained) performing to 100 people, the next day we were in a small community centre with an audience of 30. So each performance had to be pitched differently.
It was lovely to have a good number of performances to gain confidence with the material and as with all productions the more we did it the better we got - finding moments between us to add colour and detail to the show and to be able to relax with the material. I think All Our Money does a great job of being entertaining and funny whilst also being able to convey some quite dry but important information, helping people better understand the pressures that councillors and council staff are under to spend our money wisely.
SI: Reflecting on my experience in All Our Money, well, the piece was a really unique and enriching way to be on tour and perform. From the rehearsal process which felt very overwhelming with facts and figures to begin with, to wrapping up gold cubes to represent our council's budget and then going on to multi-role and entertain an audience with this thought-provoking piece was very rewarding and eye-opening for me. Working with Stan’s Cafe on this collaboratively gave me a fresh perspective and a different artistic journey. It wasn’t a case of here’s the script - learn it - rehearse - perform. But I instead had the opportunity to input my thoughts and ideas which not only helped deepen my understanding but also made the text and characters more solid and grounded within me. The political themes we explored, was also a new avenue for me and I found this really fascinating to be a part of as it was really accessible.
What truly stands out to me about performing this play is the opportunity to delve into a plethora of characters. It’s an actor's dream to get to ‘play’ and being able to showcase a taste of citizens from varying demographics in Birmingham was really fun and a show highlight. It was also really interesting to be in alternative venues and bring theatre to spaces and communities who may not have usually been able to access or see theatre. This made the whole project even more rewarding.
It’s incredibly gratifying to witness the impact our performance has on the audience; to evoke laughter and contemplation. There is a lot of ‘money’ that moves across the stage very quickly, so it was very warming to hear the feedback that audience members were able to follow and understand what was happening. One response I remember was that we were ”able to make a complex and dry topic entertaining but informative”. Working alongside the talented creative team has meant I could create, contribute and enjoy this process. It’s really promising to see the play has sparked interest with some future tour dates, and I look forward to reaching even more people and communities who may have never crossed paths with theatre ordinarily.
AC: I’ve been a part of the All Our Money production since the Micro Production in 2021, so in regards to the concept of the show and the way Stan's Cafe devises, I was quite comfortable. However, all the added information and changes to council jargon made for an intense first few rehearsal days, trying to rewrap our head around what certain things mean and ensuring the things we wanted to include were accurate. But once we had the skeleton to the production and we were able to put it on its feet and explore it theatrically all the mental gymnastics felt worth it.
A lot of the productions I have been a part of are based more on stories from people’s lives, so it was interesting exploring a show that focused on statistics rather events. With this show, however, the story comes from Bordesley’s interaction with the councillors and workers he meets. There are really humanising parts to the show that portray a person being overwhelmed in a job, which is something I believe all people can empathise with. The way we have combined that with the information about the Budget, which can also seem overwhelming, makes for a really informative yet heartwarming performance.
Do you think this sort of subject could be used as way of encouraging young scriptwriters, given that so much of the substance is provided for them through research?
SI: Absolutely. I would not call myself a writer, but the collaborative process with Stan’s Cafe empowered me to be able to utilise the research materials we had and create such a colourful and coherent piece of theatre. Not saying it was easy or straightforward, but being able to spend time reading and exploring ideas and possibilities with room for creative embellishment would be an accessible way for young writers to tackle this topic.
AC: 100%. I think the way this show has been able to convey all the facts and figures, without losing its heart is amazing. The research done to create the show did not only help add content to the performance but it also informed me as an actor on how to bring out my character. The reactions in the play came from reactions in the research phase. If Bordesley didn’t understand something, we probably struggled to understand it also. The research was a lot to take in, but it helped enrich the performance in multiple ways and I think it would only aid young scriptwriters to challenge themselves with a performance like this.
While we’re here let’s say a few words about the area. I have the impression that Birmingham is quite a tough area in which to develop theatre and garner audiences. Is that fair and what challenges does the area present.
DT: The area is great! Although I probably would say that as a Brummie. In recent years I feel Brum is getting a bit more shine as the investment money comes in, but in truth, we still see a lot of the same problems in the creative sector. For a while, Birmingham has struggled to retain talent in the city and it seems mostly actors move out and then travel back here for work which I personally believe has an effect on the development of theatre and its audiences, as this doesn’t create a culture. So when producing shows you do need to spend a little more time outside grabbing the audiences’ attention, and not just in a mass-marketing way, but in more personal capacities; working alongside groups and communities, showing them what theatre is happening in the city. This of course creates culture but at a cost, which is often another problem in engaging audiences, as tickets are often too expensive for a culture that doesn’t think it wants to watch. A stronger core foundation of development would increase the workload for the artists that live in Brum and retain more of them which in turn could create a real change in the city, as we would have more people that are involved in the industry bringing their friends to see things and hopefully creating a thriving culture.
Dom, you also run Gritty Theatre. How does that fit into the Birmingham scene. What plans do you all have for the future?
DT: Gritty is Gritty. It’s always tried to captivate audiences that feel theatre is not for them. This isn’t just a Birmingham thing, but growing up here and becoming an actor being an impossible pipe dream, it was something that was needed to help up-and-coming actors and future generations, which is what it continues to do in all sorts of capacities. We would be deluded to think we can do it all on our own and I think the future leads to us working with other companies like Stan’s to develop seasons of theatre that fit into non-conventional venues.
Thanks to you all and may Bordesley serve you well.
Contact details for Stan's Cafe Theatre are on their website: Stan's Cafe Theatre