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In Conversation with... Stan's Cafe Artistic Director James Yarker

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James Yarker, Artistic Director of Birmingham-based theatre company Stan’s Cafe, gives us some insight into creating their show The Capital, which comes to Warwick Arts Centre on Tue 12 Feb.


When people know you make theatre and anything slightly unusual happens in your company, they are apt to suggest “you could make a play about that”. Similarly, when people know you make theatre they are apt to ask “where do you get your ideas from?” Ironically, where I get my ideas from is never people suggesting “you could make a play about that”. Except for The Capital it was, sort of, and Warwick Arts Centre was at the heart of it all.

You see, Stan’s Cafe and Warwick Arts Centre had been going steady for years and it was all getting a bit stale. We’d call round every couple of years with our best new idea and they’d probably commission it and definitely book it. Where was the challenge, the unpredictability? We thought it would freshen things up to get someone else involved in the relationship.

We decided not to bring an idea to Warwick Arts Centre but invited them to bring an idea to us. We asked which departments were ‘the most exciting on the university campus?’ This led to a conversation about Economics where the Head of Department had an ambition to teach their entire undergraduate programme from artistic stimuli.

This struck a chord because, back in 2009, we made The Just Price Of Flowers explaining the mechanics behind the previous year’s financial crisis using Brecht as our guiding star. We enjoyed making that show and it was an audience favourite, so we were especially keen to meet this art loving economist.

Professor Abhinay Muthoo was very welcoming; he organised two days in which we met a succession of his senior researchers and received mini-presentations outlining the projects they were working on. We had a mind expanding time!

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It turns out economists research into all kind of things, including social networks and how to convince Zambian slum dwellers to use toilets that have been installed but are being ignored; they scrape data to see if racial cues influence choice in AirB&B rentals; they build and play ‘game theory’ and study on how state interventions prevent or inadvertently promote violence among citizens or influence internal migration. They also advise how to balance subsidy with taxation to equalise access to food and fuel for millions of people; they attempt to quantify the happiness of populations through history and to understand how, in Denmark, a monopolistic supplier of beer became more profitable after its monopoly was broken. After all this we moved on to day two.

After day two we had to have a lie down. Everything we heard was interesting, many studies could have inspired shows, some studies were virtually shows already, but no one study demanded that it became our show.

On reflection, from all the vast diversity of interests we had heard expressed, the closest we came to finding a theme emerging was a shared concern about ‘inequality’. Inequality was seen as fueling unhappiness, displacement and violence. Abhinay himself cited inequality as possibly humanity’s greatest challenge – we pondered, maybe inequality should be Stan’s Cafe’s next greatest challenge.

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Years before I’d grown excited by the idea of a stage crossed by twin parallel moving walkways. Every few months I’d return to this idea and imagine all the theatrical fun that could be had with this setup. Imagining the fun was easy, but it was difficult to imagine what show would demand to be performed on these walkways and nowhere else.

There probably was a Eureka moment when I realised the walkways show and the inequality show were the same show, but I don’t recall where it was and it certainly wasn’t in the bath. The twin walkways set at different speeds would become a metaphor machine as soon as two people started walking on them side by side. The world isn’t a meritocracy if the walkway is set against you.

The setting for this show was easy to establish. We live in Birmingham, a big city where inequality can be seen on the streets every day. So yes, the show could be called Big City but the most famous book about inequality is surely Das Kapital, so our show should also be The Capital.

The Just Price Of Flowers drew its drama from financial mechanisms such as Credit Default Swaps and Short Selling so initially we thought this new show could work the same way. I sat down to read the Marx. I also read about the Greek financial crisis and key economists and Joseph Stiglitz’s theories of inequality. It was all interesting but none of it felt helpful.

Financial inequality is entwined with inequalities of race, gender, age, education, opportunity and so on. Our show felt as if it should take on this broader definition of the term and fold in the lived experiences and observations of the team devising it.

Now we have made the show and toured it, The Capital has visited The Capital and now it is ready to return to the site of its conception. On 12 February the show finally reaches Warwick Arts Centre, where we hope it will be reunited with the economist friends who to all intents and purposes said “you could make a play about that”, it will be interesting to see if they recognise what it was they inspired, but there’s a chance they won’t because you see, things change.

We’ve been saying the show is ‘about’ inequality since back in the mists of time because that’s the show that the Economists inspired and the show we planned for and put all this care, love and obsession into making, but now that the show is grown up and fully formed it has started to have its own ideas and is questioning us. It seems to think that beyond inequality it is ultimately and more profoundly ‘about’ something else, something thing bigger: the finite span of a human life. Maybe you can tell us, are we right or is the show right?

Buy your tickets to experience The Capital on Tue 12 Feb here.

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