Biblical Puppetry: James Yarker on Stan’s Café and The Cardinals

Stan's Cafe's The Cardinals. Photo by Graeme Braidwood

Stan’s Cafe’s The Cardinals. Photo by Graeme Braidwood


Three Cardinals are on a mission of evangelism. Their vehicle? Puppetry.

Stan’s Café (UK) will present their acclaimed show The Cardinals from January 12- January 18 as part of the Under The Radar Festival at The Public. There is plenty of information regarding this particular piece on their website and on other news sites, but I wanted to ask Artistic Director James Yarker some questions that could give us a personalized profile of who Stan’s Café is and what James has to say about this show. Here’s how the conversation went:

Georgina Escobar: Tell us about Stan’s café (Caff?) from the inception place off Brick Lane and what it has become.

James Yarker: I was having an ‘all day Breakfast’ with my mate Graeme in Stan’s Cafe off Brick Lane, as you have picked up—no accent, so it’s a Caff, like a diner. I love them. It was here we agreed to form a theatre company—an unusual theatre company that would make unusual and unexpected work, which might usefully have an unusual name.

We set up in Birmingham; where we work collaboratively, build from the bottom up, tour where and when we can, respond to challenges, and make leaps of the imagination. We’ve being doing it 23 years now. We think we’re starting to get the hang of it.

 G: Can you talk a bit about your process? In Stan’s Cafe world: How does a play come together?

 J: I have an idea—lots of ideas—when enough ideas gather together in the same space, they start to look like a show to me. I have the ideas and the ideas get us into trouble, it then takes all the experience and skill of our artistic team to get us out of this trouble.

We don’t have a set way of working; because the ideas vary the process has to vary. Figuring out how to make the show is always an early problem we confront in trying to make the show. We’re always looking for the form that will present the content most eloquently, or the content that makes the form most articulate.

Sometimes we use improvisation, sometimes we use rules, and sometimes I do bits of writing. For The Cardinals we mostly did storyboarding, almost as if it were a film.

 G: Maybe a bit general, but what sort of theatre do you consider yourselves to be? Are you interested in any particular ‘genre’?

 J: My main interest is in ‘good’ theatre and I hope Stan’s Cafe always sits in this category. As for genres different shows conform to different genre. I have no interest in this – we’ve been called ‘visual’, ‘physical’, ‘experimental’,  ‘new’, ‘devised’, ‘total’ theatre all have been correct descriptions for a week or two – discussions in this area sap useful energy. I want to see theatre that treats me like an intelligent human being, capable of thought, imagination, enquiry and empathy. I want to be entertained but not if this means taking my brain out and putting it in a box under the seat for the duration of the show.

G: Tell us about The Cardinals?

 J: It’s easy to think The Cardinals are idiots because their stagecraft looks a bit naïve and things sometimes go wrong for them, but they are much more astute than first appearances suggest. They are on an evangelical mission and have edited The Bible down to a few very key scenes which they perform in a way which is curiously moving. They have arranged things so the biblical scenes set up a series image systems around walled cities and sacrifice that they then detonate in the last few minutes as the story moves up to date and on to the book of Revelations.

Part of what makes The Cardinals’ ‘puppet show’ moving, is the level of faith they have in making it. They commit totally to their play and for those of us watching, we mostly find it funny because we can see their chaotic offstage world and the efforts made to keep the show on track.

The fact that a young Muslim woman is key to keeping the show on track, and is also part of the reason why it occasionally derails, is an irony not lost on them. These Cardinals are cleverer than you think. Maybe it is all an act.

G: What do you consider the greatest challenge in brining this piece to UTR (Under The Radar)?

J: The show is ludicrously prop and costume heavy. It is awash with ‘stuff’, including dozens of beautifully painted scenic items. Preparing all of these for transatlantic travel, itemizing them all, attempting to describe them, value and weigh them, has been a living nightmare for our Associate Director, Craig—I’ve managed to be elsewhere ‘busy’ doing other things throughout the process.

G: Can you give us some perspective of the community that is your typical audience in the UK?

J: The people who come to see Stan’s Cafe shows have open minds. I resist the notion that Young People like this or Old People like that or Black People like the other or Women are into this. For me it’s ageist, racist, sexist nonsense. We appeal to audiences that don’t like being told what to think and like to figure things out for themselves. Hopefully everyone will like the playfulness, commitment, and intelligence we bring to the stage. If not, then, we’re sorry; but we’re not about to change in order to chase any other audience.

G: What kind of worlds do you usually explore? Is there a common thread to the places your characters usually inhabit? 

J: Our stage worlds tend to run rather parallel to those that the audiences usually inhabit. Lots of things are familiar, but the rules tend to be different and less stable. We may be a bit ahead in time, and slightly off to one side looking backwards. There tend not to be characters in the familiar sense; the people on stage tend to be short on back-story and motivation, and they never go to the toilet.

G: Can you describe the evolution of your work? 

J: Our work has developed into strands. The Cardinals is part of a strand of essentially wordless shows that present the audience with a very tightly framed world. There is another strand of work that is highly verbal and linguistically playful. There is a strand of para-theatrical works that happen outside theatre spaces. Of course there is also a rich amount of work that we make with young people in schools, which draws on our other strands of work and sometimes feeds back into them.

G: What are some non-theatre things that interest or inspire you? 

J: Left to my own devices I’d spend all my time reading an eclectic range of books; mostly non-fiction. I’d walk around Birmingham, along its canals, through its parks, its housing estates, and factory zones. I’m inspired by the news, ideas, theories, other people’s good art, and often other people’s bad theatre.

G: Anything else you want to tell us about Stan’s Cafe? The Cardinals? Your visit to New York?

J: We once staged a 24 hour slot car race in our venue, in order to turn it into art, Craig and I webcast a sporting commentary on the whole thing. The Commentators have become as popular as The Cardinals. They have been invited to commentate on a range of unlikely events—our highlight so far was the World Gurning Championships in the English Lake District (a competition in which the person who can pull off the most contorted, ugly face is the winner)—it was electrifying! The Commentators have hitched a lift with The Cardinals.

We know lots of Americans love sports, and pioneered lots of media coverage of sports, so, The Commentators are very excited to finally go to the US. The Cardinals are also excited, as they know that evangelism is big in some parts of the US, so they are looking forward to sharing their show with people.

As for Stan’s Cafe, we’ve been to the US a few times before with a couple of other shows, and we have always absolutely loved it, so we can’t wait to be back in the amazing city of New York.




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