Craig Stephens On … Stan’s Café at the National Theatre

A house of mirrors in The Black Maze

On Stan’s Café’s website they mischievously proclaim “Forget ‘1-on-1′ Theatre, here’s ‘Just You (and maybe your mate) Theatre.'” It’s a teaser to The Black Maze, one of the shows coming to the National Theatre’s Watch This Space festival this August. They have every right to make such a cheeky statement with their 1998 project It’s Your Film sitting like the Godfather at the BAC’s One-on-One Festival last month. Remarkably prescient this Victorian illusion piece for an audience of one, gave this newish art form a historical context. Associate Director Craig Stephens laughs, “In a way it’s a nice little period piece… no one in the film has mobile phone because when we were creating it no one had one!”

The Black Maze follows on from It’s Your Film in that it places the audience at the centre of the experience. A solo trip through a series of pitch-black corridors encased in a lorry, The Black Maze sends your senses into overdrive through external stimuli (it would be cheating to reveal what these are but suffice it to say they sound exhilarating) with each story and adventure being uniquely forged by us.

For all their experimentation Stan’s Café are known for being an amiable non-pretentious company with a signature kooky wit and an interest in bringing the everyday centre stage; it’s all about accessibility. Stephens’ charmingly down to earth persona certainly tally’s with this; “We try to keep a level of humour in the work… for Of All The People In All The World [where grains of rice are used to bring previously abstract statistics into tangible, shifting mounds] it was easy to find statistics on death and despair but not to find positive ones. But we’ve tried to include gags and humorous ones too. It helps people to engage with other aspects of the work, it’s a Stan’s Café trait.”

Formed in 1992 by James Yarker and Graeme Rose it is an important backbone for a company whose diverse style means they have not gained the public recognition they deserve. “You can never really pin down a Stan’s Café show” Stephen’s concedes. Their work is certainly eclectic, ranging from scaletrix races, to more conventional studio shows such as Home Of The Wriggler (“We structure all the shows in quite a traditional way actually” confesses Stephens, somewhat conspiratorially), to their playful Steps series the most recent incarnation of which is also at the National this summer.

Revolutionary Steps is a direct response to Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death. Like all of the Steps pieces it originated from ‘teach yourself dance’ mats; “We thought it would be great if you could turn this into a ‘perform it yourself’ show.” By sticking different colour footprint trails, each creating unique character journeys throughout the foyer spaces of the National so that “the show in the Olivier can leak out into the rest of the building.” The audience can cast themselves in each role, repeat parts they love and cut parts they don’t.

I wonder how the relationship between these free form artists and the bastion of ‘straight’ theatre has been going; “Well it’s a great place to do it, although there aren’t many stickable surfaces! I thought they’d be really cagey about it but they’ve been really good and given us pretty much a carte blanche.”

I can see why the good people of the National would do so. Whilst you may never be able to predict what form a Stan’s Café show may take, you can guarantee that it will be forward thinking, thought provoking, funny and most of all, made for everyone to enjoy.

 The Black Maze runs from tonight until Sunday 8th August, Revolutionary Steps runs from 5th – 30th August.

Interviewed for What’s On Stage

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