“We have two more shows tomorrow. Let’s blow them away.” James Yarker, Artistic Director of Birmingham-based theatre company, Stan’s Cafe is giving his cast a post-show pep talk following the first performance of Any Fool Can Start a War, a new play about the Cuban Missile Crisis. The key difference is that the cast in question happens to be made up of sixty ten and eleven year olds, all of whom are currently in Year 6 at Birmingham’s Billesley Primary School.
Stan’s Cafe, co-founded by Yarker in 1991, is thrillingly varied in its output, with past shows including the dense, wordless, and richly cinematic The Cleansing of Constance Brown, as well as a delicate, meditative staging of Robert Burton’s 1621 tome, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Their installation, Of All The People In All The World, used grains of rice to represent world populations, while their recent LIFT co-commission Finger, Trigger, Bullet, Gun used domino chains to explore the global impact of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. They’re also interested in making progressive work with schools and since 2012 have formed a creative relationship with Billesley Primary School, having gone through an ‘audition process’, sending out letters to every local authority run school in Birmingham in order to find a school open to their ideas and ways of working who could act as a ‘partner school’ over a long period; with Billesley Primary, “they challenged us and we challenged them,” Yarker says.
Education has always been a key part of what Stan’s Cafe does, adult education as well as work with primary and secondary school pupils. Up until 2011 the company received funding from the Arts Council England’s Creative Partnerships initiative for these projects but since then they’ve had to explore new ways of making this kind of work, which is how the idea of the partner school came about. In the case of Any Fool Can Start a War, the Arts Council provided funding for the production itself but the other costs were met by the school.
The idea to make a play about the Cuban Missile Crisis was inspired in part by Wes Anderson’s film Rushmore, where Jason Schwartzman’s precocious Max puts on incredibly intricate plays about the Vietnam War (and, if I remember correctly a stage version of Serpico), and, more seriously, by the desire to engage in something that was a “learning experience both in terms of the process of making it and in terms of the content” with everyone involved – teachers, theatre-makers, pupils, audience members – learning more about the history of the period as a result.
While the play contains a central message about the importance of communication and cooperation, it doesn’t dilute either the complexity or the potentially globally devastating consequences of the events it depicts. And there’s something quite brilliant about having ten year olds playing world leaders, Fidel Castro, John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, emphasising the playground factionalism of the politics, while also conveying a real sense of jeopardy. Between them the children of Year 6 play also play a dizzying array of generals, pilots, revolutionaries and CIA operatives. (The kid who played Castro was a delight).
Since Stan’s Cafe started their work with the school, the company has created a number of smaller, contained projects with the pupils, including a Scalextrics race day in which the children got to act as commentators and an internet radio station, but this is the most ambitious and public project so far – it was performed at Birmingham’s MAC on 16th and 17th July, a venue with which the company also have an ongoing relationship. Every one of the children involved was given a specific role – “everyone speaks” emphasises Yarker – and they also helped to make the props, paint the title cards for each scene and devise the accompanying songs; the Russians, Cubans and Americans each have their own theme, which come together, rather majestically, at the end.
On the day of the first performance some lines were dropped and someone went home sick – Yarker admits that the pressures of the curriculum and the timing of the production at the end of the school year meant they didn’t have as much rehearsal time as they would have wished – but given the scale of the project and the size of the cast, things went remarkably smoothly, with the young cast really throwing themselves into it.
If there was any doubts about the benefits of the project these were alleviated by hearing Head Teacher Johanne Clifton, talking about the experience afterwards, describing the boost to the children’s confidence and their sense of aspiration as well as the remarkable progress that had been made by some of the pupils with limited English over the rehearsal period.
It’s heartening to see a company making work of this level of complexity and imaginative richness with children, and a school willing to embrace the challenges involved in something of this scale and ambition. On a number of levels this partner school model, with its focus on continuity and collaboration, is one that other artists, and indeed schools, might benefit from exploring. Because, while as a one-off project, Any Fool Can Start a War is pretty impressive on its own terms, as part of an ongoing, evolving relationship, from which all parties are learning things, it has the potential to be even more inspiring.