Remake Symposium: Invited Speakers: James Yarker

Between now and 15 September, we will be introducing all of the speakers for the Remake symposium. James Yarker co-founded the Birmingham-based Stan’s Cafe, and has directed all of the company’s major shows.
In 1984, the Leeds-based Impact Theatre Co-operative made a show called The Carrier Frequency, in collaboration with science fiction author Russel Hoban. In 1999, Stan’s Cafe remade The Carrier Frequency, working from grainy archival video. Both of these works have taken on a heightened status and have a much wider influence than the limited number of people who were able actually to see the shows.

In a 2000 issue of New Theatre Quarterly, Frances Babbage writes of the Stan’s Cafe revival, focusing on the missing original – the fact that of the audience of fifty who saw the Stan’s Cafe version with her, few had seen the Impact Theatre version in 1984. Indeed, not even the (re)makers saw the original production. Babbage writes:

James Yarker told us that in their search for performers the company specified that applicants should not have seen the original production. The task the company set themselves was to restage the production from the video. The making lasted two weeks: the first week marking through the video, the second week rehearsal. (98)

Part of the excitement of the Stan’s Cafe remake is mythologized absence and the romance of disappearance – and it’s clear that the makers worked to deliberately manufacture this mythology and romance. Interestingly, it’s also a mythology of the mistake. Babbage records Yarker saying ‘We have tried to be true to the video, being aware a the same time that the video may not be true to the show’. (98) This playful relationship to gaps and errors forms its own kind of integrity, quite separate from a slavish (and impossible) insistence on questionable authenticity.

At the same time, it’s possible to make too much of the absence at the heart of The Carrier Frequency remake. Yarker writes on the Stan’s Cafe website of the company’s interest in the 1980s as ‘the first decade in which video technology was cheap enough to allow small companies to document their work’. So in fact, the existence of extant materials created the context for doing the remake – not absence at all, but excess.

But perhaps even more than absence or excess, there is at the heart of the Carrier Frequency project a question of proximity. While none of the makers saw the Impact show, Yarker writes that many of them studied with Impact member Pete Brooks at Lancaster University, and were inspired by him and other Impact members. ‘At that time’, Yarker writes, ‘The Carrier Frequency and Impact hovered as a history we knew shaped us, but which we knew we could never really learn because, in theatre, you really have to be there’. The remake, then, worked as a way to get closer to something important, to build something like a community. Yarker wraps up his reflection on Carrier Frequency thus:

It may be thought that the avant garde should be iconoclastic, working in reaction against earlier generations. In truth, if feels as if artistic generations are very short, and we are driven to build on their best practice. This project is driven by respect and although it is ostensibly about The Carrier Frequency, it is also intended to celebrate a host of lost, but influential, shows.

More than ten years on, the topic of remaking performance is on everybody’s mind and lips and performance remakes are staged in museums and galleries and symposia (ahem). In this context, Stan’s Cafe’s Carrier Frequency takes on its own status as an original – an original remake. What has changed in the intervening years? What gaps, errors and excesses now structure integrity in documenting performance? What proximities are we attempting, and what do we want our communities or artists to look like?

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