Birmingham theatre company Stan's Cafe is recreating its internationally renowned art installation at an office block in the city. Dave Freak reports.
It was back in 2003 when Stan’s Cafe first conceived its “rice show” which has since gone on to become a global phenomenon for the Birmingham theatre company.
The company hit upon the brilliantly simple idea to represent the world’s population by piles of rice, with one grain of rice for every human being on the planet. All sorts of world statistics, normally too abstract to be readily grasped, could be laid out in front of you in a stark and potentially revelatory manner.
The only problem was that even in piles of rice, that’s a huge number of people. So the first version of the show, presented at Warwick Arts Centre and shortly afterwards in Birmingham Cathedral, was scaled-down to represent UK-only statistics.
But the show generated world attention and went on to tour more than 50 cities including Germany, Canada, Spain, Italy, The Netherlands, Ireland, America, Japan, Brazil and most recently Australia, as part of March’s Perth International Arts Festival.
Among the throngs of more than 250,000 bemused onlookers who have viewed it have been movie star Cate Blanchett, Prince Charles, the Queen of the Netherlands and, when the show visited New York, music legend Lou Reed.
“He enjoyed it very much,” recalls Stan’s Cafe’s artistic director and co-founder James Yarker of Lou’s visit. “He said ‘You learn more in 30 seconds seeing this show than in the whole of the New York Times...’”
Since its 1991 formation, Stan’s Cafe have excelled in producing challenging yet rewarding productions including Canute The King (performed in Moseley Swimming Baths), The Cleansing Of Constance Brown (set in a purpose built 2m x 14m corridor), The Cardinals (a mime), and 24 Hour Scalextric (a lengthy commentated toy car race in their Jewellery Quarter HQ/ performance space, AE Harris). However, it’s arguably Of All The People In All The World that has become the company’s most popular, signature, production.
“I prefer to talk about it as a thing ... a great thing ... a great big thing ... a phenomena,” smiles James of the piece, which straddles the line between theatre, performance and art.
Consisting of a small lab’ coat wearing cast and several tonnes of uncooked rice weighed into smaller piles, the work presents almost incomprehensible population statistics – from births and deaths to singletons, professions and commuters – in a clear, easy to grasp, way.
“It was a challenge to find something of a very regular size, that was granular and cheap,” James says of his final choice of materials. “We realised that sand goes into a powder, and you can’t make calculations with gravel as the pieces comes in different sizes, and it’s heavier. Rice has a resonance to it, as a foodstuff. The little grains are tall, thin, resemble human figures.”
Considering it’s essentially piles of inanimate material, seeing the work can be a surprisingly moving and emotional experience. Recalling a visual representation of Martin Luther King Jr’s historic 1963 civil rights march on Washington, James says: “One woman said she’d seen herself in the show, and was much more insistent than other people. The shape of the rice pile was of a crowd of people standing around the long reflective pools. She pointed to a grain of rice on the edge, and said ‘That’s me there – I fell into the pool, I was five!’”
The show’s 10th anniversary is being marked with a special homecoming stint at Two Snowhill, a new 14-storey office development close to Snow Hill Station. Commissioned by property developers Hines and Ballymore, consisting of 23 tonnes of rice (representing 1.5 billion people) and taking up the entire sixth floor, the free entry show will gradually change during the run, responding to suggestions from visitors.
“It’s always interactive so we have and continue to do research on interesting statistics. We do the opening gambit, if you like, but from there on we respond to the audience. People come to us and talk about their stories: ‘My mum came over from the Yemen in 1976...’ Oh! We should do something on that! ‘I’m in Greenpeace...’ and you dig out some statistics relating to Greenpeace. Mostly it’s about talking to people on the day, although they can send in ideas and suggestions – we’ve had a few already, like the number of MPs educated at Oxford University versus the University of Birmingham, another on black footballers...”
Alongside the 10-day stay at Snowhill, the company also have the dance inspired Exodus Steps in Los Angeles until the end of April, while a family-friendly collaboration with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group looms (Noise Into Notes, April 28), followed by a new show for the opening of the Library of Birmingham in September, and a return for The Anatomy Of Melancholy in November. There’s also “an element” of Of All The People currently on display at London’s V&A as part of its record breaking David Bowie exhibition (until Aug 11).
“Bowie was born in 1947 which is the year that more children were born in the UK than any year before (so) we’ve done a little lightbox with that many grains of rice,” says James who was invited to the VIP opening.
“I’m a bad celebrity spotter, I’m sure they were all famous,” he says, though he did spot Marc Almond and Dexy’s Kevin Rowland.
“We arrived with Noel Gallagher, so you can probably see us there in the background, in OK! Magazine or something,” he laughs.
* Of All The People In All The World runs from tomorrow to April 21 at Two Snowhill, Snow Hill Queensway, Birmingham. Open Mon-Fri 11am-7pm, Sat/Sun 11am-6pm. Admission free. For more information, visit: www.stanscafe.co.uk