Stan's Cafe Initiative

A 5-week collaborative module with world-renowned theatre group Stan’s Cafe led BA Illustration students onto the front covers of a set of scripts celebrating 25 years since the company's founding. Led by two VisCom academics, the project then undertook training with company staff to develop a design and workflow to deliver print-on-demand books leading to long term impact and income.

Stan's Cafe, a theatre company, based in Birmingham, creates its own highly original productions and tours them worldwide. Since its formation in 1991, its artistic explorations have included collaborating with schools and young people on creative learning products. Artistic Director James Yarker initially approached Illustration lecturer Gareth Courage to look at the possibility of asking students to work on a project.

Originally designed as a module-based project for first-year undergraduates on the BA Illustration course, the project required learners to respond visually to the back catalogue of Stan's Cafe scripts with an outcome that could be used as a book cover. After the five-week module duration and after a range of visual making workshops inspired by Stan's Cafe's devising methods, a pop up one-day exhibition of the module’s visual work was displayed at Stan's AE Harris venue in May 2018. Some of the images were selected for the final covers by James.

The second half of the project began when final year Graphic communication student Aimee Chapman designed a set of cover layouts suitable for a print-on-demand service. Academics then developed the project in collaboration with the company, and a set of book cover and interior text layout designs were developed, through bespoke training sessions and support from VisCom staff, into a collection of print-on-demand publications. The first book, The Cleansing of Constance Brown, was published in 2019 with others following.

VisCom staff undertook an initial evaluation with the company into appropriate online print-on-demand services. The outcomes of this informed the second stage of the process involving selection and training in a suitable and cost-effective DTP software. This has allowed the company to produce its own branded, fully designed publications based on a template system at a small scale and a small cost.

Staff involved in the project, especially at the initial module stage, gained excellent insight into the working process of a world-renowned experimental theatre company.

Student workshop sessions used creative thinking methods devised by the theatre company, allowing for accident and experimentation and an innovative approach to undertaking visual outcomes. This was a risky process that exposed the students to unfamiliar and often untested production methods but ultimately allowed for real insight to take place. In addition, a session with Stan's Cafe's creative director allowed the students unprecedented access to archives and insights for the plays they were working on.

"On Thursday evening at AE Harris, over forty first year illustration students from Birmingham City University exhibited their response to our front cover design challenge. They had five weeks to explore, experiment and deliver a cover inspired by The Something in that content. The results were spectacular. To see so much enthusiasm and time and effort and imagination and passion invested in reinterpreting our back-catalogue was very touching. I loved it, we loved it, it was loved." - James Yarker, Artistic Director, Stan's Cafe, May 2018

The project demonstrated the benefits of a long-term collaboration with local and national partners, allowing students to see projects through initial design and publication. It also allowed students with a range of abilities to succeed, as the work was selected for publication based on different criteria than those used for an academic assessment. For the University, working with established and highly regarded practitioners from parallel arts practices allows for genuine dialogue and learning to take place while strengthening and promoting partnerships between illustrators and the broader arts community.

Publications are now on sale via the Stans Cafe website and other retailers.

Find out more about The Something on Gareth Courage's website

The books can be purchased here.

Find out more about our Illustration BA (Hons) course