September 21, 2006
British theater group Stan’s Cafe uses piles of rice to bring statistics to life
How do I measure thee? Let me count the grains
It's nearly impossible to comprehend very large numbers. Take the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. How does one go about understanding the magnitude of 6 million?
One way would be to visit the Skirball Cultural Center, where the British theater company, Stan's Cafe (pronounced "kaff"), will perform its latest piece, "Of All the People in All the World," from Sept. 26 to Oct. 1.
Upon entering the museum, visitors will receive a grain of rice, representing themselves. Then, they will walk into a room filled with 300 million grains of rice - one for every person in the United States. The rice will be divided into piles, each one illustrating a statistic, such as the number of people who have walked on the moon or the millions of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. One grain of rice will stand for one person.
And there it will be, among all the piles: a large mound with 6 million pieces, representing each individual Jewish life lost in the Holocaust.
The performance piece will take place during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a time of reflection known as the Days of Awe.
"We specifically chose to do it in the Days of Awe," said Jordan Peimer, director of programs at the Skirball. "What better way to understand your place in the world, your role in life, than to begin to understand the fabric of life on earth?"
The piece will open with 150 labeled piles of rice, illustrating serious statistics, such as the millions of people with HIV in Africa, as well as pop culture trivia, such as the number of people who watched the last episode of "Cheers."
Over the course of the show, five actors, dressed as factory workers, will manipulate the piles to illustrate various truths, including the number of passengers on the Mayflower and the number of people per police officer in Los Angeles.
Visitors will be encouraged to interact with the actors, to share their own stories and discuss the demographics to which they belong. Occasionally, the performers will measure statistics suggested by visitors on the spot.
Peimer said he had been following the innovative Stan's Cafe troupe for a while, waiting for the right time and the perfect piece to bring to the Skirball. When he saw the rice performance at a festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, last year, he knew he had to bring the show to Los Angeles.
The performance will be the second stop, after Portland, on the troupe's first U.S. tour. Since premiering in Coventry, England, in 2003, the show has toured throughout the United Kingdom. It has also traveled to Ireland, Canada, Italy, Spain and Germany, whose daily newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, praised the show, saying "The knowledge gained is astonishing."
The actors tailor each performance to the country, city and building in which they perform. They decided the Holocaust representation would be just right for the Skirball.
"To hear the statistic of the number of people who died in the Holocaust is one thing," Peimer said. "To see all of those people represented and to have you [represented as a single grain of rice] in relation to them is a very potent thing."
The troupe will also lead workshops for students from Brawerman Elementary School, Robert Frost Middle School, La Ballona School and Thomas Starr King Middle School. The children will research statistics and build mounds of rice to illustrate their findings.
James Yarker, artistic director of Stan's Cafe, who co-founded the group 15 years ago, said he came up with the idea for the piece when he was on tour with another performance in 2002.
"Each time we touched down, we found another city full of people bustling about their business, for whom it would be no appreciable loss if the U.K. and its 59 million inhabitants, including Stan's Cafe, didn't exist," Yarker wrote in an essay on the group's Web site.
"This parochial small island boy was beginning to get a sense that the world was far, far bigger than he had ever imagined it to be," Yarker continued, speaking about himself in the third person, "and he was starting to wonder if he would ever be able to understand how many people he shared the planet with."
After considering sand, sugar, salt, pebbles, peppercorns, spices and more as a way to represent large numbers of people, Yarker settled on rice. "We needed grains that were small, cheap, robust and which wouldn't roll around," he said on the Web site. Rice "also has powerful resonance, being a staple food for much of the world and looking vaguely humanoid in close up."
For piles with fewer than 200 grains, the group typically counts each grain. For larger piles, it weighs the rice. The Skirball will provide not only the scales for weighing the five and one-half tons of rice that will be used during the performance but also the rice, which it bought for less than $2,000 from local wholesalers. The grains will be recycled for animal feed when the exhibit concludes.
"We've never done anything like it," said the Skirball's Peimer. "I hope it makes people think about their place in the world, and I hope it makes people pause to remember the grain of rice that they are."
The exhibit will be open during regular museum hours (12 to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 12 to 9 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday). Admission will be free on Thursday and Sunday. Other days, general admission will be $8, $6 for seniors and free for members, students and children under 12. For advance tickets call (866) 468-3399.