The Story So Far

The Story So Far

The Story So Far

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“It’s the start of a new era”: IOU on running an eco hostel, championing artists, and carving their own path for half a century Words by Laura Robertson

After 45 years of performing live – on top of buses, in chapels and abandoned barns – IOU is  ready for a new adventure. Laura Robertson speaks to Artistic Director David Wheeler and Executive Director Joanne Wain as they announce the IOU led Hebden Bridge Hostel takeover, quadrupled artist’s development programme and new, post-pandemic shows…

They’d built their own seating rig that made the theatre space in Ovalhouse, London, into what felt like a cock-fighting ring. The play, one of three shows performed in March 1979, featured “a dance between a Ford Cortina and a ship”. Audience reactions veered from captivated to outraged. Yet one thrilled spectator would come back again and again: the eccentric Scottish poet Ivor Cutler, who became a fan of IOU theatre company from that night on, attending several of their touring shows and visiting the troupe at their Mill in Hedben Bridge, in the Upper Calder Valley of West Yorkshire. 

Their performances appealed to Cutler’s “droll, dark humour,” recalls last remaining IOU founder and Artistic Director David Wheeler. It’s clear listening to stories about its rich and lively history that IOU has always been somewhat nonconformist. As Wheeler puts it: “We weren’t trying to find a way into theatre – we were trying to find a way out.”

Producing fantastic, dreamlike performances as a collective of aspiring artists and musicians since 1976, is now a charitable, producing arts organisation with a venue in Halifax city centre.

IOU’s oeuvre continues to be multidisciplinary – a heady blend of avant-garde theatre, live art, sound, installation, drawing, poetry, immersive set design and technology… and a lot more besides. 

Over the last 45 years, IOU has found and continues to cultivate highly unusual ways for audiences to experience storytelling outside of the traditional stage format: via location tracking (My Three Words), a sunken, silted village (Between the Floods The Churning of the Milky Ocean), whispering ghosts (Long Division at Mill Hill), to edible choreography (Caramel) and giant shoes (Full Tilt). Performances often include or are actually presented within vehicles, from bizarre kinetic props – red pigs and bubble cars – to the commandeering of real train commutes (Sea to Sea), to engineering a working sightseeing bus to drive the audience backwards (Rear View – “probably the most complicated project we have ever done.”)

The original members – all art school graduates, including Wheeler, who trained at both Birmingham and Wolverhampton Schools of Art – forged what we consider ‘site-specific’ or location-based theatre as we know it today; now a common feature of cultural programming across the British Isles. In the 1970s, however, Wheeler recalls a very different scene. “The divisions between the different art forms were still very ridged, but beginning to break down.”

His peer group were keen to create something entirely new in-between the gaps of established British theatre – which then was largely literary based – with performance art at the other end of the spectrum. Early shows “developed and transitioned in a very visual dreamlike way,” he remembers, with scores that the group composed and played live, which took the place of dialogue or linear narrative.

“We called ourselves ‘IOU’ to broaden the concept for work (time-based performance) that wasn’t based on existing texts, or presented in dedicated theatre spaces.

“What excited us most was making shows for unusual locations – these appealed to the art-minded, mostly young people of our generation, who were seeking new ways of thinking, but also making productions in public places where large numbers of people of all generations came across the shows who wouldn’t necessarily think to go to a theatre or modern art gallery.  

“In this sense, it was and still is, socially political in its liberating intent and inclusive in nature.”

It’s rare for an arts organisation to survive such a long period, given the financial pressures and societal changes through the late 20th and into the 21st century, not to mention a global pandemic.

Of the many experimental theatre companies initiated in the ‘60s and ‘70s, only a few endure (including peers People Show, London, and Forkbeard, Somerset). IOU has  thrived, it seems, by sticking to the core purposes of accessibility, non-traditional presentation, and the production of new work by emerging artists, specifically through studio-based R&D. 

“Productions are at the heart of what we do,” says Executive Director and Senior Producer Joanne Wain. “We’re currently working on even more installations suitable for outdoor settings (as the desire has risen substantially post-pandemic), and exploring sculptural and hybrid digital art trails. Every project needs multi-skills, multi-technologies. Everything is original and made from scratch. We’d never move away from that. It’s always going to be about an art intervention, or experience, and realising it with whatever tools we can get our hands on. That’s what makes IOU!”

With a background in music journalism (writing for The Face, Mixmag, and editing Jockey Slut), and previously producing for FutureEverything and the Cultural Olympiad, Wain started at IOU in 2014 as Interim Producer. She has since overseen one major organisational shake-up and is now planning the next. IOU’s evolution under her custody has seen their present venue, based at the beautiful Grade II listed Dean Clough Mills (an imposing Victorian 22 acre site, housing more than 100 other companies, within 20 minutes walking distance from Halifax train station), develop from a touring company to one with visitors in mind, as a permanent gallery, studio, and workshop with public opening times. In 2022, they will quadruple their artist development programme, entitled space.tools.time.advice, by expanding square footage at Dean Clough but also, ambitiously, by way of a brand venture – as hostel managers.

“We’re going to start managing and running the Hebden Bridge Hostel,” announces Wain, “in partnership with Pennine Heritage at the Birchcliffe Centre. It’s going to become central to our business vision. The Hostel, which has already been run successfully and independently for twelve years, will now provide us with ‘bed nights’ for artists who want to visit us and develop their practice, and who can now stay with us for longer.”

Hebden Bridge is a post-industrial market town fed by the Pennine Ridge, and now part of a designated beauty spot, The South Pennines Park, which stretches from Blackburn in Lancashire to Huddersfield in West Yorkshire. The Hebden Bridge Hostel, under IOU, will continue to offer homely, affordable accommodation to backpackers while, it is hoped, winning them over as audience members and volunteers. With its lovely architecture (a former Baptist chapel), stunning hillside views, large gardens and woodland, the Hostel is ripe for creative input.

“The idea of it being a constant shop window will bring new people to IOU who wouldn’t find a normal route to us,” says Wheeler. “It’s very exciting.”

“Out of it will grow something really special for the area” Wain adds, “at a time when the community needs it. It’s difficult coming from here – as people don’t know the region. They know the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District, Leeds, Manchester, but they don’t really know Calderdale. It’s so unique in its landscape and industrial heritage. I’m quite passionate about celebrating where we are, and where we’ve emerged from.”

For artists who want to work with IOU on space.tools.time.advice, it’s good news. They usually have bespoke needs, Wheeler and Wain point out, and find it difficult to take up overnight residencies (consider the notoriously low incomes that artists face, plus funding cuts, childcare issues, travel restrictions, ad nauseam). The addition of reliable lodging means more opportunities to use the studio, riggings and equipment; to take advantage of staff skills (including Producer Jonathan McGrath, who was appointed during lockdown); to learn about IOU’s distinctive methodology; and to receive much-needed time and dedicated space to develop works-in-progress, in-person. The next twelve months is already booked up with twelve diverse, visiting artist groups, with expectations of many more into 2023. 

There are other new ventures.

You, the reader, are viewing this feature on IOU’s latest website, which aims to demystify the above support package and other backstage activity; publishing stories about new work and partners, revealing R&D processes and everything that spins off it. “A lot of what we do, presentation-wise, is the tip of the iceberg,” says Wain, “and we’re working on ways to open it all up.” 

There are, of course, new productions in development as we speak. Hard Evidence, the aforementioned hybrid trail, will celebrate lives and working practices that still mark fields, alleyways, paths and abandoned barns along The South Pennines Park, with cast-iron sculptures and audio guides, made in collaboration with local community groups; in Goldfish Blue, a 360° film with Phoenix Dance Theatre, we’ll get a fish’s perspective as it contemplates its place in the universe; sedative sound installation Two Rivers will push visitors to consider growth and decay in the natural world; and Terra Nova, an installation of miniature stages, terrariums, maps and soundtracks will play out ancient and new creation myths.

It’s a thrilling time for the team who, despite decades of experience in the arts, admittedly “still have a lot to learn” about running a hostel in a post-pandemic world. Since Covid reached UK shores in 2020, the team has refurbished their venue, raised money, and focused on a new portfolio of work for new contexts that build on their success in site-specific performance – an area of expertise that most arts venues are learning from scratch. At the same time, grappled with new Arts Council funding requirements, considered how the market will change in the future, and Wheeler’s impending retirement. He credits the imagination of Wain and the rest of the IOU team with getting them through the challenge.

“I’m 69, and we have to think a little about the transition of IOU and what it will be. I’ve been part of every show that we’ve done. At some point over the next few years, I’ll step out and hand it over. The next period is very much about how we build on our identity, but to make it even more open to new artists.’

“It feels”, he says, “like the start of a new era.”

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