News: The
theatre of art

From cloud-clearing canons to a play in a moving vehicle, IOU Theatre has been pushing artistic boundaries in Halifax for 40 years, says Roger Ratcliffe

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On a very dull day in Halifax a gigantic cast iron funnel lies in an old weaving shed. Called a vortex cannon, it was invented more than a century ago to blast air into clouds at supersonic speed and, in theory at least, clear the skies to improve the weather for farmers.

“The story is not necessarily on a stage and not necessarily scripted.”

There’s no scientific evidence it ever worked, but at the colossal Dean Clough Mills it must be tempting to wheel the thing into the car park, point it towards the glowering Yorkshire heavens and give it a go.

The cannon is one of the most oddball inventions ever devised and, as such, has become the perfect inspiration for an extraordinary performance by the boundary-pushing IOU Theatre company at its new base inside the mills.

That’s “performance” used in its widest sense, as anyone familiar with IOU’s work will appreciate. The company has constructed a massive circle of gleaming steel air-ducting tubes and cones that carry waves of sound based on a recording of air moving skywards when the vortex cannon was fired, and would probably make even Pink Floyd and electronic musikmeisters Kraftwerk jealous.

The installation’s name is Speaking Tubes, and the otherworldly ebbing and flowing they emit through multiple speakers is actually a composition by composer Yannis Kyriakides.

“We describe it as a multi-channel, immersive sculptural sound installation,” says IOU’s technical manager, Dan Powers. “When you stand between or around the tubes you get the sense of motion. The audience can hear the sound as it travels. It has a very long tail and doesn’t seem to recede as it gets further away.”

As the centrepiece of IOU’s 40th anniversary year, Speaking Tubes are partner to Kyriakides’s contemporary music piece Vortex, which is performed by several wind and brass instruments. The idea is that musicians and the audience move around the tubes, interacting with the sound and themselves becoming the live show.

This kind of category-defying work is typical of IOU, which was formed when a group split from the Burnley-based progressive theatre company Welfare State in 1976. Its radical intention is evident in the name it chose, an acronym of International Outlaw University.

For much of its existence IOU has been based at Dean Clough Mills, once the world’s largest carpet factory but now a thriving business and arts community. This summer, the company moved from one end of the mills complex to the other and for the first time has acquired its own permanent public space.

The Speaking Tubes installation, on show until November, is behind a massive aluminium wall that fronts a new gallery space currently displaying props and photographs from most of the company’s productions over the past four decades in an exhibition called Future/Past.

Joanne Wain, IOUs executive director (pictured above with Speaking Tubes), acknowledges the company is not what most people expect from theatre. “It’s the theatre of art,” she says, “so we use art in its many forms to tell stories, and that story is not necessarily on a stage and not necessarily scripted, although that’s one element we do.”

The next big IOU production, which they will be touring from next year, is called Rear View and will give a whole new meaning to the term street theatre. Instead of performing in a static location, the audience sits in a specially adapted open double decker bus and faces backwards to watch and listen to a performance in a car, which follows the bus around the streets of a town or city.

The bus has seating for up to 44 passengers, who wear headphones to hear a conversation in the car behind. The story is called Rear View not just because of the audience’s position, says Wain, but because the protagonist will be looking back on her life in that town. Two different performance poets will appear, Jemima Foxtrot from Yorkshire and Cecilia Knapp from London.
IOU’s exhibition Future/Past is at Dean Clough Mills, Halifax. Speaking Tubes/Vortex will be at Barnsley Civic Hall on 25-26 November (

Photo: IOU Theatre’s Joanne Wain with the Speaking Tubes sound installation in Halifax

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