Just the ticket - Take a look at the theatre from the back of a bus

IOU Rear View Theatre (JMA Photography)
IOU Rear View Theatre (JMA Photography)

Unpredictable art in unexpected places is what IOU is all about and Rear View fits the bill, as Tim Worsnop finds out.

Next time you stroll through the building that separates Dean Clough’s Victoria car park from the main complex, take a moment to look at the collection of unusually engineered theatre pieces.

Like the large silver show horse pulling a cart fitted with musical valves and the ever so slightly sinister looking chair with a pully system that one might imagine belonged to a dentist from time gone by. And there’s lots more tucked away in corners ...

This is the realm of IOU an inspirational arts company that produces “unpredictable art in unexpected places”.

Over its 42 years lifespan - it began when a group of like-minded art and music students joined forces in Hebden Bridge in 1976 - it has consistently delivered unique projects and toured them around the country.

In a little under a week one of its most unusual projects Rear View kicks off its 2018 UK tour right here in Halifax. I dropped in to IOU’s offices to talk about it to artistic director David Wheeler, a founder of the company, and executive director Joanne Wain.

Rear View is something the company is extremely proud of. This is precision engineering and technology meets cutting edge promenade theatre where a modified double decker bus becomes a mobile open air auditorium taking audiences from location to location. All the while an actress delivers her story in character and explains the relevance of each location as the bus arrives.

The audience wears special headphones through which they listen to what the performer is saying allowing for a unbroken show that continues even as the bus moves from place to place.

The real magic however is the way in which real life and nature dictate an ever changing backdrop which means two performances are never quite alike.

The show clocked up 80 performances in towns and cities from Batley to London last year to critical aclaim.

“We tend to try and show all the different sides to a town. Some places people will be familiar with and others they might not have been to before,” says Joanne.

“This can have a powerful impact in that people go away and see their town in a completely different way.”

The stories are about two different characters and have been written by London-based professional writer/performers Cecilia Knapp who is from Brighton and Jemima Foxtrot, who is from Hebden Bridge. They perform their stories separately.

The show begins in a life drawing class where the women are the models and the audience members find themselves participating in a drawing lesson.

“They have to look at the model very carefully and then the character talks to them and leads them off around the town revealing their story. When one performance finishes the next life class begins with the other performer,” says David.

“What they have written is generic to most towns. It’s more about the character.

“Depending on the location we pick they may change a line or two of introduction but it is amazing how the words fit every town we go to.”

Rear View is the culmination of 10 years development.

“It arose from a project we did when we hired a bus and took audiences to a performance at Beacon Hill,” says David.

“We then began to think about the idea of a bus that was ours and was special. A bus that once people were on they could be taken to different places and didn’t need to get off.”

The double decker bus they bought was a Volvo B10 M city bus which was stripped, chopped apart and rebuilt with tiered seating. Some of that work was carried out by Calderdale Engineering, with initial work on the mechanics from Stoneywood Autos.

Converting the bus to create a mobile auditorium was only part of the job though. They also needed to get it through a number of stringent tests to prove it roadworthy and capable of carrying passengers. And the company needed a fully licensed transport manager - a job that requires two years training!

At this point Oliver Howarth, operational director of First West Yorkshire Ltd, who is in charge of First Bus Halifax stepped in. He had heard of the project and agreed to give his time for free in that role. First Bus also agreed to maintain the vehicle covering its labour charges. and they have just rebuilt its engine!

“This was a significant time for us and we are really grateful to Oliver and First Bus. First basically manage the bus which needs maintaining to a very high standard,” says David.

"It all makes for a nice local connection. It was created here in Dean Clough but it was also local businesses who helped build it and now maintain it,” says David.

So who gets the job of being the driver?

Through a good contact they were introduced to Dave Forrest, a bus enthusiast, operator, tester and driver.

“He found our project interesting enough to give his time too. Dave is a brilliant driver and drove it most of last summer’s tour. But when we are in Halifax we will be working with a First Bus driver,” says David.

Public reaction to the bus, its audience and performers has been interesting to say the least. They’ve each been met with a mixture of wide eyed wonder and pure ambivalence.

On occasions the performers have been ignored by passers by intrigued by the bus and audience. And from time to time Jemima and Cecilia have had to quickly improvise when inquisitive youngsters approach them with questions mid performance.

“Quite often we get different things in the backgound that we haven’t predicted were going to happen. So the real world impinges on what were doing,” says David.

“Once the audience is on the bus and is comfortable, people can wear head phones and control the sound, so it becomes like a living movie.

“I think with this show we’re really enjoying the way it works with the mixture of real and imagined worlds.

“Because of that, Rear View seems like a culmination of all the work we’ve done over the last 40 years,” he says.

There are six performances a day of Rear View in Halifax from April 12 to 15, each starting in the Piece Hall. For all timings and to buy tickets go to www.ioutheatre.org, www.thepiecehall.co.uk or call the Piece Hall box office on 01422 525222. After Halifax it moves to Brighton, Stockton and Grantham.