IOU was formed as a collective in 1976. The original founding members came together to create art that had live performance at its heart: they considered theatre, in its widest sense, to be the most appropriate medium in which to realise their artistic intent. For many years the company was known as IOU Theatre and it is only recently that it has dropped the word ‘theatre’ from its title (but not from its web address). As the company’s work developed and broadened, it started to find its productions described as ‘performance’, ‘theatre’, ‘performance art’, ‘live art’, ‘film’, ‘installation’, ‘exhibition’, ‘opera’, and ‘parade’. The company allows the content of its artistic impulse to determine the form it needs to take.
By the 1980s the company was resident in the eclectic and dynamic business and arts community at Dean Clough in Halifax, UK. The collective, now consisting of some of the founder members and subsequent core artists, became a company limited by guarantee, with David Wheeler, one of the remaining founders, as artistic director.
Sandy Craig’s book Dreams and Deconstructions: Alternative Theatre in Britain (1980) captures well the artistic and social context into which IOU had emerged, and out of which its extensive body of work evolved. Of the broad category of what was then known as ‘alternative theatre’, Craig writes,