Theatre of Mistakes

Photo: copyright Lindsay Moran, The Theatre of Mistakes Archive

Revisiting a paper I wrote in 2009 after research with Jason E Bowman on the 1970s British performance collective The Theatre of Mistakes. This research also culminated in a set of ebooks on the collective created as part of a residency for Proboscis.

Mistakes Made Mutually

It would make a good novel, Anthony Howell said. The writer going between people who aren’t necessarily in contact, hearing what each one has to say, relaying the impressions of one to another, repeating opinion, being privy to multiple perspectives while individuals remain locked in their singular narratives of nostalgia or analysis. In short, the writer as a conduit for gossip.

The process of researching an entity as complex as Ting: The Theatre of Mistakes is well served by the notion of gossip as the subversive strategy of the excluded, as articulated by cultural theorist Irit Rogoff : “Gossip involves exchange not merely, not even mainly, of information, and not solely of understanding, but of point of view” (Gossip as Testimony – a Postmodern Signature). Professional relations within The Theatre of Mistakes were enhanced and complicated by interpersonal relationships that created ever-shifting dynamics. Some participants had remained friends; others hadn’t spoken in years. There was dissent, or silences; there was time and a death and a drifting apart. Gossip engages; it creates a mystique around its subjects. It occupies the spaces left by questions. Who threw the script someone else painstakingly typed into the fire? Who was ‘against agreement’? Who fell asleep while sat in the audience? What was the Secrets Piece?

This was always a company who knew its own value. Theirs is a history preserved in copious letters, program notes, scripts, posters, photographs, diagrams, drawings. The comb-bound book of The Street (1975) for instance is a blueprint for reading and recreating. It discloses a complex work: residents’ living rooms – sofas, rugs, televisions – re-located to the street; a chorus derived from snippets of overheard conversation; windows opened and closed triggered by actions below; people mirroring one another’s actions. However all this documentation is still only ever partial. It is participants’ and observers’ recollections that reveal connections between the real and the fictive. For instance: injured in a car accident during the Cambridge Poetry Festival where The Ting perform that April – Howard Tong returned to watch The Street and was quickly co-opted into performing again – a slow motion solo of a pedestrian knocked onto a car bonnet. Similarly, whilst a photograph of The Theatre of Mistakes’ Waterfall on the village green (1977 Silver Jubilee) depicts the watching crowd, it does not reveal that some respond by cheering, others by throwing apple cores. Peter Stickland recalls The Theatre of Mistakes was more popular abroad, so much so in Italy that a theatre manager doubled their fee – another ‘fact’ not legible in the documentation but one that explains the relative failure of American/British histories of performance to examine The Theatre of Mistakes’ legacy in depth.

In addition to using gossip and oral histories as strategies through which to interrogate The Theatre of Mistakes’ practice, Jason E Bowman and I also shared a desire to reflect its key principles: Mutuality, Chance, and Mistakes in the process of re-tracing its histories and their makers:

Mutuality. Anthony Howell, Fiona Templeton, and Mickey Greenall devise a Mutuality signature and stamp; there is a Manifesto of Mutuality. There are some exquisite Time Diagrams, coloured in gold and felt tip pen. The latter are Mickey Greenall’s work, Anthony is certain. Fiona is equally certain she made them. Mickey is no longer around to ask. In a sense it does not matter.

Chance. Choice by Chance, or die-throwing, is a conceptual presence from the inception of The Ting as a democratizing element and the preferred method of determining roles within the company. (The dice select Pat Murphy, Templeton, and Greenall to devise The Street and choose Templeton as its director, for example.) It’s perhaps as a result of sharing the responsibility for writing press releases and other promotional material that inconsistencies occurred in the naming of the ‘collective’ – variously called Ting, The Ting, The Ting: Theatre of Mistakes, The Theatre of Mistakes.

For the artist, chance functions to eliminate the ‘hand’ or the Modernist mark; it nullifies personality; frees the mind from clichéd associations by recognizing the potential of randomness: words placed alongside one another in unlikely combinations; images created by accident.

Published in 1971, The Dice Man the autobiography of Luke Rinehart (MD) – himself a fiction created by George Cockcroft – investigates whether it is possible or desirable to break down the self into a multitude of selves by using die in the place of free will. It asks: is the loss of a coherent, stable self (schizophrenia) a position that can be maintained? Or, does that adherence to instability constitute a new coherent self? In being no-one, can we be anyone? In The Theatre of Mistakes’ Going (1977), each performer enacts all the other performers. Is there still a narrative if everyone is the same person? Is there still drama if emotions such as anger cannot be attributed to any one ‘character’ but are performed as part of a formal sequence? (These concerns also characterize Howell’s unpublished novel Lost Farm which sets out not to reveal the inner thoughts of any of its characters.) Yet the formality of Going, this elaborate deconstruction of form, is complicated again by context. When it is performed in the Pennsylvania State Penitentiary, Glenys Johnson says, prisoners read it as the rejection of their continuous re-submittance of applications for parole.

Mistakes. Traditionally, the performance mistake might comprise the missed cue; lack of synchronization; failure to enter or exit at the correct moment; limb raised to an incorrect height; faulty rhythm. It makes a comedy or a tragedy of technique: stumbled pirouettes, flat notes, collapsing sets, jokes without punchlines….   A mistake can be corrected/ atoned for/concealed.

The mistake, whether accidental or deliberate, creates a rupture in form. Assuming form is rarely read until it is broken, The Theatre of Mistakes were practiced at looking for the mistake, at asking: what are the best errors to make to highlight structure? The historiography of the mistake in their work alters. It begins as the only thing they can say; to being seriously on the surface (Homage to Pietro Longhi); to becoming the fully rehearsed mistake which has retreated from the surface (Going); to the mistake that occurs in the thinking before the work has even been devised (Homage to Morandi).

Equally, the act of research, of collating and ordering, of selection and interpretation is riddled with chance elements (Howard Tong and Miranda Payne live a ten-minute walk away from one another in London and didn’t know it; Christina Toren and Signe Howell are now both Professors of Anthropology; Lindsay Moran joins Facebook a couple of days before he is looked for); mutual creations; and mistakes or, rather, contradictions which threaten a singular narrative of The Theatre of Mistakes. The ‘mistakes’ in memories, (again, whether deliberate or accidental), the mis-remembered, highlight the futility of attempting to create one. So rather than writing a biography which begins something like this: Anthony Howell instigated Ting inspired by his interest in chance and seeing Robert Wilson in New York; his interrogation of systemic art; conversations with his then wife, Norwegian anthropologist, Signe Lie who introduced him to Norse Ting myth of meetings where weapons were left outside a ring of stones and anything could be said. Pat Murphy recalls Robert Janz inviting her “to a kind of inaugural meeting of the group Anthony Howell was organizing.” She thinks this was in July 1974….. Instead of that story, there are several competing narratives, equally valid: Anthony Howell and Signe Lie created The Ting; Fiona Templeton co-founded The Theatre of Mistakes; Anthony Howell and Howard Tong developed The Ting conceptually; the Ting’s early adherence to minimalism is due in part to lack of funds hence its aesthetic develops out of the quotidian: kilims Lie and Howell bring back from their travels deployed as props; vehicles people drive to Purdies Farm are the substance of Amikam Toren’s Ballet for Cars; Lie’s pregnancy inspires Birth Ballet Chorale (1974). And so on.

A focus on the mistake, the contradiction, the fault line is something The Theatre of Mistakes applied to their own form. In one of Anthony Howell’s many notebooks, there is a list written circa 1975. He recollects it transpired after a mutual group critique. It reads:

Miranda – Not reliable

Anthony – Dismissive and cursory

Mickey- Lazy

Fiona – Irritatingly meticulous

Howard – Too obsequious

Lindsay – Moody

Anita – Too young

Again, these scribbled notes destabilise official narratives of The Theatre of Mistakes and encourage other, more fictive, readings of the performers. From conversations with participants and observers, characters emerge. Poet and former Royal Ballet dancer Anthony Howell is always the protagonist: disciplined (see notation of The Waterfall); dictatorial; a generous mentor; a man who wrote impassioned letters (see Rape of the Mind); spatially aware; obsessive (see Orpheus and Hermes) depending on whose narrative you choose. Fiona Templeton: also a poet; the most conceptually sophisticated; influenced by the literary traditions of OuLiPo and Perec; the really beautiful one with the waist-length hair; adept at creating games. Peter Stickland the rebel architect who prefers not to rock the boat; Miranda Payne, a muse with a talent for invisibility who floats in and out of the company; Lindsay Moran, serious, pushes physicality to the limit; Mikey Greenall: all color and flamboyance; Anita Urquart: a hairdresser out of her league; Anthony’s mother Deborah: formidable, the first female veterinary student in the UK; performs in early Ting works at the London Film-Makers Co-Op and at Michael McKinnon’s studio dressed in full hunting gear…

The other ‘character’ that features heavily in conversations around The Theatre of Mistakes is Deborah’s farm, Purdies at Hazeley Heath, Hartley Witney in Hampshire. There are many glimpses of Purdies in photographs. For a decade, it is the site of intense periods of creativity. In the early years, it is the venue for weekend events as artists visit from London, creating and documenting artworks. Later, it’s where works are honed prior to autumn touring. Purdies: a large, Jacobean farmhouse with a long drive and stables; all the animals are female; Howard and Mickey sunbathe naked by a pool flecked with goose droppings; a hot summer of no rain and forests on fire; Anthony walks the Dalmatians; lying in hammocks strung beneath trees; there are performances in fields through the night to 2a.m., 4a.m.; cows for audiences; rehearsals in the barn; exercises at dawn; a string sculpture threatened by storms; playing shove ha’penny in the local pub; waiting for Anita to finish getting ready; an impromptu set when furniture sits on the lawn waiting for removal; Glenys finds a dead mouse in the toaster; Pat Murphy sits in “a big wooden barn with spaces between the slats of wood, so that the horse cantering in the field outside, would strobe past like a zoetrope or some early movie machine”; a mare giving birth; Miranda lives in a tent outside as she finds the house too claustrophobic; Deborah dives into the pool wearing nothing but a pair of nylons; signing on; fences to mend, trips to the cash and carry; staying up late to do the budgets; walking in huge circles on the local cricket pitch; flared trousers so wide Peter catches his foot in them and breaks an ankle; Fiona wearing a man’s suit in rehearsal; villagers calling them ‘Tesco rejects’ in an era when Tesco is a byword for scum; banned by The Cricketers Arms after a dance appears to cause rainfall.

By encouraging the mistake, the chance element, the creation of a mutually conceived narrative that does not rely on consensus but that welcomes contradiction, the anecdote, the perceived, the invented, the dreamt, and the distorted, we are able to contextualise The Theatre of Mistakes in a broader variety of ways (through an analysis of its audiences; the interface of its participants; its influences and legacies, and so on). Evoked, rather than defined, circuitous rather than linear, The Theatre of Mistakes, like all good gossip, refuses to be contained.

Marie-Anne Mancio             London 2009

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