There's a Reason: A Case for the Theatre of Mistakes
Jason E. Bowman

Ting, the Ting, The Ting: Theatre of Mistakes, The Theatre of Mistakes – a series of monikers that sometimes chronologically overlap in the records (1971–81) (1) of this artist-group from which the exhibition In Case There’s a Reason: The Theatre of Mistakes is constructed, alongside revitalised performances that mark two chapters of its practice. Firstly, the group’s early open, participatory and co-productive phase involving numerous people fostering exercises towards a hypothesis of performance art. Secondly, a new production of Going (1977) (2), a decidedly systemised work devised by a dedicated core – that emphasises a commitment to disabusing characterisation in favour of being. 


As a survey, In Case There’s a Reason: The Theatre of Mistakes enmeshes the archival with the reconstruction of live works. The exhibition also considers the operational and administrative dynamics of the company amidst the influences of its fluctuating membership and associates over a seven-year trajectory (1974–81). Divergent records and memories command selectivity, however whilst a singular chronicle is evaded – a narrative, nevertheless, is evinced.


In Case There’s a Reason navigates a dominant notion of performance art as being ideologically preoccupied with time-bound, evaporative immediacy, a concurrent disavowal of objecthood and materiality, and resistance to documentation. Whilst some of the exhibited records are ephemeral, meaning that they mark evanescent moments in a history of The Theatre of Mistakes, others are more provocative in terms of an impulse for potential longevity.


The Theatre of Mistakes may be understood to have engaged in the production of legacy; in part based on the potential for others to replicate its works and advance its concepts including hypothetically after its demise. Its attention to accounting for itself exploited the multi-disciplinary skills and approaches of members – poets, writers, dancers, visual artists and architects – works were collaboratively planned for and charted by text, collage, diagram, photography and drawing. Rehearsals, proto-works and finalised performances are therefore documented across media. Despite seeking funding to exploit its medium, only occasionally was video employed. 


Several written statements identify what may otherwise have been considered extra-artistic documentation to be what were termed ‘soundings’ (3). These are inclusive of particular manifestations of editioned images, collages and publications for which pricelists were conceived. As an indicator of possible monetisation, irrespective of its success – after all London was not yet a market centre for contemporary art – this reveals that the group, or at least some of its members, did not consider performance art to be a repudiation of physical art production nor were they resistant to the possible sale of artefacts.


Several scholars (4have acknowledged administrative qualities as being inherent to conceptualist and idea-centric forms of practice such as the instructional nature of production inherent to Sol LeWitt’s paintings or Hans Haacke’s institutional interventions. Paperwork is both a significant residue from, but was also an apparatus within the collaborative nature and entity of The Theatre of Mistakes, as well as those who engaged with and contributed to its own making and re-making. Typed papers complement handwritten documents and a profuse use of the photocopier repeats a keenness for generative circulation. An early word processor was used to construct the outlines for Time Diagrams for 1976’s Scenes at a Table, which were then coloured by hand. Notes inform various handbooks for work in progress with plans and schedules and thoughts on who may do what, when, how and why – and for what duration, including decisions made sometimes by chance, though not necessarily carried out as initially proposed.


Concurrent to the group’s evolving theories of performance art, missive-like statements were made and appear as cumulative versions across promotional material and other forms of self-description. Snail mail correspondence between peers and associates – including on cigarette-paper-thin airmail paper – suggest a commitment to the generosity of discourse in the building of communities of practice. Durational peer-to-peer support of experimentation also took place at Purdies Farm (5in Hampshire, where intermittently – and sometimes controversially – manifestations of works or projects in progress also occurred on the nearby village green of Hartley Witney. As a rural environment Purdies was a site of a commitment to sociality where other artists were invited to stay, work and engage with each other’s concepts and foster critique whilst exploiting the landscape and the farm’s buildings as sites. It was also where the group made works for mutual viewership including a night of solos and Fantasy Piece (1975). At Purdies, The Theatre of Mistakes generated forms of intimate viewership, questioning whether an audience was indeed required for a work to exist. The dole, as for many artists of the time, allowed for mobility (then one could sign on anywhere) and basic living expenses. One document reveals the predicted monthly expenditure of members.


Anthony Howell (ex-Royal Ballet dancer and poet) initiated The Ting in 1974, prompted, in part, by an encounter with a disseminator of one of Yoko Ono’s instructional works. At London’s artist-run spaces such as Artists Meeting Place, The Dairy and the studio of artist Robert Janz people would gather twice weekly in open workshops to generate, co-commit to performing and redefine exercises, initially in two conditions: physical and verbal. 


Connection took place via word of mouth and the cordiality of artists’ social lives. Those participating included practitioners from the arts but also from other occupations, such as the economist Victoria Chick, who was recruited via an action group attended by both her and Howell’s then wife Signe Lie. Lie had introduced Howell to the historic Nordic concept of Ting, a form of polity conducted through peaceful assembly of free men and women on common land, but capable of being presided over by lawmakers. 


An underlying rubric at the artistic Ting assemblies was that in proposing an exercise one was concomitantly agreeing to perform those proposed by others, and so began a series of conventions that, despite it never being legally constituted, punctuates the history of the group’s organisational formations. By 1975 writer and poet Fiona Templeton had connected with a shared interest in games, specifically concerning the potential for multiple games to be played out simultaneously.


Mik/Mikey/Mickey/Mike Greenall, Miranda Payne, David Spathaky and Howard Tong were recruited from art schools in Maidstone and Hornsey. With Howell and Templeton, they are named as the first six in what would become an alterable roll call of ‘nucleus’ members of The Ting: Theatre of Mistakes and then The Theatre of Mistakes. Core members and participants in Ting events recruited friends and acquaintances to perform, such as the near 25 performers who participated in the group’s early performance, Preparations for Displacement at the Cambridge Poetry Festival in April 1975 or the 60-odd people who, in the same year, co-performed The Street. Later indices see the named nuclei vary across projects and timespan and see the enrolment, constancy and leave-taking of various formations of core membership including of Glenys Johnson, Julian Maynard Smith, Lindsay Moran, Pat Murphy, Peter Stickland and Anita Urquhart. In a tripartite sequence of Mutual Signatures (1975) Anthony Howell, Mickey Greenall and Fiona Templeton reveal themselves as entwined in a shared monogram. Beginnings or endings can be elusive, not least when a membership – whether associative, one-off, sporadic, recurring and peripatetic or core, hard-core or nuclei – concertinas across time, venue, project, life, task and art. Nevertheless, principal players who signed up in 1976 to a five-year commitment to sustain working together were Greenall, Howell, Payne, Stickland and Templeton – the cast of Going.


Garnered from selected exercises developed at events, recorded in what was referred to as The Gymnasium, several early public performances such as Preparations for Displacement and The Street familiarised publics and engaged constituents in the group’s burgeoning commitment to advancing its own theories and praxis of systemic art but also as site-responsive works. Rehearsed for almost 11 weeks The Street – described as ‘a dance chorale’ – was then performed by around 60 people including co-residents of Ascham Street in Kentish Town, some of whom moved the contents of their living rooms from their domestic space to the thoroughfare. 


The work of contemporaries such as the American polymath Robert Wilson (6), who had trained in spatial design and whose productions also emphasised actions within the visual frame through real time, calibrated at different momenta and tempo, was an influence. The embraced restraint inherent to how the writers and mathematicians involved in Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) (7whose command of structures allowed, nevertheless, for disruptive inconsequential permutations provided inspiration. As with the impulse of Ono’s instructions and Oulipian conventions the potential for replication via dissemination, or perhaps more accurately continuation of its concepts and hypotheses – via distribution and participative adaptation – became key to the mannerisms of The Theatre of Mistakes’ production. 


In ways that conversely insinuate authorship but signal willingness for shared proliferation, Howell and Templeton produced the group’s only self-published volume Elements of Performance Art in July 1976. By then The Gymnasium had become a compendium of hundreds of handwritten exercises which were duly edited and converted into reams of typewritten text, then distilled, refined and calibrated into this proto-manual by which to make performance art from The Theatre of Mistakes’ reasoned definition of its foundational elements. Alongside republication of excerpted statements, made previously by the group, this book offers a total of 42 exercises divided into six varieties of ‘performance exercise or idea(s) (8). It is suggested that these confer ‘a menu’ that when designated from, including through the aleatoric impact of rolling dice, may constitute a performance made up of conjoining choices – some leading to incompatibilities and thus generative of mistakes, dilemmas and impasses. Its introduction includes an outline of divergent spatio-temporal possibilities including how spectatorship ‘in the round’ – or more exactly, in terms of their future trajectory, ‘in the square’ – would allow multi-dimensional and integrated points of view rather than the singularising framing effect inherent to the proscenium arch theatre. Works were also conceived for their ability to produce tableaux-like images. In all its editions Elements of Performance Art is comb-bound, suggestive of functionality: its pages capable of lying flat on a surface whilst being consulted as exercises are activated.


Populated by dancers and choreographers, writers, visual artists and trained architect Peter Stickland, The Theatre of Mistakes paid significant attention to the spatio-temporal and its effects on the pictorial, including how bodies, objects, furniture and clothes may be moved through a series of axes. Stickland produced multiple diagrams incorporating orthographic or multiview blueprints and other plans that articulated divergent rotational planes or toyed with multi-perspectival lines of sight. The diagram was used not only to depict architectural characteristics but also to plan for, organise and impart complex structural interfaces of performers, text, multiple actions, objects, site and configurations of time and of space. Likewise, preparatory notebooks for works reveal the diagrammatic as a means for planning and preparation but also as a way to visualise suggested divisions of roles and responsibilities within the group.


The Theatre of Mistakes explored the inherent replicability of diagrams. The structure depicted in the coloured suite of five Time Diagrams from Scenes at a Table was repeated in Going. The promotional material for Preparations for Displacement and The Street include component exercises and diagrams that duplicate certain exercises that also informed Elements of Performance Art. The material distributed at Preparations for Displacement informs the spectator how to shift from being viewer to co-performer. Yet, principles seem to be upheld throughout: the best of ideas were to be pinpointed and further refined, additively or subtractively, allowing also for re-incorporation across works. Numerous manuscripts were produced after performances. These operate not simply as a record but also as handbooks towards potential reproduction.


The Theatre of Mistakes long sought to disorientate the laws of gravity as identified in photographic works such as Anti-Gravity (1975) shot at the Automobile Association’s Headquarters in Basingstoke. The perpendicular Ascent of the Stedelijk (1976) was recorded in photography and collage by Glenys Johnson who shot photographs simultaneous to performing. The inversed pouring at play in the various iterations of A Waterfall (1976) is notated in multi-various charts including of the timed utterances of its riddle-like koans, the scheduling of performers, and actions such as water being poured upwards. A Waterfall’s overall sequencing was recorded in a grid of Polaroids and in part by a time-lapse photograph by Giles Thomas. The use of objects also punctuated the group’s work, especially furniture and in particular the functional, tubular steel chairs made by the English company Practical Equipment Ltd (pel). Objects were not necessarily treated as props but more as partners in performances that eschewed dramatic narrative arcs and the psychological characterisation inherent to plots. In Table Moves Duet (1981) an arrangement of chairs and a table shifts through 90 degrees on the axis of the centre of the square in which it is performed or on each of the centres of its quarters. Moving furniture with bodies allowed for viewpoints as if from below, above, front, back and sides. The performers in the two-part Homage to Morandi (1979) switch to being their partners in the performance: a table, a wardrobe, a suitcase and chairs.


The entity of The Theatre of Mistakes defies simple categorisation. As a group, there appears to be no records of them being described as a collective or cooperative, and from loose beginnings they come to be referred to as ‘a company’. No record exists of its incorporation yet their working practices reveal much about the dynamics of mutual and interdisciplinary art production. Further, the group varies in its accounts of authorship, singular and plural, amidst a shifting membership. Its claim to performance art, versus theatre, is also interestingly ambiguous. Despite a rigorous rejection of psycho-dramatic edicts, The Theatre of Mistakes’ work does reveal a consideration of particular theatrical conventions, such as some works being constituted in Acts or Scenes. Clearly, The Theatre of Mistakes was an entity concerned with the potential for its work’s replication. 


The Theatre of Mistakes’ complex forms of documentation in a range of media are carefully aligned with its conceptually-driven and systemised aesthetic as opposed to being merely recordings in photography and video. Its elaborate holdings that may assist in developing a history of British experimental and interdisciplinary performance have long been in storage. The group, therefore, may have received less public attention or research than may otherwise be reasonably expected. In bringing together live works, as well as its strategies, methods and records of its forms of organisation, it is hoped that In Case There’s a Reason addresses the lacunae that obscures The Theatre of Mistakes’ contribution to the development of systemic performance.





1 The records of the Theatre of Mistakes are certainly partial. Between 2006–07, Jason E. Bowman and Marie-Anne Mancio catalogued these, the majority of which were kept by Anthony Howell. Holdings by other members and associates were also logged. From 1971–73 the records are of pre-Ting projects by Anthony Howell and associates.

2 Going was devised by Mickey Greenall, Anthony Howell, Glenys Johnson, Peter Stickland and Fiona Templeton.

3 The Soundings are described with multiple definitions. In a 1975–76 funding application to the Arts Council they were defined as being the exercises recorded in The Gymnasium and a series of manuscripts, The Performance Books that recorded and allowed for replication of Preparations for Displacement, The Street and The London Exhibition. Later writings suggest them as being artworks derived from performances including sequenced photographs, collages and works such as Mutual Signatures.

4 Key texts include: Buchloh, Benjamin H. D., ‘Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions’ in October Vol 55 (winter, 1990), pp 105–143; and, Bryan-Wilson, Julia. Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era. Oakland: University of California Press. 2011.

5 Purdies Farm was owned by Anthony Howell’s vetenarian mother Deborah Howell. Alongside properties at Ascham Street and later Almeida Street, it is listed as the home of the group which spent significant periods of time there.

6 Active since the early 1970s, Wilson is an influential American artist most known for his theatre, art musicals and operatic productions, often with large casts that employ expanded durationality. His drawings, furniture designs and installations have been exhibited in museums and galleries internationally.

7 Oulipo was co-founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. It is a loose gathering of writers and mathematicians who restrict writing resulting in constrained patterns, including aesthetically. Writers such as Italo Calvino and George Perec also wrote in Oulipian fashions.

8 These were conditions, body, aural, time/space, equipment and manifestation.