Foco Novo

Company name: Foco Novo

Founders: David Aukin, Bernard Pomerance, Roland Rees

Established: 1971

Reason: To present Bernard Pomerance’s Foco Novo 1972

Current status: Disbanded 1989 when their Arts Council funding ended

Area of Work: New Writing with a particular focus on developing Black British writing amongst others

Policy: Small and middle-scale touring and London. Playing Miners Halls through the auspices of the National Union of Minerworkers, new writing by first time writers as well as new plays by experienced writers, touring Arts Centres and Regional Theatres throughout UK, and to Mickery Theatre, Amsterdam. Also, middle to large scale tours of Brecht plays. New Black writing was encouraged. After the untimely death of Alfred Fagon, one of the key black playwrights to write for Foco Novo, an award in his name was created by his friends. Roland Rees was the Chair for many years until 2009 when Winsome Pinnock took over the Chairship. The Alfred Fagon Award is now a nationally hosted annual event, to encourage new black writers. Committed to producing new work in the belief that the writer is the catalyst for theatre. Aimed to present original work to new audiences, who did not always have the opportunity to see it, by touring throughout the UK, Europe and finally to London (playing for 3 weeks at Hampstead Theatre, Royal Court Upstairs, Tricycle Theatre or Riverside Studios), into newly opened theatre spaces. We  also produced plays by Bertolt Brecht, our  guide for the contemporary plays we produced, highlighting Britain in the 1970s and 1980s.  We featured  plays by Black writers – Mustapha Matura, Tunde Ikoli, T-Bone Wilson and Alfred Fagon. It was the policy of Fovo Novo to commission plays from writers on themes instigated by the company. For example, Bloody Poetry, about Shelley & Byron, by Howard Brenton, A Seventh Man, about migrant  workers, adapted by Adrian Mitchell from the book by John Berger, and Tunde Ikoli’s adaptation of  Maxim Gorki’s Lower Depths.

Structure: Management structure:  an unpaid Board of theatre professionals, 2 full time members of staff  – Artistic Director & Administrator. All other staff employed for single productions, e.g. Designer, Actors & Production Staff. Everyone paid same wage. For a time, it was policy for companies of actors  and staff to attend Board Meetings.

Based: London

Funding: Arts Council of Great Britain, with occasional grants from Greater London Council, West Midlands Arts, Southern Arts among others

Performance venues: Foco Novo opened in a double garage in Gospel Oak, a performance area known as the Roxy, and was played, with audiences’ backs against  the walls – both inside the garage, on the street and on the roof, all the action accompanied by a jazz percussionist. In contrast, Nine Days and Saltley Gates played Labour movement halls up  down the country, including the coalfields of South Wales, Yorkshire, Scotland and Kent –  whilst we played new plays for new audiences in new Art Centres on University campuses. All tours culminated at a London Venue.

Audiences: As various as the plays but the shows were chosen/directed at particular audiences – from miners, members of Black communities, University students, Regional audiences + the usual very mixed bag of Londoners.

More images can be found of Roland Rees’ web page.

Company work and process:
The Company generated the work by choosing a story it felt compelled to tell, and by matching the writer to the project. Then followed the work of the writer on the text with input from the director, most usually, Roland Rees, through various drafts of the play. Parallel to this, he would work closely with the designer of the project. Then, armed with the manuscript, he would cast the play, often from a loose pool of actors he was used to working with , thereby producing a company style of work. In the meantime, the Administrator and Company Production Manager would be preparing the details of the tour and co-operating with the chosen venues for the play, & the final London destination. Prior to this the tour booking took many months of the Administrator’s time. He or she had to dovetail the dates, which always proved tricky, being composed of 4-6 weeks of touring the regions, & maybe playing 2-3 venues in one week. In such circumstances the set design had to be imaginatively versatile. Rehearsals lasted 4-6 weeks, depending on the size of the project & the number of cast. Most plays included live music, specially composed, such as The Ass by Mike & Kate Westbrook, & also choreography. It was a feature of the company’s work to use jazz percussion as part of some productions eg Brecht’s Edward 11. ‘Early Days’ discussion with Bernard Pomerance, David Aukin and Roland Rees.

Personal appraisal & thoughts:
During the 17 years Foco Novo received an Arts Council Grant, we were performing in a country run by a conservative government. Our ideas & work were far from & nothing to do with their prevailing values at that time. We supported Labour’s social values which were reflected in all the work we did. Some may say we consistently bit the hand that fed us, but the plays, including co-productions, were produced for the hard-working people of Britain, to reflect their interests and intentionally toured to places that didn’t even have a theatre in their area. Touring, however difficult venues might be, was always an enriching experience for us all, actors especially, and London was the carrot or prize at the end for the Company, most of whom lived in London, even if they didn’t originate there. It was important to the whole Company that we were reviewed by the national as well as regional press.

Reviews: Most of the many reviews over 17 years are held now in the Special Collections Archive of Leeds University Library. Descriptions & listings of the shows produced can be found in Roland Rees’s book, Fringe First-pioneers of Fringe Theatre on Record, published by Oberon Books.
The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance, first produced in 1977 by Foco Novo on tour, at Hampstead Theatre & subsequently on the Lyttelton stage, National Theatre. The play later won Tony and Obie Awards and played a long run on Broadway. UK reviews included: ‘stunning & powerful’  Times‘ … a beautiful & compulsive play’ Times ‘a deeply moving, theatrical experience’  Sunday Express  ‘A great success…an extraordinary play’ Observer Mr Puntila & his Servant Matti by Bertolt Brecht: ‘this enterprising & lively touring company have since 1972 specialised in the new & unusual’ Daily Telegraph ‘Roland Rees directs an excellent Foco Novo company with suppleness, speed & punch’ Morning StarSink or Swim by Tunde Ikoli: ‘ offers fringe groups a lesson or two about developing theatre for the people‘ Circuit ‘witty, pacy production, a skeletal, cunning little play’  Time Out. Withdrawal Symptons by C.P.Taylor: ‘the director Roland Rees has done a magnificent job creating this highly stimulating production’ The Scotsman ‘the admirable travelling fringe group’ The Listener. Conversations in Exile adapted from Brecht by Howard Brenton: ‘splendidly & beautifully adapted’ Birmingham Post, ‘excellent acting partnership’ City Limits ‘a truly dialectical challenge … Recommended’ Time Out  ‘a rare treat’ Bristol Evening Post

Productions:[table id=6 /]

Interviewee reference: Roland Rees

Links: Roland Rees (website under construction)

Existing archive material: Leeds University Library – Special Collections

Fringe First – Pioneers of Fringe Theatre on Record by Roland Rees (Oberon 1992)

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank, and are greatly indebted to, Roland Rees (co-founder) for his generous time in writing up and helping us draw together the above material to create the Foco Novo page, 2010 – 2011. Page created by Jessica Higgs. 2010