Portable Theatre

Company Names: Portable Theatre, Portable Theatre Workshop Company (POTOWOCA) and Shoot Theatre Company

Founders: David Hare and Tony Bicât with Gus Hope as administrator

Established: 1968

Reason: Following university David Hare and Tony Bicât took casual work in the media and music industries. They had been involved in amateur dramatics at Cambridge and ‘one afternoon …I [David Hare] asked him why we couldn’t start a new company from scratch. How about a different kind of theatre that didn’t play to the old audience? Tony looked at my small wireless in the kitchen and said “Why shouldn’t theatre be portable? Like the radio?” ‘ (David Hare 2015)

Current Status: Portable Theatre was officially closed down in 1973. POTOWOCA became Paradise Foundry and ran for a further two years. England’s Ireland (1973) was Shoot Theatre Company’s only production – but the concept was broadly similar to that of Joint Stock Theatre Company, set up by David Aukin, Max Stafford-Clark and David Hare (without Tony Bicât) in 1974.

Area of Work: New Writing, Political and Experimental Theatre

Policy: ‘Our aim is to take new work wherever it’s wanted, and to perform plays that provoke an immediate response from the audience…… We travel without the lumber of conventional theatre, and can use any free space without needing much equipment.’ Portable Theatre Press Release 1969

Structure: David Hare recalls the socialist roots of the original company: ‘We foresaw employing five actors, each of whom would get one tenth of the take. We three [David Hare, Tony Bicât and Gus Hope] would get a further tenth each, and the remaining two tenths would go to the expenses of running the company. It was socialist and it was fair, even if it would turn out to be incompatible with making a living’ (David Hare 2015). Portable effectively explored collaboration as an element in the creative process, they were  ‘ a group that essentially is expressing the personalities or the creative side of a small number of individuals – me and Tony and Howard Brenton and Snoo Wilson. It expressed what the four of us were thinking and what we had to say about the world.’ (David Hare, 1971) Unlike many other alternative groups, actors were hired for a season or a particular production – following the traditional model of a West-end production. There was little continuity in personnel and few opportunities for actors to contribute to the direction of the company. The limitations of this model and its potential for conflict were addressed by Malcolm Griffiths when he became the company’s artistic director in 1971 and the company became Portable Theatre Workshop Company (POTOWOCA)

Based:  London based touring company

Funding: From the start Gus Hope(GH) was successful in getting sponsorship for the company – an electric typewriter from Olympia and a heavily subsidised VW van from Volkswagen. Their first production Inside Out – an adaption of Kafka’s writings and diaries got an Arts Council new writing award and their policy of taking theatre to non-tradition venues and audiences made them successful in getting further grants as a ‘fringe and experimental company’ and later within the Arts Council’s major touring scheme, DALTA. In 1971-72 Portable Theatre got £9,627 from the Arts Council (the second highest award for a fringe group – Ed Berman’s Inter-Action getting the highest). However there was considerable frustration in the company’s dealings with the Arts Council – not only its bureaucracy but also the Council was unsympathetic to their desire to move from the exhausting routine of continuous touring to fewer productions playing bigger venues. When Portable Theatre Workshop Company (POTOWOCA) was set up in 1971 GH had married and moved to America, the Arts Council insisted on imposing a ‘professional administrator’. Tony Bicât comments: ‘Malcolm [Griffiths] did interesting work with the company, but the administrator failed to administrate. In eighteen months the company were bankrupt.’ (Tony Bicât, 2007)

Performance venues: ‘We took the work all over the country going to small theatres like the Arts Laboratory, Drury Lane, the Oval House Studio Theatre, the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and to the Brighton Combination Theatre as well as to schools, colleges and universities, arts centres, theatre centres, army camps, jazz clubs and art galleries from Plymouth to Edinburgh’ Portable Theatre Press Release 1969.

Audiences: ‘We have a very bad record with working class audiences – we’ve hardly played any. Our weapon has always been a middle-class, middle-brow weapon really. But we used to have a percentage of what we called Agro dates. The Carnegie Hall, Workington, springs to mind as an example. You knew from the start you were doomed. All you could hope to do was to spread the maximum bad vibrations amongst the audience’ Dave Hare taking to Peter Ansorge (1972)

Company work and process:
In their first year Portable Theatre’s repertoire was mainly drawn from their interest in European modernist writers such as Kafka, Strindberg and Genet. Tony Bicât had suggested to David Hare that they collaborated on compiling a play out of Kafka’s diaries. This became Inside Out and with the encouragement of Jim Haynes it played at Drury Lane Arts Lab from November 1968. With Gus Hope as an energetic administrator they had acquired a van to take their first company – Hilary Charlton, William Hoyland, Maurice Colbourne, Neil Johnston and Nicholas Nacht on an extensive tour of mainly university and college venues. Tony Bicât describes the company’s style: ‘The story was cinematic, in the sense that it consisted of a number of short scenes with blackouts; there was no set except for four chairs, and only a few simple sound and music cues. This black and white, simplified style, with its declamatory speeches and choral sections, initially became the house style’ (Tony Bicât 2007)

‘Punk Theatre’
Howard Brenton (a friend of Hare and Bicât) was commissioned to write what became Christie in Love. Opening at Oval House in November 1969, it had great impact ‘thanks in good part to the detailed and disturbing performance of William Hoyland in the central role ….. Set in a pen made of chicken wire and filled with old newspapers… It plays with the controversial notion that when Christie practised necrophilia, assaulting his dead women, he was, in his own eyes, expressing a kind of love. With torches used as lighting…it was a stunning kind of punk theatre before the word was invented’ (David Hare 2015). Tony Bicât: ’We wanted our work to shock. Plays…were designed to shake the audience and therefore the establishment.

The success with Christie in Love enabled Hare and Bicât to clarify the direction of the company ‘from now on, there was no question of Portable doing old plays’ (David Hare 2015). Whilst still playing universities and colleges, arts centres and festivals now became important. Snoo Wilson, had recently graduated from UEA and joined them as a ‘roadie’  and wrote and directed two plays for the company in 1970.

The company’s work remained uncompromising. A new Brenton play Fruit showed ‘all politicians and power seekers as irredeemably corrupt’ and Michael Billington thought the work endorsed ‘the climactic gesture of a revolutionary warehouseman who flings a home-made bomb against a wall to symbolize his contempt for authority’. Snoo Wilson’s  Pignight in February 1971 was also directed by Wilson – it presents a disturbing ecological nightmare set on a Lincolnshire pig farm, attacking among other things, farming methods (‘eating bacon is a political act’) and consumer packaging. Peter Ansorge notes ‘at the end of Pignight there is pig all over the place.’ (1972)

‘We don’t want anything to do with it any longer’
Three years on the road was beginning to exhaust Portable: “We were doing the laundry, we were doing the lights, we were buying the props, we were driving the van, we were organising the meals and we were just going out of our minds after five months of this.” (David Hare 1971). Tony Bicât was driving five actors home from Wales when the VW van skidded badly ‘mercifully nobody was seriously hurt, but it marked perhaps the end of the days when Tony and I thought of running a theatre company as fun, as a lark’. (David Hare 2015). In an interview in 1971 Hare describes how their success at getting Arts Council grants as a touring company also imposed overwhelming constraints on them. ‘Now [Portable’s] got a £8000 subsidy from the Arts Council and it’s like some monster. We don’t want anything to do with it any longer because it’ll shape us rather than let us shape it.” (David Hare 1971).

Malcom Griffiths had been brought in to direct and tour with a double-bill of plays by John Grillo (Food and Zonk) and was asked by Bicat and Hare to become the artistic director of the company. ‘[We] told him to get on and do whatever he wanted, with the sole condition that it be different from what we had done (David Hare 2015). Griffiths commissioned Sheffield writer Chris Wilkinson, to write what became Plays for Rubber Go-go Girls  – a sensational collage of four short plays satirising the sex and violence of American comic books targeted at US service-men.

Edinburgh Festival  1971
Portable took three companies to the Edinburgh Festival in 1971. Malcom Griffiths’s Rubber Go-go Girls  at the Pool Theatre in repertory with Snoo Wilson’s Blow Job (directed by David Hare, despite his earlier pronouncement) – a graphically violent piece that outraged many of its audiences. David Hare had also been central to an ambitious experiment in collaborative writing involving himself, Stephen Poliakoff, Howard Brenton, Snoo Wilson, David Hare, Trevor Griffiths, Brian Clark and Hugh Stottart. The outcome, Lay By , was directed by Snoo Wilson and opened at the Traverse Theatre. Using as its starting point an item news report about oral sex on a layby,  it explored attitudes to pornography and sexual violence in society. Of the production, Snoo Wilson jokingly commented that ‘the Lay By project has taken years off my life. We have alienated permanently a section of the British theatre-going public. People have fainted, passed out and dropped over the back of the rostra at the Traverse’ .

POTOWOCA
As Lay By and Blow Job opened in London and Go-go Girls toured, the new artistic director Malcolm Griffiths wanted to redress Portable’s approach to actors. ‘I realised that the actors were being limited by the feudal situation of being employed for a certain length of time for one play’. He established a permanent company of six actors – Michael Harrigan, Mark Penfold, Pat Rossiter, Emma Williams, Nicholas Ball and Diana Patrick – that would work with the director, commissioning work and creating productions. The company was to be known as Portable Theatre Workshop Company (POTOWOCA). The Arts Council insisted on the replacement of Gus Hope with a ‘professional’ administrator. David Hare and Tony Bicât remained as ‘sleeping directors’ Whilst their personal interests were elsewhere. Bicât directed a film Skinflicker (1972) from a Brenton script Howard Brenton (starring William Hoyland)

After a three month break Malcolm Griffiths started 1972 with three projects for POTOWOCA: a revised version of Rubber Go-go Girls that applied a more radical collage approach to the texts; an Ibsen play – When We Dead Awaken  and Point 101 (referencing Orwell’s Room 101) – a collection of specially commissioned ten minute pieces by  Roger Howard, Michelene Wandor, Colin Bennett, Snoo Wilson, Roy Kift, Malcolm Griffiths and David Edgar that ‘complemented each other in the ways they explored different areas of conflict between the individual and society, were very skilfully arranged and orchestrated by Malcolm Griffiths and were well performed by the company’ (Plays and Players, December 1972).

Shoot Theatre Company
Michael White was persuaded by David Hare to finance the development of another collaborative writing project (Tony Bicât, Brian Clark, Howard Brenton, Francis Fuchs, David Hare and Snoo Wilson) this time in response to the Bloody Sunday shootings. England’s Ireland was ‘an episodic look at the history of the British in Northern Ireland with different episodes shown from different perspectives’ (Bicât 2007)   ‘Mr. Hare …. announced the formation of Shoot, a company soon to embark on tours of large provincial theatres with plays on public themes’ (Times 22 May 1972) – publicity for England’s Ireland  also utilised the Portable ‘label’. The political nature of the play and the costs of touring a 12 actor show were problematic: ‘Some managements didn’t like the idea, some didn’t like the play. And many didn’t want to put their heads on the block over a controversial project they didn’t originate’ (Plays and Players  May 1973)

Tony Bicât explained the collapse of their broader strategy: ‘…We discussed with the Arts Council the idea, of using our money [the grants] to mount four big shows a year to play in the Arts Council’s new group of larger touring venues ….. They would have none of it … We wanted to reinvent Portable and burst out on to bigger stages, but without making the compromises with conventional theatre that seemed inevitable. It was not to be.’ (Tony Bicat 2007)

Financial Collapse and Two New Companies
In March 1973 it had been proposed that Max Stafford-Clark, David Aukin and Snoo Wilson would join David Hare and Tony Bicat in a newly constituted board of directors for Portable Theatre. However the financial disaster of England’s Ireland , the failure of POTOWOCA’s administrator to administer effectively and Arts Council bureaucracy led to the bankruptcy of Portable. ‘Although we were no longer running the company, Tony and I were still responsible for it.’ (David Hare 2015). Bicat and Hare were summonsed to court for the non-payment of National Insurance and a settlement was made whereby Bicât  paid the solicitors’ fees and Hare cleared the outstanding National Insurance payments. The proposal for a new company set up by David Aukin, Max Stafford-Clark and David Hare went forward (without Tony Bicât)  as Joint Stock Theatre Company in 1974.

POTOWOCA opened a new Snoo Wilson play Vampire at Oval House in April 1973. As it moved to Manchester in June the company name was changed to Paradise Foundry. Subject to many further changes, Paradise Foundry existed until 1975.

Reviews:        

Snoo Wilson’s Pignight
‘A vivid and emetic portrait of rural change and urban corruption’ (Dusty Hughes in The Guardian, 2013)

Point 101 
‘POTAWOCA have found their house style with this production, basically cool and thoughtful in content with plenty of dynamism and poor in execution’ (Jonathan Hammond in Plays and Players, December 1972)

Personal appraisal and thoughts:

Production table:
[table id=83 /]

Interviewee reference: Michelene Wandor, Max Stafford-Clark, Jim Haynes, Roy Kift

Existing archival material:  Unpublished script England’s Ireland V&A Theatre Archive (ACGB/98/108)

Bibliography:
Portable Playwrights by Peter Ansorge in Plays and Players (Feb 1972)
Modern British Playwriting: The 1970s- Voices Documents, New interpretations by Chris Megson (2012)
Blue Touch Paper: A Memoir by David Hare (2015)
David Hare Interview with Ronald Hayman in The Times (May 1971)
Portable Theatre: ‘fine detail, rough theatre’. A personal memoir by Tony Bicât  in The Cambridge Companion to David Hare ed. Richard Boon (2007)
Getting the Carp Out of the Mud by John Ford in Plays and Players (November 1971)
A Mug’s Game by Frank Lipsius in Plays and Players (Jan 1973)
Carry on Understudies: Theatre and Sexual Politics by Michelene Wandor (1986)
Fruit review by Michael Billington in The Times (Sept. 1970)
Snoo Wilson Obituary by Hughes, Dusty  The Guardian (June 2013)
Malcom Griffiths article by John Ford in Time Out (12-18 November, 1971)

Links:

Acknowledgements:
This page was written by David Cleall