Discussion between Bernard Pomerance, Roland Rees and David Aukin on the early days of Foco Novo taken from Fringe First: Pioneers of Fringe Theatre on Record by Roland Rees, courtesy of Roland Rees and Oberon Books.
Pomerance: It was the first open casting, I believe – 1972 – with Mona Hammond and Oscar James. The title, Foco Novo, is derived from Foco, a theory of Guerilla warfare, long since discredited, but current at the time, of really vaccinating a situation with a cadre of fighters who gathered support locally as they fought, and so expanded their sphere of influence. It was based on the Cuban model- Che Guevara. Novo just means ‘new.’
Rees: It’s Portuguese – the story taking place in Brazil, the only Portuguese speaking South American country. The title means a new starting point, a new focus, which seemed to me an excellent title for the kind of plays the Foco Novo Company should produce. David, you were a board member until the early Eighties, and you, Bernard, until 1977. The company first worked from the basement of David’s house, and later from an office at Nugent Terrace, St John’s Wood. We debated whether it would remain as it was – a production company – or whether it would become a collective – whether we should keep a permanent company of actors, or cast to the needs of each play. The kind of discussion common to many theatre companies of the time.
Aukin: Sure, I remember them, but I don’t know how important they were. In fact, I think they were unimportant. They were a smokescreen for the most important issue of what the focus of the Company should be. It was searching for another focus. And that’s not a bad thing. It had to evolve, and it was searching. If you, Roland, had come in and said, ‘This is what I am going to do next,’ we would have gone along with it. They were like the discussions that went on at the Comedie Francaise in 1968.
*Paris, 1968: The Comedie Francaise was occupied and became a centre of discussion about art and politics
I’m not belittling those times. They were important then. But they disguised the fact that we were changing direction. I have always felt about Fringe companies generally that they do not know when to stop. That there is a certain energy which lasts for a certain time, and without any loss of face they should stop. When the next energy happens you move along with that. Somewhere, Foco Novo got cautious and worried about the impact of what closing down might mean.
Rees: We did not talk about closing down. On the contrary, we had startedFoco Novo in 1972. These discussions took place in 1975/76, not long after we had started. Considering that only two shows could be produced each year, we were only eight shows old. Indeed, we had only just received our first Arts Council subsidy. Funny to think of closing down at such a time! Some of us wondered then whether some large institutional theatres might not have had their day and should close down.
Aukin: We did not talk of closing down, but perhaps we should have. That was the agenda which was not discussed.
Rees: I am glad it wasn’t, since we continued producing plays for another twelve years until 1988. And the period covering the production of The Elephant Man by Bernard, and The Seventh Man by Adrian Mitchell [based on the John Berger book of the same title] up to 1988, with our last production, Savannah Bay, by Marguerite Duras, was the most productive period in the Company’s existence. By this time there were a number of different Board Members.
Pomerance: It was a very intellectual company in the beginning. Then ideas came to be dominant at a certain point and things changed. Of course, the meetings had to deal with the question: ‘Which idea do we want to be dealing with?’ As the composition of the board changed, so the company changed. You, Roland, had a visceral reaction in the beginning to anything you did- Mustapha Matura’s plays, my plays, the Ed Bullins plays. It was gut reaction. You always put your feelings on the line. Once a certain level of self-consciousness entered into the work, which went along with the Arts Council funding, the instinctual quality – I’m not going to say it disappeared completely – got downgraded. Particularly, I am thinking of the shows with the two John’s.
*John Chadwick and John Hoyland who wrote two shows specially touring mining areas in 1975/76 – Nine Days and Saltley Gates and Tighten Your Belt. [See chapter on Politics and Experiment]
Rees: The plays we toured through the Labour Movement promoted the discussions. The company responded to questions raised by the work but, at the end of the day, we decided to remain as we had started – a production company with an Artistic Director, commissioning work along lines that interested us. As with yourself, Bernard, with your version of Brecht’s Man is Man, and with the plays the two Johns wrote for the Labour Movement. We remained as we had begun. As a company, we were funded to produce new work and to tour to new audiences who would not normally expect to see this kind of work. That was another important debate we had – to which audiences should we tour? Arts Centre audiences, Labour Movement audiences, theatre audiences? Was the same sort of show appropriate for each audience?
Pomerance: The touring issue became very important. This was marginal at first, but it began to occupy more and more the centre of attention. It also decreased the instictual apsects within the company which represented their best work.
Aukin: That’s why I believe the Arts Council destroyed this type of work. They imposed a bureaucracy on it!
Rees: We were funded for specific objectives – new work and touring. That was the bargain. But you are right. If we had just been funded without the condition of touring, we might have taken a different course. But then many of the audiences around the country would never have seen for instance The Elephant Man. That kind of touring is a special kind of work, and reached people who in other circumstances, in Wales, Scotland, Manchester or wherever, would never have experienced it. As touring is, as Stephen Rea says: “The cutting edge of theatre.” [See chapter on Stephen Rea] Anyway, Bernard, it was these discussions that led you in 1977 to resign from the Foco Novo Board with that one note, which I still possess: “We cannot go on meeting like this.”