Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
"Fifty years! Who would've thought it?" says former San Francisco
Mime Troupe member Joan Holden, the company's principal playwright
for three of those five decades.
Few American performance companies can boast such longevity, let
alone small troupes with no endowment. Who would've thought that an
avant-garde arts experiment would become one of the nation's
best-known companies within its first decade? That it would launch
careers as diverse as those of Peter Coyote, Shabaka and Bill Graham?
That a gritty anti-establishment troupe would win a Tony award? Or
that mimes could be this vocal?
Actually, the Mime Troupe has hardly ever been silent. From the first
performance in 1959 of what was then the R.G. Davis Mime Studio and
Troupe - "Mime and Words" - founder Davis tried to signal a
distinction between his work and silent mimes like Marcel Marceau.
Davis, who studied with Marceau's teacher Étienne Decroux, worked
with physically based, or mimetic, acting. Through decades of
performing commedia dell'arte and original musicals in the parks, the
Mime Troupe has made lots of noise.
It's also changed considerably over the years. Davis' Mime Troupe
embodied the progressive turbulence of the '60s, spreading its
cultural and political influence on tour. Davis left in 1970 and the
company became a collective, as it still is. The troupe of the next
three decades, though it continued to tour and mount indoor shows
until funding dried up, is best known for its rousing park shows by
Holden, director Dan Chumley and composer Bruce Barthol. The 21st
century Troupe, exemplified by actor-playwright Michael Gene Sullivan
and actors Ed Holmes and Velina Brown, keeps up the struggle to
sharpen the collective's message through its summer shows.
"I think the Mime Troupe's job has always been to challenge the
accepted stories of American-style capitalism," Sullivan says, taking
a break from rehearsals for the customary Fourth of July opening in
Dolores Park. The new musical, "Too Big to Fail," focuses on the
national addiction to credit, using fables told by a traditional
African storyteller to explore "an economy that needs us to be
Credit is hot
As Sullivan describes it, "Too Big" sounds typical of Mime Troupe
summer fare - a broadly entertaining look at a hot political issue.
Looking back, he says it's not the company that has changed so much
as the world around it.
"The mission stays consistent, but the society we're inside is a
moving target," he says. "All those American myths of the '50s and
'60s - what's good for General Motors is good for the country - have
been shattered. The issues that get talked about now - gay marriage,
gays in the military, we've got a black president - these weren't
even on the radar, and that's a victory. We have to approach things
differently now because the audience is different."
Still the nine-member collective of today (down from its usual 12),
focused on its summer shows, is very different from the large, loose
vortex of experimental work of the mid-'60s Troupe. (Disclosure: I
was a member of the company for two years in the late '60s.)
"We came out of the avant-garde art movement," Davis says. "We were
working with the Tape Music Center and filmmakers and artists, on the
cusp of a whole movement of hippies and anti-war activists."
Collaborators at the time ranged from composers Steve Reich and
Morton Subotnick, artist Bill Wiley, filmmaker Robert Nelson and
Lawrence Ferlinghetti to political writers Saul Landau and Robert
Scheer. The troupe was a year-round operation with indoor, outdoor
and touring shows.
It was also getting busted - seven times by Davis' count - for
everything from obscenity (for Jean Genet's "Chant d'Amour" and the
stereotype-shattering "The Minstrel Show") to performing in the
parks. After Davis' arrest in Lafayette Park in 1965, Luis Valdez
left to found El Teatro Campesino, starting a Latino theater movement
throughout the Southwest. The overwhelming success of a defense-fund
rock concert, the first at the Fillmore Auditorium, led Troupe
manager Graham to a new career.
With the company mushrooming to some 60 members, it was also spinning
out of control and developing factions - one of which became the
anarcho-hippie Diggers of the Haight free store, bus and food
programs. If Davis was never comfortable with the Troupe's
development into a collective, he prepared its way by reducing the
company to 14 members in 1967.
"L'Amant Militaire," Holden's first play, followed "The Minstrel
Show" on tour, sparking anti-war protests on college campuses across
the country. "The touring shows made the troupe the theater of the
movement," Holden says. "That became our mission, as long as there
was a movement - to rally the troops and spread the message, to
popularize a radical analysis in an exciting form that would change
Cutbacks in arts funding in the '80s, and in the budgets of college
arts presenting programs since then, radically curtailed the troupe's
touring, diminishing an important revenue flow. Holden and Sullivan
both cite that as a major factor in the troupe's focus on its summer
show in California parks.
"We haven't had a chance to get to the Midwest in, like, eight
years," says Sullivan, who joined the company in 1988. "The schools
and community organizations that want to book us don't have the money
anymore. They haven't had it for 10 years. This country really has
been in a depression since the end of the '90s, but everyone was
using credit and getting deeper in debt."
Even the economic problems that have always plagued the troupe
contribute to its longevity, though. "There's always going to be
major issues that aren't being dealt with," Sullivan adds. "That's
always going to be our job. I think there will be a Mime Troupe as
long as it's needed."
Holden points to another factor as well. "Without the audience, the
troupe wouldn't be here anymore. Where else could this happen besides
the Bay Area?"
50th anniversary events
The San Francisco Mime Troupe celebrates its 50th anniversary with a
variety of events, some still in the planning stages, including:
-- "Too Big to Fail," the Mime Troupe's annual free summer show,
opens in Dolores Park July 4 and plays in Bay Area and Northern
California parks through Sept. 27.
-- "Troupers," 1985 documentary about the company to be screened in
Mill Valley Film Festival in October, followed by performances by
Mime Troupe members at Mill Valley's 142 Throckmorton Theatre.
-- "Free(ing) the Parks," San Francisco Main Library exhibition on
the Mime Troupe's free-speech battles and busts during the 1960s,
Oct. 24-Jan. 7, with a panel discussion on radical theater reuniting
Mime Troupe founder R.G. Davis, El Teatro Campesino founder Luis
Valdez and Bread and Puppet Theatre founder Peter Schumann (date to
-- "Engagement, Commitment and Fresh Air," exhibition of rare photos
and memorabilia from the company's 50 years, with workshops, events
and a screening of the 1966 documentary "Have You Heard of the San
Francisco Mime Troupe?" - November through February, Yerba Buena
Center for the Arts.
-- "Free in the Parks," exhibition of materials from the Mime Troupe
archives at UC Davis Library, dates to be announced.
-- San Francisco Mime Troupe Benefit Bash, headliners to be
announced, Fillmore Auditorium, Nov. 7.
For more information call (415) 285-1717 or go to www.sfmt.org.
E-mail Robert Hurwitt at firstname.lastname@example.org.