San Francisco Mime Troupe Celebrates its 50th Anniversary
September 23, 2009
Amy Marie Boulanger
Let's just get things clear: you haven't seen them, sheathed head to
toe in silver, a boom box playing by their feet, at Fisherman's Wharf
or in Union Square. For the mimes of The San Francisco Mime Troupe
(SFMT) celebrating their 50th anniversary this year are anything but
quiet. With performances steeped in the rich commedia dell'arte of
Italy and the comedy and satires of ancient Greek theater, SFMT is a
professional traveling theater troupe whose mime follows the
Merriam-Webster definition: " an ancient dramatic entertainment
representing scenes from life usually in a ridiculous manner."
So, if you haven't already had the chance to see the Tony
Award-winning troupe perform, here's just what SFMT has been doing
since 1959. Launched by R.G. Davis, the troupe is an offshoot of the
Actor's Workshop, touring the country and world over the past several
decades, offering shows that aim to entertain, yes, but to enlighten
as well. Member Ellen Callas, who joined the group in 1986, remarks
on the "sense of solidarity" born of the actors' involvement in the
group. The collaborative effort of all involved from unloading the
truck, to setting up the stage, performing, taking apart the set and
doing it all over again leaves no room for ego and hierarchy.
Everyone in this group works together. That communal effort is
translated to audiences through radical, thought-provoking theater
pieces brought to the people, echoing the commedia dell'arte of centuries ago.
"To be part of the Mime Troupe is an act of faith," says Callas. "You
have to believe in your message and politics." The actors and artists
who make up the troupe, from the self-taught to the degree holding,
bring a range of backgrounds but share this vision, as Callas
explains, "the desire and skills and politics" passionately
represented show after show.
In its 50 year history, SFMT has traveled the world, spreading its
message to audiences in Nicaragua, Cuba, Israel, and Germany, as well
as throughout the U.S. Though the downturn in the economy has led to
less travel opportunities for the troupe their once healthy arts
budgets cinched a bit around the waist SFMT still tours regionally
in the Bay Area. Callas reflects, "People aren't as willing to take a
chance on a radical theater company so it's become more of a
struggle." The troupe did travel to Denver last year, during the time
of the presidential convention. The mission of the group now, it
seems, is to take the traveling cut-back challenge and work with it.
The idea: alternative media. Immediately, the opera simulcast at AT&T
Ballpark pops into my head. And then Callas comments, "We're looking
at shows simulcast on screens to the places where we can no longer
afford to travel."
Bringing theater to the people. 21st century style.
Though SFMT may not be going much abroad these days (however let's
hope the alternative media form will get them there soon), they are
currently wrapping up their summer season, "Too Big To Fail" and
continue to provide workshops to youth. To celebrate their 50th, a
series of events has been launched in their honor, like the screening
of the 1985 film "Troupers" at the Mill Valley Film Festival. The
film, though over twenty years old, still reflects the trials and
tribulations and everyday life of the current members, Callas says.
In addition, the San Francisco Public Library exhibit, "50 Years of
San Francisco Mime Troupe Free In(g) the Parks," will display
photographs, press clippings and other documents chronicling the Mime
Troupe's early struggle against censorship, from the banning of its
shows to arrests of members to victory for artists to perform,
uncensored, in the parks.
Thanks to that victory, SFMT continues performances with its 2009
summer season of "Too Big To Fail," which examines, as Callas says,
"our buy now, pay later culture."
Attempting to avoid seeming "Ameri-centric," Callas notes how the
group relocated the piece to a small West African village, in which a
couple becomes "bewitched by the demon of credit." The show is SFMT's
quest to answer the burning question: what is that thing in people
that makes them want more? Whatever that thing is, it transcends
beyond America, touching all humans worldwide.
Says Callas, "the story is part 'Odyssey,' part 'The Wizard of Oz.'"
The lesson, wrapped up in the fable-like tale and stylized
performance, translates to all audiences: we must take responsibility
for our actions.
Even if you don't understand the language, you will understand and
recognize each character. Whether you're from France or Korea,
Illinois or Northern California, you know them when you see them: the
bully, the lover, the intellectual, the miser.
"As audiences recognized generations ago, through commedia dell'arte,
so do modern audiences recognize the classic character types that
have survived over time," says Callas. Which is why the group travels
well. Which is why, let's hope, the group can continue to travel,
imploring us to make change if we expect to see change.
San Francisco Mime Troupe
These mimes are speaking up
by Tina Armou
September 24, 2009
Head to Southside Park on Sunday to catch the San Francisco Mime
Troupe celebrating its 50th anniversary.
The group's goal is to make people laugh at life's absurdities. But
don't think silent, because these "mimes" talk and sing. In keeping
with mimes of ancient Rome, this troupe uses voice, music, sound
effects and humor to poke fun at difficult situations all while in
That's what the 10 members of the collective will be doing Sunday,
with "Too Big to Fail." It's the 10th year that the troupe has
performed in Sacramento but the first time at Southside.
The play is a musical satire about America's economic situation. It
also will be performed in Davis on Saturday.
The troupe's band will play at 6:30 p.m. and the free show will begin
at 7, the final performance of the season.
Director and founder R.G. Davis came up with the idea for the free
performances in the park 50 years ago. The troupe has covered many
styles over the years, including melodramas, spy thrillers,
histories, and comedy. Previous shows included "Mr. Smith Goes to
Obscuristan," a satire about President George W. Bush, the Sept. 11
attacks and the discovery of oil. More fun was poked in "1600
Transylvania Avenue," a play about past administrations rising from
the grave and taking down corporations.
The troupe has won a special Tony Award for Excellence in Regional
Theater and the San Francisco Bay Area Media Alliance Golden Gadfly Award.
These mimes aren't stopping at 50 years, though. The troupe's Web
site promises to provide joy and energy, as well as to continue
annoying the powerful, well into the 21st century.