San Francisco Mime Troupe Leads Street-Theater Workshop
December 28, 2009
Founded in 1959, the San Francisco Mime Troupe creates and produces
socially relevant theater; their work is political satire and
anything but silent. Recently, as part of their 50th anniversary
celebration, the Troupe led it's first "Anti-Capitalist,
Anti-Consumption" street-theater workshop in downtown San Francisco
outside of the Old Navy store on Market Street.
According to the New York Times, Ed Holmes, the workshop leader, said
the workshop garnered about 25 people overall, and "a few people got
Chloe Veltman of the New York Times wonders how relevant the Troupe
is in this day and age: "With television, blogs and social networking
Web sites able to disseminate political messages far more widely than
live theater, you have to question the relevance of the Mime Troupe's
polemical approach today." She goes on to mention that the Troupe
feels "outmoded" and struggles to make much of an impact (political
To read the full report in the New York Times, [see below].
Winner of three OBIE awards and a Tony Award for Excellence in
Regional Theatre, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, about which The New
York Times stated, "Anyone concerned about the state of global
politics -- and about the state of political humor -- should listen
to the Mime Troupe's message," creates plays that make sense out of
the headlines, close-up stories that make audiences feel the impact
of political events on their personal lives. The New York Post called
the Mime Troupe "America's oldest and finest street theater," with
the The Boston Globe concurring, "You're never only watching a
political theater piece, but rather a double barreled re-invention of
politics and theater at once. To make this work accessible to the
broadest audience possible, the Mime Troupe performs as a regional
touring company, presenting their work at a price everyone can
afford: free. For more information about the San Francisco Mime
Troupe, visit www.sfmt.org.
Guerrillas of Agitprop Fight to Stay Relevant
By CHLOE VELTMAN
Published: December 26, 2009
As part of its 50th-anniversary celebrations, the San Francisco Mime
Troupe recently led its first "Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Consumption"
street-theater workshop. That afternoon-long event culminated in a
performance outside the flagship Old Navy store on Market Street in
downtown San Francisco.
Pretending to be sales assistants and shoppers, troupe members led
the workshop participants underneath a gaudy "Time to Shop" sign and
then mechanically exchanged fake dollars for bits of cardboard with
the word "stuff" scrawled on them. At the end of the sketch,
counterfeit coins flew, as the performers engaged in a frenzied
stampede for last-minute bargains.
Ed Holmes, the workshop leader and a longtime company member, said
the three-minute "live political cartoon" attracted around 15
passers-by with an additional 5 to 10 stopping when the fake money
started flying. "A few people got the point," he said.
With television, blogs and social networking Web sites able to
disseminate political messages far more widely than live theater, you
have to question the relevance of the Mime Troupe's polemical
approach today. For the first three decades of its existence, this
political theater group openly questioned United States policy and
helped root out political hypocrisy.
But times have changed, and the company's brand of broad political
satire steeped in zany commedia dell'arte traditions feels outmoded.
Theater can still be taken seriously as a medium for political
discourse, but the Mime Troupe with its limited reach,
old-fashioned aesthetics and small budget struggles to make a
political and theatrical impact these days.
The dancer, director and mime artist R. G. Davis founded the San
Francisco Mime Troupe in 1959 as a vehicle for radical political
commentary and theatrical experimentation. Despite the word "mime" in
its name, the group was far from silent. For a while its brand of
guerilla theater, performed free in public spaces throughout its Bay
Area home and as far away as Berlin, earned the company a reputation
as a grass-roots political power. Troupe members were arrested on
obscenity charges on more than one occasion in the early 1960s. The
group was also one of the first American theater companies to perform
in revolutionary Cuba and Sandinista Nicaragua.
In 1967 the troupe caused an uproar when it traveled around
universities in the Midwest presenting "L'Amant Militaire," a Vietnam
War satire adapted from an 18th-century Carlo Goldoni play, at the
same time recruiters from a napalm manufacturer were visiting those
campuses. Closer to home, the early troupe helped derail a proposal
to use public funds to tear down a building that housed grass-roots
community organizations for the construction of a parking lot for
Davies Symphony Hall.
In recent years, however, the Mime Troupe's efforts have had
considerably less impact. It still performs free shows in parks
around the Bay Area and other parts of the state, and its
longstanding appearances in Dolores Park on the Fourth of July and
Labor Day weekends continue to attract hundreds. But many people seem
to attend the productions these days to have their liberal political
views confirmed or simply to enjoy a picnic and show in the sun.
Every now and then the company creates a production that engages the
intelligence. In 2006 "Godfellas," a show about the ills of spiritual
dogma, married a wisecracking text with pithy musical numbers to
examine not just religion but also blind faith in all its guises.
More often than not, however, Mime Troupe productions end up
subverting artistry in favor of left-wing dogma.
This year's "Too Big to Fail," about the implosion of the credit
system, bashed audiences over the head with simplistic moral fables
and told a tale of a greedy lion named Citibank. And the boringly
liberal "Doing Good" (2005) was less effective as an agitprop
pamphlet against American intervention in the third world. Meanwhile,
a decade has passed since the troupe performed its last guerilla
theater act: a version of "Ubu Roi" outside the Federal Building to
protest cuts in arts financing.
It's telling that the Mime Troupe is celebrating its golden
anniversary with documentary screenings and exhibitions that focus on
its early heyday; the company's more recent history just isn't all
Yet political theater is alive and well in the Bay Area, as proved by
engaging productions like "This World in a Woman's Hands," Marcus
Gardley's drama for the Shotgun Players of Berkeley, about female
workers in the Richmond, Calif., shipyards in World War II. And the
Mime Troupe, with its intimacy, ability to respond quickly to current
events and stealthy approach to infiltrating public spaces, can
demonstrate that live performance is still, in some ways, an ideal
medium for political commentary. Getting the message across, however,
requires a level of subtlety and imagination that lies beyond the
reach of many theater artists.
To survive, the Mime Troupe may need to find a new theatrical
vocabulary for expressing its political viewpoints and work harder to
question lazy liberal mores. The members may also have to take
greater risks again. A three-minute sketch outside Old Navy might
make an impression on just a few onlookers. But taking their antics
inside the store would most likely get greater attention.
For information on the screening, exhibitions and a performance of
"Too Big to Fail": sfmt.org.