July 4 is Mime Troupe day in San Francisco, by tradition. Dolores Park, the place. There the venerable San Francisco company launches its annual free summer show this year, the excellently timed and executed Too Big to Fail surrounded by a varied throng of activists fanning out with ironing boards and literature among an audience of many hundreds basking in July rays, subversive laughter, and their own cheerful numbers.
Call it a day of independence from the usual bullshit, the jingo-jingle of national unity played for the masses from on high. This year Mime Troupe day got a city government imprimatur (making it actually "Mime Troupe Day" on official parchment somewhere) in a nod to the rabble-rousing satirical political theater troupe's 50th year raising hell and inciting revolution. Generally speaking, when the government pats you on the back for that kind of thing, you want to check it didn't leave behind a sticky with a bull's eye. But the gesture seemed genuine enough. After all, the San Francisco Mime Troupe has in no small way contributed to the cultural clout the city enjoys as one-time font of the now revered (or at least hotly marketable) '60s counterculture.
Founded in 1959 by RG Davis as a definitely not silent but highly physical instrument of radical aesthetic and political convictions, the Mime Troupe didn't just mirror the counterculture; it was a driving force for it. And the free plays in the park which began in 1962 and took the form of irreverent, politically charged reworkings of 16th-century commedia dell'arte scenarios and characters were central to its aggressively popular, anti-bourgeois orientation.
From those early, gleefully spectacular free speech fights in Golden Gate Park days when it was actually pitted in "obscenity" battles against the city government, in the form of the Parks Commission and the police to clashes with cops and courts in Colorado and Canada over its still-provocative takes on American racism and civil rights in the guise of an old-fashioned minstrel show; to its midwifery of radical activist theaters like Teatro Campesino or anarchist rebels like the Diggers and their everything-free movement, it's fair to say the Mime Troupe was more than a twinkling reflection of the zeitgeist.
Through the following four decades, the Mime Troupe, which became a collective in 1970, evolved and notably diversified with the times and their audiences, riding the vicissitudes of avid but also chaotic years, much of them spent touring extensively. Over what you might call three general and overlapping waves of collective leadership, it has endured. But has its mission?
"Absolutely," affirms Ed Holmes, a couple of days before the July 4 premiere. With the currently 10-member collective since 1986, Holmes is one of four members who came on in the mid- to late 1980s, and a powerful comedic performer revered for, among much else, his exquisite imitation of Dick Cheney. He fires off a definition: "To take a political analysis radical, progressive, leftist, political analysis make it entertaining, and take it out to the people in the parks, and give it away for free."
"The story's the message," adds Pat Moran, a member since 2005 and the principal composer-lyricist of the Troupe since longtime member Bruce Barthol retired a few years ago. "But also the message is the going and setting up the show. The people working together, the people doing it, the fact that it's produced every year on a slim budget with little time. That commitment is just as much a part of the show as the written piece."
Michael Gene Sullivan adds: "The audience should always leave any play, not just a Mime Troupe show, different people than they were when they entered. If they leave the same and are just entertained, the show is an abysmal failure." And how should they leave a Mime Troupe show exactly? "I want them to rush right out and overthrow capitalism," says Sullivan, the collective's head writer since 2000, when he took the baton from longtime head writer Joan Holden. "That would be a good day."
At the same time, the challenges facing the company in 2009 are very real, most of them economic. Sullivan, with other members, points to the recent drastic yet financially necessary scaling-back of tours as a serious frustration. Bay Area living costs have also impinged on the day-to-day business of the organization, according to Ellen Callas. "People have had to take more and more outside work to fill in the gaps. It's harder and harder to have a critical mass, even at meetings where important decisions are made," explains Callas, a member of the collective since 1986, "[But] none of us are willing to give up the dream of the Mime Troupe."
With their own building in the Mission District (purchased in the 1970s), unusual dedication, and commitments that include a teaching program for at-risk teens and workshop internships, the Mime Troupe does seem happily determined to press forward. Arthur Holden, veteran Trouper from the early 1960s until the 1990s, suggests it's the collective structure of the Troupe itself that is key to its longevity and no doubt part of its larger appeal too. "It's what distinguishes the Mime Troupe from most other theaters: a sense of the collective members that they are really controlling their existence. That's very important and it isn't too easily found, in the theater or generally in the world."
TOO BIG TO FAIL
Various Bay Area venues through Sept. 24
(415) 285-1717, www.sfmt.org