SF Mime Troupe Celebrates 60 Years of Joyful Activism

By Jean Schiffman

This year’s provocative new work—“Treasure Island”—opens on July 4 at Dolores Park and continues July 6 & 7 at John Hinkle Amphitheater in Berkeley.

On July 4, as usual, the grassy slopes of Dolores Park will be blanketed by up to 3,000 fans, all gathered to see the opening of the beloved San Francisco Mime Troupe’s latest original political satire.

This year’s show, which marks the company’s 60th anniversary, is “Treasure Island, or A Toxic Tale of Corporate Corsairs, Swashbuckling Swindlers and Big Buck Buccaneers on the Bay!” Inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 adventure tale, it follows the journey of a civil servant in San Francisco who inadvertently discovers the nefarious plans of one L.J. Silver to redevelop our own Treasure Island without regard for health, safety or the island’s current inhabitants.

Written by longtime Troupe head playwright Michael Gene Sullivan (who’s worked with the company since 1988), along with new collaborator Marie Cartier, it features live music performed by a small ensemble, composed by Michael Bello with lyrics by Daniel Savio (son of fabled Berkeley Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio). The play’s five actors possess skills that include singing and physical comedy; Wilma Bonet and Lisa Hori-Garcia co-direct. The leftist political passions of all concerned are in alignment.

And as do all Mime Troupe shows, “Treasure Island” addresses a current issue, in this case the “weird gentrification,” as Sullivan calls it, intended for the fragile island in the Bay—a plan, “driven by politicians and developers,” he notes, that raises social justice and environmental concerns.

To write the script, he spent months reading and rereading the Stevenson classic, watching movie versions of it, studying the history of our local Treasure Island and consulting with environmental activists.

The Troupe’s own history—its decades of this type of comedic commentary on society’s absurdities and ills—is the stuff of Bay Area theater legend.

Initially created by R.G. Davis in 1959 as a series of avant-garde performance events, by 1961 it had taken on the style of traditional Italian commedia dell’arte—broad physical comedy, stock characters—and began staging pass-the-hat political satires in local parks. For a period, Bill Graham was the company’s business manager; such legendary local figures as Peter Coyote have worked with the Troupe along the way.

When Davis left in 1970, it reconfigured as a collective (shared decision making, no artistic director) and in 1973 bought real estate in the Mission District (the former Fantasy Records studio) for a mere $55,000.

Having a permanent home base has done much to ensure the company’s stability during changing economic times in the city. But, as longtime general manager Ellen Callas explains, the collective also views the property as a way to help others in San Francisco’s arts community. Future plans include such upgrades as installing a black box theater that companies can rent on a sliding scale, expanding storage areas to include communal usage and providing living space for artist residencies and interns.

But for now—as the company works to raise money for those costly long-term projects—Callas wonders how to grow the Troupe at a time when artists can no longer afford to live in the Bay Area, and how to engage new audiences. “There are new people in the city who have no idea who we are,” she sighs, “or worse, think we’re an antiquated hippie freak show.” (The mime of the company name refers not to pantomime but rather to its ancient sense: to mimic.)

The Troupe is firing on multiple cylinders, despite funding issues that virtually eliminated a cherished touring program (in the past, the company has performed as far away as Belgium and Korea). Now, among other activities, the Troupe (which, at its core, comprises a dozen or so members of the collective) sends a playwright into the schools to teach playwriting 10 weeks a year, but would like to do that throughout the school year. They’d also love to expand the after-school program that teaches kids how to “make plays”—the kids get paid, too—which currently runs only 13 weeks a year. Says Callas, “When we complete a youth theater group session and see them address [issues like the environment and racism], that ability to help cultivate the artist/activist of tomorrow” is a reminder of the importance of the company’s ongoing work. She says, “We don’t have all the answers, but we can ask the right questions.”

Among various other hopes for the next 60 years:

To develop more playwrights who can write in the Mime Troupe style—a balance of commedia, melodrama and circus, as Sullivan describes it: “You have to think how to tell the story in images … the trick is to write it while thinking of the physicalization.”

To have more financial stability: “If I could wave my magic wand, that would be the thing, and for the arts in general,” says longtime actor Velina Brown. She’d like the Troupe to visit college drama departments, many of which include study of the Mime Troupe in their curriculum.

Given its home base in the bluest of U.S. cities, some say the Mime Troupe is preaching to the choir, but Brown points out that wherever they perform—this summer’s itinerary is likely to stretch from San Francisco to Nevada City and points in between—audience responses differ. And Sullivan remarks on the viewers who approach him after shows—activists, teachers, community workers—to say they’d been feeling beaten down, but “to see us still out there fighting the good fight encouraged them to remain part of the progressive change in this country, not just fall by the wayside. … to look around and see a thousand like-minded people bolsters them, helps them to continue to fight.”

That the Troupe has survived for six decades—winning several Obie Awards and a 1987 Tony Award for excellence in regional theater—is proof of its enduring relevance. After Joan Holden, who’d been head playwright since 1967, left in 2000, the company wasn’t sure it could survive the change. So when “1600 Transylvania Avenue” (about undead bloodsuckers ruling the nation) opened in 2001—the first play that Sullivan wrote and directed on his own—it wasn’t until the opening day crowd gave it a standing ovation that the Troupers breathed a collective sigh of relief. “We realized,” says Sullivan, “that the company was stronger than the individual.” From her vantage point, Holden points out several reasons for the Troupe’s longevity, including the loyal audiences who come to its free shows every summer to see the Troupe “tell the truth and expose lies.”

And, she adds, “The work is very joyful.”

“Treasure Island”

Dolores Park, 19th & Dolores,

San Francisco

July 4 at 2 p.m.; see website
for full schedule