View Spark segment on the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Original air date: November 2009. (Running Time: 6:30)
View Spark Web extra of Peter Coyote, actor and a major player in the counterculture of the 1960s, talk about his experiences as a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the power of comedy, and the legacy of the 1960s. (Running Time: 3:54)
Decidedly unsilent, the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s gadfly theater, played for free in city parks and spaces, has long defined a distinctly San Francisco brand of experimental theater. Spark talks with actors Ed Holmes, Michael Sullivan, and Velina Brown in Dolores Park as the San Francisco Mime Troupe gets ready for a 2009 performance of “Too Big to Fail” during their 50th anniversary season.
Founded in 1959 by actor Ronnie Davis, the Mime Troupe’s debut work, “Mime and Word,” took commedia dell’arte as its model. But as the turbulent, politically charged 1960s unfolded, the troupe evolved into a fast-moving, agitprop theater — or as alumnus Peter Berg described it, “guerrilla theater” — bringing caustic political and cultural satire to the city’s streets and parks.
The troupe’s freewheeling productions ran afoul of the law in 1965 when the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department denied the troupe a permit to perform and arrested Davis, citing “obscenity.” The Mime Troupe won the subsequent lawsuit, establishing the right of artists to perform uncensored in city parks.
In 1968, the troupe — which tours throughout the United States and internationally — won its first Obie Award “for uniting theater and revolution and grooving in the parks” with its contemporary version of “L’Amant Militaire.” The production protested the Vietnam War and the involvement of Dow Chemical Company — which then manufactured napalm — and featured a young Peter Coyote. Since 1970, the Mime Troupe has operated as a collective, and among the many who’ve participated are such notables as concert promoter Bill Graham (who organized his first show at the Fillmore as a bail benefit for the Mime Troupe), musician Bruce Barthol, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Teatro Campesino’s Luis Valdez.
The Mime Troupe has won two more Obies (in 1973 and 1990) and a special 1987 Tony Award for excellence in regional theater. They’ve performed in Communist Cuba and in Sandinista Nicaragua; taken a modern Israeli-Palestinian farce to both West and East Jerusalem, garnering their third Obie for that production; and continued to tackle topics from corporate imperialism to terrorism to religious fanaticism, fulfilling the troupe’s mission to identify the forces that shape our lives and dramatize the operation of these giant forces in small, close-up stories that help audiences feel the impact of political events on personal life.