RGDavis, trained as a dancer and mime, founded the company soon to become the San Francisco Mime Troupe as an experimental project of the now-legendary Actors’ Workshop in 1959. The ensemble's first pieces were silent--not pantomime, but movement "Events" with visual art elements and music.
In l961, Davis began exploring a spoken, but still movement-based form: commedia dell’arte: the popular theater of the Italian Renaissance, played by stock characters in masks. In l962, he took a commedia play, THE DOWRY, outdoors for a single performance in San Francisco's Washington Square Park, passing the hat afterwards.
The following year, the city's Recreation and Park Commission denied the Troupe a permit to perform, on grounds of "obscenity". The ensuing court case, argued by Marvin Stender, established the right of artists to perform uncensored in the city's parks. The SFMT has opened a new show in the parks every summer since.
Until l970, these outdoor shows were usually commedias, adapted from classic plays and anachronized to satirize evils in the present.
Indoors, Davis did plays by Jarry, De Ghelderode and Brecht, most with live music, and shorter works by writers close to the company like Peter Berg, who coined the
term "guerilla theater" in l963.
In l965, Davis, Saul Landau, and a racially mixed group of actors created A MINSTREL SHOW, OR CIVIL RIGHTS IN A CRACKER BARREL, using an historically racist
form to attack racism in both its redneck and liberal varieties. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sponsored performances around the country,
the Troupe began its life as a touring company, and there were more arrests. Future rock impresario Bill Graham, then the company's business manager, organized his first rock dance/light show at the Fillmore Auditorium as a bail benefit for
The Troupe clinched its radical reputation in 1967 when L’AMANT MILITAIRE, a commedia by Goldoni updated to satirize the Vietnam war, with Davis and Peter
Cohon (later Peter Coyote) in leading roles, toured campuses across the Midwest neck-in-neck with recruiters for the Dow Chemical Company, makers of napalm.
A MINISTREL SHOW...
Photo: Neil Robert Miller
L'AMANT MILITAIRE..., 1967
Photo: Gerhard Gscheidle
The SFMT formed a marching band to energize anti-Dow, anti-war demonstrations, and played for two sold-out weeks in New York, winning its first Obie Award, "for uniting theater and revolution and grooving in the parks".
In l965, Davis, Saul Landau, and a racially mixed group of actors created A MINSTREL SHOW, OR CIVIL RIGHTS IN A CRACKER BARREL, using an historically racist form to attack racism in both its redneck and liberal varieties. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sponsored performances around the country, the Troupe began its life as a touring company, and there were more arrests.
Future rock impresario Bill Graham, then the company's business manager, organized his first rock dance/light show at the Fillmore Auditorium as a bail benefit for the SFMT.
The Troupe clinched its radical reputation in 1967 when L’AMANT MILITAIRE, a commedia by Goldoni updated to satirize the Vietnam war, with Davis and Peter Cohon (later Peter Coyote) in leading roles, toured campuses across the Midwest neck-in-neck with recruiters for the Dow Chemical Company, makers of napalm.
Davis left the Troupe in l970. The company became a collective: partly by ideology, partly by default, and began a series of experiments with industrial-era popular theater forms: melodrama and its descendants: science fiction and spy thriller. It declared its allegiance to the "New Left" with an ironic feminist melodrama, THE INDEPENDENT FEMALE, OR A MAN HAS HIS PRIDE, the first of some 30 plays Joan Holden was to write for the company, and SEIZE THE TIME, an epic history of the Black Panther Party.
Like Davis, the young collective sought direction from Brecht. The Troupe's production of THE MOTHER, co-directed by Dan Chumley and featuring Sharon Lockwood, who would become the new company's principal director and leading actress, respectively, made the Troupe a legend in the world people's theater movement with its first major international appearance, in Mexico City in 1974. That same year, the company won its second Obie, for THE DRAGON LADY'S REVENGE, with Andrea Snow in the title role, based on RAMPARTS magazine's expose of CIA complicity in the Indochina heroin trade.
All these shows were underscored, and accompanied by two-, three-, or four-piece bands. With FALSE PROMISES (1976) and THE HOTEL UNIVERSE (1977) songs became integral and American musical became another basic element of the company's style.
Bruce Barthol has been principal composer-lyricist since the late 70's. A stint with the SFMT has been a way station for many local jazz, salsa, and big band
During the Reagan years, the Troupe bitterly satirized the triumph of capital, and mirrored the disillusion of the country's left, in shows like the FACTWINO plays, featuring Shabaka as a superhero of information, and RIPPED VAN WINKLE, with Arthur Holden as a hippie who has slept from l968 to l988, and wakes to a strange new world.
The SFMT was the first U.S. theater to produce a play by now-Nobel Laureate Dario Fo: WE CAN’T PAY, WE WON’T PAY in l979. In l980, it became the first U.S. theater to play in revolutionary Cuba, and in l986, the first to play in Sandinista Nicaragua.
It was the first company of any nationality to present a bilingual English/ French production at Canada's National Arts Centre/Centre National des Arts (1983); the first, and so far the only, touring ensemble to win a Tony Award for Excellence in Regional Theatre (l987); and the only company ever to dramatize the Israeli-Palest inian conflict in a mistaken-identity farce and perform it in both West and East Jerusalem: SEEING DOUBLE, l989, with Michael Sullivan in the double role of an American Jew and a Palestian/American. This show brought the company its third Obie, in 1990.
Like most small companies, the Troupe has always struggled financially. Proceeds from DRAGON LADY, and help from a friend, Evelyn Silver, supplied the down payment on a vacant warehouse in the Mission district in l973, enabling the company to survive San Francisco's real estate boom.
Unsubsidized until the late l970's, the Troupe enjoyed a few stable years in the l980's with grants from the city, the state of California, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In the 1990's, the rightwing attack on the NEA cost the SFMT most of its federal support and also decimated the national touring network, its other main source of income. The company now tours only a few weeks a year, and spends winters conducting theater workshops for at-risk teens.
In l974, actor Lonnie Ford integrated the new SFMT when the company adopted an affirmative action policy to become a multiracial ensemble, capable of reflecting the reality of late-20th century America and addressing the country's most intractable social conflict. Twenty years later, the Troupe adopted a similar policy to become multigenerational. In the 1990's, the Troupe's plays have focussed on the postindustrial future: the global economy (OFFSHORE, 13 DIAS) and the challenges facing youth in a society which has destroyed its safety net (ESCAPE TO CYBERIA, KILLING TIME, CITY FOR SALE).
The 21st Century and the Bush presidency have engendered a series of plays focusing on the corporate takeover of the federal government (1600 TRANSYLVANIA AVENUE in 2001); US and "big oil" interference in foreign countries (MR. SMITH GOES TO OBSCURISTAN in 2002); unprovoked US military aggression (VERONIQUE OF THE MOUNTIES IN OPERATION: FROZEN FREEDOM in 2003); and terrorism used in a government fear campaign to seize assets for private financial gain (SHOWDOWN AT CRAWFORD GULCH in 2004.) The Troupe also wanted to help the audience understand as clearly as possible how America got to its current position, a nation fear rather than emulated, and a population disheartened and disenfranchised, so we explored the relationship between our government, corporations, and our economic imperialism (DOING GOOD in 2005), the increasing power of the Religious Right and the importance of militant Reason in times of fanaticism (GODFELLAS, 2006), and we examined the real legacy of anger, fear, and hatred America's profit-driven foreign policy is leaving in Iraq (MAKING A KILLING, 2007.) And in 2008 the Troupe, anticipating the deep economic trouble looming on the horizon for all of us, staged RED STATE, in which we not only followed the difficulties of a small town as its population struggles with losing its last factory, in a country that no longer seems to care about the working class, but also issued a call to arms for the People to reclaim our country, our economy, and demand that a government Of, By, and For the people demand that the wealth of their nation be spent on those who actually make that wealth - the People.