San Francisco — California has an unual theater enjoying unusual success. The San Francisco Mime Troupe, an Obie-winning band of minstrels, jugglers, and actors, has become America's oldest political theater. And while leftist satire might seem the least promising dramatic form for entertaining Americans, the troupe's popularity derives from serving punchlines with its politics. And the company's polish and hilarity often leaves an audience wondering from which Marx it draws its revolutionary zeal -- Karl or Groucho.
The day I visited the company Dan Chumley, a veteran member of the group was wearing a raccoon costume, juggling three Snicker bars and practicing his Woody Wood-pecker cackle. Chumley was on stage at the Victoria Theater, a former vaudeville house in the city's ethnic-rich, dollar-poor Mission district. He was limbering up for his part as a cartoon-crazed racoon in "TV Dinner," a children's musical with a moral (television is chewing gum for the mind), conceived by his 7 1/2-year-old daughter, Katy.
That same evening Chumley, a trenchant, moustachioed actor would leave his bushy ringed tail in the dressing room and direct the grownups' show "We Can't Pay, We Won't Pay," a hard-hitting Italian social farce. The play, a sort of "Honeymooners" in Milanese sauce, is about runaway inflation in Italy, where workers must eat pet food instead of pasta, and angry housewives take the law into their own hands.
The 21-year-old troupe is headquartered in a warehouse that once served as a recording studio for Dave Brubeck and Lenny Bruce.m It has toured America and Europe. And its plays, collectively written and performed, have been produced by other organizations as diverse as the Harvard Divinity School and the University of Regensburg. Berlin's Free University offers an entire course on the troupe through scripts and video tapes.
But these days, with a cold-war chill in the air in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the applause is not unmixed. A drama critic for the Des Moines Register described a performance:
"It was shocking. It was unpatriotic. It was blasphemous. I don't know when I've enjoyed an evening of theater more. One reads about the riots that attended the premiere performance of Sean O'Casey's plays in Dublin in the 1920s with a sense of wonder. How could people get so excited about a mere play? The San Francisco Mine Troupe makes that kind of audience involvement credible."
And a writer for one San Francisco weekly called the company's most recent performance "arrogant, appalling . . . not so very original throwback to the Communist-leaning protests of the '30s."
In March, the troupe is publishing a volume containing its plays (complete with technical stage directions) from the last decade, a period during which the 14-member collective lowered its elephant gun on everything from urban renewal to inflation, male chauvinism to big business, nuclear power to rough toilet paper.
"The best way to deliver a political message is through comedy," Chumley told me backstage during intermission. "Laughter is open and forgiving. It brings people together."
Judging from the audience response to "TV Dinner" -- the mime troupe does know the secret of getting a good guffaw. The blond third-grader next to me nearly swallowed his toy truck in all the excitement, and a kid three rows back was letting out belly laughs I thought would split the seams of the football helmet he was wearing.
But for these actors, the point is social change, not mere entertainment. They believe, according to one of their flyers: "The most serious subjects are the most in need of comic treatment. Comedy pierces peoples' defense, opening new possibilities for hope and change. An art of despair offers no options."
The company's style is a far cry from Marcel Marceau's charming "Bip and the Butterfly." Nor is it Chaplinesque. While most mimes keep their mouths shut, this troupe is extremely vocal. In fact, making all the noise they can is essential to holding crowds during the group's free park performances in the summer.
"You can't put in any long speeches because of the wind and distractions," says Joan Holden, the troupe's principal playwright. (Chumley is Holden's husband.) "An outdoor audience is much less forgiving. They get cold and uncomfortable. As Thorton Wilder said, you need constant forward movement."
To give momentum to the productions, a versatile "Gorilla Marching Band" began accompanying the troupe in 1968. The band is capable of rendering anything from a regal "Pomp and Circumstance" to a funky "Solidarity Forever." "We play everything from Salsa to Tex-Mex, soul, country and western, and blues, " says Bruce Barthol, a bass guitar player who defected from Country Joe and the Fish to join the mime troupe in 1976, taking a salary cut from $400 to $60 a week, the going salary then. "Contemporary music adds a lot to the shows. To quote Mao, 'You take popular forms of the people and quote them back to the people.'"
Over the years, when the troupe has not been performing gratis in the parks or playing benefits for farm workers, coal miners, and other unionists or cheerleading at selected demonstrations or defending its First Amendment rights in court, it has been on tour in the US, Mexico, Canada, and Europe (travelling on Eurail passes, of course). It has been reviewed in publications ranging from the Times of London to L'Humanite (the organ of the French Communist Party).
Some critics dismiss the troupe as "comic-strip Marxism" or "an adult descendant of Mad magazine."
Jean Miller, a drama critic for the San Francisco Examiner, told me: "You either love the troupe or you hate them. Personally they're not my kind of theater. It's loud bumper sticker sitcom with a sledge hammer didacticism that I don't care for." Over the years, however, the lion's share of reviewers have taken the troupe's comedy more seriously.
The New York Times once praised the group for its "explosive political incitement and bold entertaining theater." The Houston Post said it "may be slightly offensive to the more conservative, just as some of Shakespeare's bawdy comedies stepped on a few refined Elizabethan toes," adding "It's the old 'We have met the enemy and he is us.'" Munich's Abendzeitung said, "Our well-educated attempts for broad politically effective theater are nothing compared to the vitality of the mime troupe." The San Diego Tribune went so far in a recent review as to suggest that Californians "have the famed company declared California's official state theater."
An all-white company for years, the troupe is now racially balanced, after reaching the decision its make-up should reflect the population mix of of women, blacks, Hispanics and Asians in San Francisco. Half of the group today is non-white, in the wake of a "hiring freeze" on white actors for the last several years. The policy has caused some tension, but once a decision is voted on by the collective, it is binding. You can either live with it, or leave.
John Marsh, an actor who came from a Napa theater collective to join the San Francisco Mime Troupe, is now working as a publicist in the troupe's office until a position opens for a white actor.
Does he resent what some call "reverse discrimination?"
"No, it doesn't bother me at all," he says. "That's the way things ought to be run."
Adds Chumley, "We decided that we didn't want a lot of white males up on stage as role models for the world. And also the racial mix helps us reach more audiences. At the moment we're taking only third world people, but we only hire for talent. You won't see any token non-whites on stage."
Chumley's own path to the stage began on the college campus during the era of anti-Vietnam war protests.
In the mid-1960s Chumley, the son of an auto mechanic, left his hometown of Baltimore and vent to Harvard on a full scholarship. "In 1967 I went with some friends to a demonstration at the Pentagon in Washington and watched federal marshalls knocking people's heads. For me it was instant politicization."
That fall job recruiters from the Dow Chemical Company, which manufactured among other things the napalm used in Vietnam, arrived in Cambridge to interview Harvard students. Chumley and other protesters were waiting. They barricaded the Dow employees in one of the college buildings until Cambridge city police finally arrived. Chumley was disciplined by the university.
During the Dow protest that fall, the San Francisco Mime Troupe was performing in Boston, and Chumley who had been on and off the stage since he was 14, warmed to the company's melding of art and politics immediately. He signed on with the troup's technical crew. Today, 12 years later, he has been with the company longer than anyone except Joan Holden.
The company has changed considerably over its 21 years. Perhaps one of the reasons it has marched into history as the nation's oldest political theater company is its willingness to confront contemporary issues (racism; inflation, sexual politics, technology) with modern dramatic forms: melodrama, TV sitcom, mystery, sci-fi, thriller, and musical comedy.
The troupe takes its cue from Bertolt Brecht: "All art is political. The artist who claims to be apolitical has merely chosen the side of the ruling class." Over the last few years the troupe's political approach has broadened.
"Today the group's politics are a lot more frontal," said Chumley in the Victoria Theater dressing room. "The plays are not as goofy or outrageous as they used to be. In the early days of the troupe, the intent was not to build as a political movement but rather to shock the middle class nature of every American to the point where they could see things differently. It was a kind of fracturing of society that was happening from [Timothy] Leary on down. We're slightly more conservative now but much more consistent.
Barthol, who was changing out of the snake costume and green face paint he wears in "TV Dinner," piped in: "Fifteen years ago we were doing things that were risque and sometimes downright gross. Fortunately that didn't survive the women's movement. The mime troupe is out of its Bohemian stage now. In the '60 s we played from Antioch to one little cute college town after another. Now the campuses have gone conservative, and the left has moved into the community. Our audience is somewhat older now."
The mime troupe was founded in 1959 by Ronnie Davis, who worked under the auspices of the Actors Workshop, then the most progressive of the nation's resident theaters.Davis had spent several years studying mime in Paris, and the troupe started out performing commedia dell'arte adaptations of classics by Moliere, Goldoni, and Machiavelli. As the politics of the '60s and '70s heated up, so did the material performed by the company.
The mime troupe began scripting plays like: "The Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel," about racial oppression in Watts, the black ghetto of Los Angeles; "L'Amant Militaire," an adaption of a Goldoni play attacking aspects of the Vietnam War; "Meat," a short [Word Illegible] play: "Los Siete," a collectively-written play about a group of youths charged with killing a policeman; "The Independent Female," attacking male chauvinism; "Sieze the Time, " about the Chicago 8 conspiracy trial; "Eco- Man," an anti-pollution skit; "The Dragon Lady's Revenge," a melodrama concerning CIA involvement in the Indo-China heroin traffic; "High Rises," a comedy opposing urban renewal and the construction of high-rent apartments.
Within such a politically volatile group, internecine squabbles and splintering were inevitable. In 1965, Luis Valdez left the troupe to form El Teatro Campesino (Farmworkers Theater). In 1970, Davis, then director, left the troupe, which then became a more egalitarian and politically-oriented collective. From then on, decisions were made democratically. The glory and the power and the dirty work were shared equally.
"Nobody is supreme now," says Chumley. "You can win one day and lose the next. And you have to win on the basis of your arguments."
The purpose of the troupe today is still "to keep ideas alive and keep up the spirits of the left," says Chumley. "Theater is essential to political movements. Look at the Russians, the Vietnamese, and the long march in China.We're criticized for being cheerleaders, but that's like criticizing people for breathing. It's something they need. The American left is floundering, without strong leadership or party platform. We're trying to fill that vacuum."
Long hours (as many as 16 hours a day during rehearsals and script writing periods) and low wages (each member of the collective, from director to ticket-taker, now receives $100 a week) takes it toll on the troupe. The "burn-out" rate is high. It is unusual for anyone to stay more than seven or eight years. Chumley and Holden are the exceptions.
"Life in the mime troupe," says Chumley, "is about as healthy as beating your head against the wall. . . . When we do a show, people out front are cheering and screaming, and I can live with that on one level. It's nice to know whatm they're cheering for too. It's because of our politics, because we're saying something.
"What's most frustrating is that our lives become hand-to-mouth, nickel-dime existences. You get used to being broke all the time. You can't cheat anybody but yourself." Chumley and Holden now have three children and live in a house which was once occupied by nine members of the collective. Holden supplements the family income with money she makes teaching at the University of California at Davis. According to the collective's rules, anyone working an "outside gig" does not draw the $100 a week salary from the troupe.
The troupe now receives about 10 percent of its annual budget from the city (through a 6 percent "hotel tax" which finances various cultural and tourist enterprises), and raises the other 90 percent of its $130,000 annual budget through donations and ticket sales.
To remain self-sufficient, the troupe must write, rehearse, and perform at least one new play every year. Last year, it added four new shows to the repertoire andm still had to scrape the barrel.
Other sources of revenue, of course, are the tried-and-true counterculture methods of selling T-shirts and posters and passing the hat after park performances. "We tell the audience, 'If you can afford to stay, you can afford to pay," says Chumley, who estimates the troupe averages $1 a person from its outdoor crowds, which number between 300 and 500 people.
"We're very aggressive after the shows, and everyone gives something. . . . We come right out and ask for what we need. We've learned that the timid don't survive." And the mime troupe, if nothing else, has survived.