S. F. Mime Troupe: Risk and Frontal Assault

By Peter Berg
August, 1966

The San Francisco Mime Troupe is involved in building a new popular social theatre. Not a re-hash of "realism" and "problem" plays, but original forms, expressive style, and new performance situations that reflect the social forces in the U.S. today. It is a group of performers (actors, mimes, dancers) dedicated to actional theatre and confrontation. The Troupe has played the public parks of San Francisco with free commedia dell'arte shows that blend 15th century costumes with contemporary issues, given new plays from outdoor speaker's platform and flat-bed trucks, and created A Minstrel Show to put-on Jim Crow and get beneath the skin of the civil rights issue. R. G. Davis, the director and founder of the group, refers to the process as "taking risks" to engage the audience in vital themes and questions.

Proof of the volatility of these questions has been amply provided by various social "authorities" who have also been engaged in the process. By treating controversial material in "non-permissible" ways, the Troupe has become an issue in itself:

Commedia shows were refused a park permit because of alleged obscenity in the material. Davis was arrested and convicted for performing without the permit in a test of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Commission's right to censor the content of plays. ACLU appealed the case and the Troupe won on constitutional grounds. It now plays the parks five days a week. A commission representative revealed the intent of the permit refusal by later stating that, "This group has a monumental reputation for productions ridiculing the police, our city, our government, religion, and this commission." Originally the charge was that "an actor - simulated relieving his bladder."

A Minstrel Show was blacked-out in mid-performance by officials of Olympia College in Washington because of "unsuitability" of its material. The student body audience was loudly divided about the administration's heavy-handed censorship, and the Minstrel cast called from the stage for a vote. Officials refused, then compounded their Dark Ages policy by clearing the theatre of students and performers.

The Burns Committee, California's own Un-American Activities hysteria center, dedicated a chapter of its recent annual report to the Mime Troupe in an attempt to brand the Troupe for appearing in behalf of the Free Speech Movement.

Of course the Troupe's frontal tactics have resulted in some displacement of energy in legal and financial hassles resulting from these encounters, but they have also attracted an audience and following which is looking for more than "commentary".

The fall the Troupe will produce an adaptation of Sartre's Condemned of Altona and present it in boxing-rings and gymnasiums as an experiment in audience participation; create material for a cabaret-theatre circuit made up of clubs and bars not usually considered as theatrical environments; and tour Midwestern and Eastern colleges with A Minstrel Show.

Peter Berg

[Located in the San Francisco Mime Troupe Archives at the University of California at Davis, Shields Library, Special Collections, Accession Number: D-61. Box 81, Folder 1.]


[Along with above article is the following, a carbon copy of a typescript letter.]
August 30, 1966
Mr. Lee Korf
Educational Theatre News
1017 S. Catalina
Whittier, Calif. 90605
Dear Mr. Korf:
Enclosed is an article written by Mr. Peter Berg "S.F. Mime Troupe: Risk and Frontal Assault" as requested in your letter of August 26. Mr. Berg is a writer and director in the Troupe.
Thank you very much for your prompt handling of my request.
Caraline Straley
S. F. Mime Troupe, Inc.

[Typed on letterhead stationery with 924 Howard St. | SF 94103]

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