R. G. Davis
[This article appeared in the Summer 1966 issue of the Tulane
Drama Review. Its title became synonymous with the style of
radical theater that the San Francisco Mime Troupe performed but also the inspiration for
the form of street theater practiced by the Diggers and numerous other groups
in the Sixties. In a footnote to the article, Davis credited Peter Berg with the term
Art is almost always harmless and beneficent;
it does not seek to be anything else but an illusion. Save in the case of a few people who
are, one might say, obsessed by art, it never dares to make any attacks on the realm of
Freud defines theatre in America, and Che
Guevara tells us what to do about it:
The guerrilla fighter needs full help from the
people of the area. . . . From the very beginning of the struggle he has the intention of
destroying an unjust order and therefore an intention, more or less hidden, to replace the
old with something new.(3)
This society, our society—America,
U.S.A.is chock full o'ennui. Distracted by superficial values, and without a sense
of humanness, we let machines rule; it is easier to kill from a B-52 than to choke every
Vietcong. No one feels any guilt, not even the poor fool dropping the bombs. Theatre has
contributed to alienation by presenting a performer who is hemmed in from costume to head.
He, too, is a number in a basket, a character "type," and he trains his
"instrument" to take orders.
All businessmen talk of service, and
know deep in their hearts that unearned profit is the motive. While Lyndon Johnson talks
of stepped-up peace efforts, the bombing raids increase. While art and culture are dabbled
with, television greys the mind.
Movie and television stars, technical effects,
equipment, and the desire for simple packaging are all obstacles to a concept of
performer-as-creator in theatre-as-art.
The motives, aspirations, and practice of U.S.
theatre must be readapted in order to:
direct toward change
be an example of change
To teach, one must know something.
It is necessary to direct toward change
because "the system" is debilitating, repressive, and non-aesthetic.
Guerrilla company must exemplify change as a group. The group formation—its
cooperative relationships and corporate identitymust have a morality at its core.
The corporate entity ordinarily has no morality. This must be the difference in
a sea of savagery. There is to be no distinction between public behavior and private behavior. Do
in public what you do in private, or stop doing it in private.
For those who like their theatre pure of
social issues, I must sayF*** ***!(4) buddy, theatre IS a social entity. It can dull
the minds of the citizens, it can wipe out guilt, it can teach all to accept the Great
Society and the Amaaaaarican way of life (just like the movies, Ma) or it can look to
changing that society. . .and that's political.
Previous attempts at socially directed theatre
since the 30's have been ineffectivewith the exception of the Living Theatre,
the Actors Workshop (in the 50's, and not since Ford), Off-Broadway in the 50's,
Joan Littlewood's theatre, Roger Planchon, and the Berliner Ensemble. What makes this type
of theatre difficult? Content, style, and external effects or repercussions.
If the content is too immediate, the art is
newsworthy and, like today's newspaper, will line tomorrow's garbage pail. If the content
is devious, symbolic, or academically suggestive, the public will refuse to see it,
because their minds have been flattened by television and dull jobs.
"To be stupid is a luxury only the
commercial can afford."
Social theatre is a risky business, both
aesthetically and politically: assuming that the difficulties of style and content have
been solved, the stage success can be closed because of "fire violations,"
obscenity, or even parking on the grass. What do you
do then? You roll with the punches, play all fields, learn the law, join the ACLU, become
equipped to pack up and move quickly when you're outnumbered. Never engage the enemy head
on. Choose your fighting ground; don't be forced into battle over the wrong issues.
Guerrilla theatre travels light and makes friends of the populace.
A radical theatre group must offer more than
the commercial theatre; it must be equipped with people and imagination to compensate for
the lack of heavy advertising and equipment. Entrenched power is intelligent and artful in
its control. Thus operative paranoia is our appropriate state of being. Keep the caliber
of performances highany lack of skill will lose audiences who are ready and willing
to attend, but not for charitable reasons. There are too many charities now.
The problem is to attract an audience to a
type of theatre it is accustomed to attending and discover forms that will carry the
weight of "effective" protest or social confrontation, without turning theatre
over to twisted naturalistic symbolism, pop art, camp, or happenings for the chic.
There is a vision in this theatre, and it is
not that of the lonely painter or novelist who struggles through his denial years,
suffering, and finally breaking into the "big time." The "big time"
usually means Life Magazine commercial success. But in this case it is to
continueI repeatto continue presenting moral plays and to confront hypocrisy
in the society.
Let me make this very clear. It is
acceptable to criticize, to debate, to take issue with problems in society, as long as you
are not effectiveand as long as you gloss over the issues in such a manner as to
leave the door open to that soft-pedal phrase: "There are two
sides to every murder." It has been our experience in local dealings with the police
and commissioners of parks that when our social comment is clear and direct and not
confused by "art" or obfuscated by "aesthetic distance," we have had
troublearrest, harassment and loss of income.
Ideally, the universities should be examples
of socially committed theatre. Yet academic theatre, far from leading, has followed the
pattern set by regional theatre companies but is even less experimental and risky.
Resident theatres made their stands on repertory, good literature, and the Ford
(not necessarily in that order) and little more is to be expected from this area. The
possibility and responsibility rest with the free-swinging independent organizations which
are least equipped economically to deal with the complex problems of experimentation.
Commercial audiences never taught to think won't buy itand who in showbiz would want
to sell it? It is our obligation to gather audiences and excite them into being
provoked and confronted, and into returning!
NOTE: We are talking about the U.S.A.
and its theatrical milieu. I do not presume to make universal aesthetic judgments. Theatre
and the sense of dialogue are different in this country. Our aesthetic is tempered by what
can be done now, and what the actual climate is.
Should we use epic Brecht? Or experiential Artaud?
Epic theatre, culled from
expressionistic pre-Hitler Germany, is a historical entity appropriate for its time. To
perform historical Epic theatre in a U.S.A. glutted with double-speak, cinemascope, and
newspapers, is to rely upon Brecht for help. Yet Artaud here becomes an excuse for intense
psychological drama and falls into the American jungle of instant
improvisation, instant creation, and instant coffee: all a bit watery.
Should we throw Artaud out to save Brecht?
Anything that aids in cutting through the delusions of the American way of life or the
morass of missionary ideals that lead inexorably to murder is useful. Use both! But
remember that they are European sources, and it is America we are confronting: perhaps
baseball is the best inspiration.
Find a low-rent space to be used for
rehearsals and performances: loft, garage, abandoned church, or barn. If the director
sleeps in, it's cheaper.
Start with people, not actors. Find
performers who have something unique and exciting about them when they are on stage. For
material use anything to fit the performers. Allow the performers to squeeze the material
to their own shape. Liberate the larger personalities and spirits.
has been useful for this approach. It is an open and colorful form, uses masks, music,
gags, and is easily set up with backdrop and platform. Presented inside, bright lights
will do; outside, there are no lighting problems.
For outdoor performances select an intimate
grassy area in a park or place where many people congregate, and play Saturday or Sunday
afternoons. Go where the people arestreet corners, vacant lots, or parks. Set up a
portable stage, 12 x 15 feet, made into eight sections with a backdrop hung on a
pole strung along a goal post support. All equipment must be portable and carried in a borrowed
3/4 ton truck. Set the stage so that the sun is in the face of the actors, not
the audience. Begin the show by playing music, do exercise warm-ups, play and sing,
parading around the area, attract an audience. Use bugles, drums, recorders, and
tambourines working with simple folk tunesrounds well done will do, even Frère
Jacques will do. For Commédia style, the masked characters have to move well to
illustrate what they are saying and all must speak out so the audience can hear fifty feet
away, over the street noises.
Make sure the ground is comfortable and dry
for the audience. Keep the length of the show under an hour, moving swiftly, and adapting
easily to accidents, dogs, bells, children. Improvise on mistakes, coincidental noises
like police sirens during a chase scene. Use a funny script, adapted for your own purposes
(Molière is excellent); cut out excess dialogue, update the language and clearly
delineate the action.
A minstrel show is another possible form; it
is obviously a good vehicle for civil rights problems. Use old minstrel books, rewriting
and updating gags to the conditions of the present. Blackface is a mask too; the
stereotyped minstrel will make the mask work. Try to have the actors play the music
necessary for a show.
Amateurs can be used if you cast wisely. Rehearse in short, intense
periods, keep improving and learning even after the show opens. The show should close
better than it began.
Other forms are available: morality plays,
burlesque, rock and roll (there must be something in rock and roll for the
theatre). Use techniques from modern dance, vaudeville, the circusall these
theatrical events focus on the performer.
Ask a painter to do a backdrop or a sculptor
to make a prop. For costumes shop the second-hand storesthe Salvation Army helps the
poor. If you need program notes or new material, find writers, politicos, poets to adapt
material for your group.
When everything is ready to go, play the show
for friends, learn from the performances, then take it to the people in the parks, halls,
any place. Give it awayanything to build an audience without spending money on
The group must attract many different types of
people. All can help and all can enjoy the cooperative nature of theatre.
Pay the performers from donations received
after the show, keep the books open, pay for all materials and anything else that is spent
on production. Do not overpay, don't try to match prevailing wages (except in poverty
areas). People will work for very little if the work is principled, exciting and fun.
The first steps are necessarily hectic
and loosely ordered. Few long-range plans can be made. After an audience and a group have
been established (in the second stage) one can begin to think of presenting conventional
plays. I suggest you select short, small-cast, one-set plays. Beg, steal, borrow
equipment, make your own, and rent only when necessary. Try not to purchase anything other
than basic materials that can be used for two or three
showswhen in doubt, invent!
One procedure which the Mime Troupe recently
came upon is to join with special groups that need money and do benefits for them: Vietnam
committees, SNCC, CORE, children's nurseries. These groups bring the audience and you
present the show in their place or a rented theatre and split the take.
The problem of a regularly paid staff is that
a constant production schedule has to be maintained to cover costs. But there are
solutions: movie series, one-act plays, poetry readings, underground films for the second
act. Organization becomes tremendously important in order to save money and energy.
Survival, and with it success, increases the
dangers and the responsibility of the directors and the producer. Some traps can be
avoided if the group changes its style once a year; during that change, the mind is
cleansed and the soul expanded.
Protest at the box office is profitable if
it's good. Good theatre can he made meaningful if new audiences are developed, but once
you are in the swing of radical theatre, there is no stopping. You must go all the way or
the enormity and power of the opposing forces will crush you. Never be caught in a
politically aesthetic skirmish with grass in your pocket.
One can learn from the commercial world how to
package, sell and expedite. The art world knows how to create. Use both!
It is a slow and arduous path to follow but
the people will come to your aid, because your cause is just and your means exciting and
full of life. There are hundreds of people looking for something to do, something that
gives reason to their lives, and these are the guerrillas.
"Guerrilla Theatre" was originally
published in Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 10. No. 4, Summer 1966. It was included in
Guerrilla Theatre Essays published by the San Francisco Mime Troupe in 1970.
Spelling and syntax in this online reproduction conform to the TDR version.
(1) The title for this kind of theatre was
suggested by Peter Berg, author and member of the S. F. Mime Troupe.
(2) Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (New York: W.W. Norton Co., Inc., 1933), p. 207.
(3) Che Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare (New
York: Monthly Review Press, 1961), p. 43.
(4) Author's asterisks—Editor's note.