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Guerrilla Theatre1

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 "guerrilla theatre."—ed.]

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 reality.(2)

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:

  • teach

  • 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.

The Guerrilla company must exemplify change as a group. The group formation—its cooperative relationships and corporate identity—must 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 say—F*** ***!(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.

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Previous attempts at socially directed theatre since the 30's have been ineffective—with 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 high—any 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 continue—I repeat—to 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 effective—and 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 trouble—arrest, 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 Foundation (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 it—and 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.

HANDBOOK

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.

Commedia dell'arte 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 are—street 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 tunes—rounds 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 circus—all 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 stores—the 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 away—anything to build an audience without spending money on advertising.

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.

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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 shows—when 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.

Notes

"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.


Cover of Tulane Drama Review, Summer 1966 issue.

First appearance of "Guerrilla Theatre" by R.G. Davis
Bust of Mime Troupe Performance, 1965.
Bust of S.F. Mime Troupe performance at Lafayette Park, San Francisco, August 7, 1965.

 

 
 
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