The San Francisco Mime Troupe — SFMT — has been creating and organizing theatrical performances in and around the bay area for more than 55 years. What sets SFMT apart is the hard-hitting political satire that forms the basis of the troupe’s every production; as well as the choice to make each and every show free and open to the public.
It is worth noting that “mime” in SFMT’s title does not refer to pantomime. None of the troupe’s performances include actors wearing black and white stripes silently interacting with a field of invisible props. “Mime” as the SFMT intends, refers to the older meaning, “to mimic,” which is exactly what the troupe does — it mimics happenings in the world today in order to raise awareness for current issues and promote social justice.
It is also worth noting that SFMT can be boisterous. SFMT productions have been known to come in the form of musicals, complete with outbursts of emotionally charged dialogue, sing-a-longs, and even a marching band.
According to its website at www.sfmt.org/
, the mime troupe began as “an experimental project” which first premiered at an actor’s workshop in 1959. The group’s initial organizer, R.G. Davis, was an experienced dancer and mime, and an activist.
From early on, the SFMT brought its productions to the public sphere. SFMT put on its first outdoor performance of a play entitled, “The Dowry,” at Washington Square Park in 1962. The play was performed for free, and at the end of the production a hat for the collection of donations was passed though the audience, marking the beginning of an SMFT tradition that continues to this day.
However, as quickly as the troupe gained notoriety in San Francisco’s performing arts community, it also ran into opposition from the authorities.
Essentially, officials from the San Francisco Department of Parks and Recreation weren’t happy with the troupe’s performance of “offensive and inappropriate” content.
City officials issued warnings, and SFMT and associated lawyers issued rebuttals, leading up to a hearing on August 4, 1965, in which SFMT’s permit to perform was revoked.
SFMT’s struggle against censorship reached a climactic moment on August 7, 1965 in Lafayette Park. Despite their lacking a permit, the troupe prepared for their performance while an audience of thousands gathered.
R.G. Davis set the stage for the audience, explaining the process thus far that had legally prohibited him and SFMT from putting on further performances. Then, knowing exactly what would happen next, R.G. Davis pulled a mask over his face and said into the microphone, “Today for your appreciation we perform an arrest.” At that moment police grabbed R.G. Davis and removed him from the scene while an angry crowd yelled in protest. When the pandemonium died down, the show went on as planned, and the audience donated generously to aid SFMT with the legal fees that were eminent.
Davis lost the case against him in San Francisco without ever having a chance to introduce the fact that he and SFMT were facing censorship. However, thanks to the group’s resilience and support from the surrounding community, SFMT managed to continue fighting the legal battle against them all the way to the Supreme Court.
Reconciliation for the group came in July 1966 when Supreme Court Judge Koresh ruled that the revocation of the troupe’s permits to perform based on the content of their play was unconstitutional. Finally the SFMT had earned its right to practice free speech, and perform publicly in San Francisco’s city parks.
Since that hard-won victory, SFMT has continued to produce theatre that promotes social justice year after year.
“The Troupe does a huge amount of research each year — reading articles, watching documentaries, doing interviews — all with an eye to finding issues that we feel will resonate best with the audience,” said Michael Gene Sullivan, resident playwright with SFMT since 2000, and long-time Western Addition resident.
SFMT’s next performance, entitled, “Schooled” will grapple with the issue of the privatization of public schools — and whether corporate sponsorship of some schools could be the answer to their funding problems. The next performance of “Schooled” is scheduled for Monday, July 4, starting at 2 p.m. in Dolores Park, followed by back to back performances at Live Oak Park in Berkeley on July 9 and 10.
If these dates do not fit your schedule, don’t worry. The SFMT will continue performing its latest play in various venues around the Bay Area through September. A detailed schedule of the SFMT’s summer performances can be found on the website at http://www.sfmt.org.
Funding for SFMT is made possible by donations from audiences and supporters of the troupe alike, as well as through grants and charitable donations made by a collection of corporations and local businesses.
For those who would like to become directly involved, the SFMT offers internships and workshops — however, applications for this season must be postmarked by July 1. Workshops are offered free in exchange for volunteer hours, or participants can choose to pay the entrance fee.
Another exciting opportunity is SFMT’s Youth Theatre Project —YTP. The project offers eight week internships for high school students who want to build their acting, improvisation and character skills. Students in the upcoming Fall 2016 session will be working on and ultimately performing a play entitled, “Inside Out.” The SFMT does offer a small stipend for students who complete the YTP course. Applications for that upcoming session are due by Monday, Sept. 4.