Saturday, November 7, 2009

The San Francisco Mime Troupe

Since I call myself "interested in theatre" and I have lived in San Francisco for four years, it's probably some sort of sin that I had never heard of the San Francisco Mime Troupe before a few weeks ago. When I saw the Mill Valley Film Festival was having an event: Troupers: 50 Years of the San Francisco Mime Troupe I was intrigued, but also sincerely thought I was in for a night of miming- in my mind silent acting.

The illustrious Peter Coyote introduced the event by reading a section from his book, Sleeping Where I Fall, about his own introduction to the Troupe.

"Miming- not like Marcel Marceau- a mime uses words, movement and props to extend ideas," he explained. The Troupe performed Commedia Dell'Arte style theatre- ‘pass the hat' old Italian street theatre. You had to be entertaining, to be good, or you wouldn't make money. And most of the Troupers survived off of what was put in the hat. No room for boring theatre.

"It was the tail end of the beat era," said Coyote. "The Mime Troupe was just a successor in a long line of cultural expression."

Following Coyote's introduction we saw the very well done 1985 documentary Troupers- directed by Glenn Sibler and Claudia Vianello, and that's when I got the full story of the Mime Troupe.

Rock music promoter Bill Graham was the Business Manager of the Troupe for a long time. The Mime Troupe prevailed in the 60s. "Theatre is for people to see their own fears and preoccupations acted out on stage," said one actor. The San Francisco Mime Troupe served as the theatre for San Franciscans during a tumultuous, emotional time- the Cultural Revolution of 1962-1972. They would often set up in Golden Gate Park and hundreds of people would come watch. The Troupe still does performances like this in San Francisco, ( but I imagine in the 60s they were more prominent- that a more unified San Francisco supported them. The Mime Troupe became a collective by default.

"The Troupers seemed to speak for humanity instead of against it," said one Mime Troup fan in the documentary.

Troupers intimately follows the actors and we get an idea of why they are involved in the Troupe. One actor talks about how he used to be very religious and we get the impression that the Troupe now fulfills what Church did for him -"I switched from a faith in God to a faith in people," he says.

Another says the Mime Troupe was, "An integration of fun, sex, what you believed, and a vehicle to talk about it."

After Troupers, the filmmakers, and SF Mime Troupe alums Joan Holden and Wilma Bonet joined by Peter Coyote, sat on stage for a discussion. They all agreed that the Mime Troupe was something special in their lives, and that it was a special group of people who were part of it. Now later in their lives, "No one ever changed or backed down on their principles. We all have that fundamental, progressive, humanistic quality," said one.

The moderator asked the group something they most took away from the Troupe. "It gave you great confidence. You could go into a room with nothing and be magnificent. You may fall on your ass but you'll fall confidently," said Coyote.

"The fantastic feeling was that we could do anything, make anything work. There was a feeling of great power and mastery," said Holden.

If you haven't seen it Troupers I highly recommend it. Anyone interested in theatre or San Francisco should know the history of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

*photo credit Margot Duane

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