Today we spotlight the too little celebrated (and too little understood) contributions of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and its founder R.G. “Ronnie” Davis (b. 1933).
There are struggles and there are struggles. In addition to Fighting the Good Fight both politically and artistically, members of the SFMT and their supporters must add patiently explaining to all and sundry that the company does no longer specialize in presenting Marcel Marceau style whiteface French pantomime (hasn’t for about 60 years), and that their devotion to socialism does not mean or imply support for a Dictatorship of the Proletariat. I know that younger activists, who must make themselves blue in the phase explaining the meanings of “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the Police”, can relate.
The word mime comes from the Greek “mimesis”, which merely means “copying”, i.e. “putting on a show”, although the company does have its roots in mimey-mime. Brooklyn-born Davis took a degree in economics at the University of New Mexico in 1955, then went on to study modern dance, and then, yes, pantomime, in New York and Paris. In 1959 he moved to San Francisco and joined the Actor’s Workshop as an assistant director. He began his troupe as a project of the Workshop, initially staging improvised public events, drawing from traditional silent mime. 1963 was when he split off to form his own organization. By then, he and his colleagues were also drawing from commedia dell’arte, vaudeville, circus, melodrama, puppetry, jazz, improv, and Brechtian theory. Conventional mime shows gave way to productions of Beckett plays, Ubu Roi, and adaptations of Moliere. The group began actively promoting civil rights, withdrawal from Vietnam, and the philosophy of Karl Marx. Their most famous (notorious) production is probably The Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel (1967), which employed the ironic use of blackface. The term “Guerilla Theatre” was coined by the Troupe to describe their theatrical radical protest events. The activist street theatre group The Diggers were an overlapping offshoot of the SFMT; Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies were influenced by them. Bill Graham became their business manager in 1965, and transitioned into being a rock promoter by producing benefit shows at the Fillmore Auditorium. This was how he began presenting groups like The Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin), and the Grateful Dead. And Paul Binder and Michael Christensen, Founders of Big Apple Circus, met as members of the Troupe.
Davis left the Troupe in 1970, apparently by mutual consent, and it became a collective. It has flourished ever since as one of the last bulwarks of a leftist culture that once dominated, but has been on the defensive since the Reagan Revolution of 1980. I just spotted an example of the sort of risible newspaper headline companies like the SFMT have had to put up with for decades, “SFMT Presents Edgy Political Theatre Show”. It’s like the entire vernacular has shifted. “Edgy”, for your information, is a style, not reflective of a conviction. “Political” is cowardly and (ought to be) self-evident. But over the decades, pop culture and a resources-starved educational system have produced an American populace that not only doesn’t read, but knows nothing of politics or economics, and has lost the habit of checking out art. And so you get these apologetic headlines and explanations, and the very name “San Francisco Mime Troupe”, becomes a sort of lightning rod and punchline. It’s beyond unfortunate. Learn more about the Troupe at their website here. As well, the Ronald G. Davis Papers at the UC Davis are cataloged here.
I would be remiss in my duties as a former employee and eternal supporter of the New York company that I believe emulates the SFMT more than any other, Theater for the New City, if I didn’t take this opportunity to alert you to the fact that they are launching their annual Street Theater production, live and in person, in just a few weeks. This year’s show is Critical Care, or Rehearsal for a Nurse. The full description, with locations and dates, is here.
For more on the ’60s vaudeville revival spurred on in part by R.G. Davis and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.