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the sf mime troupe and the fate of public art

Before there were hippies, before there were love-ins, before the Diggers ever served a free meal, or the Dead stopped playing in the Panhandle; before them all, there was the Mime Troupe. Every summer since 1962, they have been there in our Bay Area parks presenting their shows for free --for a mere pass of the hat. In their unique rough and tumble style, broadly satiric and musical, these shows have spoken to people in their neighborhoods, and spoken to them clearly about violence, drug addiction, the misuses of power, the perils of hatred and greed, and the individual's need to be informed and responsible.

Though few who have seen them could deny the positive benefits of watching a Mime Troupe show, that may not be enough to keep these shows happening much longer. In a time when the lion's share of theatre revenues are being gobbled by vapid lumbering spectacles like Le Miz and Starlight Express, multi-racial, multi-ethnic not-for-profit community-based companies like the Mime Troupe must struggle ever harder to survive.

"Public art" as we once knew it, is no longer. National culture-cutting trends begun in the Reagan era have seen funding for the arts disintegrate and nearly vanish. No one need argue for the subsidizing of "commercial" theatre. But what about arts organizations that attempt to speak to and for those who have no powerful lobbies in Washington, those who do not constitute an attractive "demographic?" Has the need to meet the bottom line become so acute that nothing that doesn't produce numbers can hope to sustain itself?

san francisco mime troupe Founded thirty-seven years ago, the San Francisco Mime Troupe has gained international recognition, and a long list of awards (including a Tony) for its edgy and humorous mix of politics, comedy, and music. "We've been through many tough years," says Ed Holmes, a ten year veteran of the troupe, "but everyone agrees this is the most serious things have gotten. Since the NEA cut funding, even the more progressive foundations have stepped off to the sidelines to wait and see who will survive and who won't." Holmes says they've figured that the average hat collection at a "free" show generates about $2 per person. Does this mean that they should fold their tent, load up their truck, and call it a day? (Even if they wanted to, they'd have to rent a truck to do it, as their own truck was recently stolen after a show in L.A., and is presumed dismantled.)

How does the troupe cope with such a climate? "We do what we can. Stay creative, and go after those few who still believe in what we are doing," says Holmes. With each passing year, the few in question grow fewer and farther between; last summer's show was very nearly cancelled before a last-ditch plea brought in seven hundred individual contributions and allowed the troupe to produce half their usual number of dates.

Over the course of its existence, the Mime Troupe has consistently delivered high quality entertainment, but along with it, they have also delivered a message; a message of moral and civic responsibility. Theirs is the type of message that is becoming increasingly difficult to hear above the roar of the broadcast media. Easily dismissed as now-disreputable liberalism, it is actually humanism that is on the run here.

So, whither goes our moral soul? Where are dissident voices heard? Far too few of us care, or care enough. The sad fact is that while we struggle with our individual agendas, the situation for many deteriorates, and no public outcry is made -- partly because there are no places for such cries to be heard. If there are no free Mime Troupe shows in the park next summer, it will be us, not the Mime Troupe, who will be the big losers.

I am not suggesting net activism is a waste of time. What I am suggesting though, is that our sense of public morality is learned in our sharing of physical space. It is within the collectives of family and community, that compassionate values are demonstrated. It is there that tolerance and generosity show themselves superior to hatred and greed. It is through the process of identifying with others that we touch what is essential and human in each of us. For thirty-seven years the Mime Troupe has reminded San Franciscans and the world of those truths that transcend profit. This is the purpose of moral art, but it is even more so the purpose of public art. If we don't wake up soon to our role in its revitalization, we may find ourselves with none of it left to save.

San Francisco Mime Troupe's website

A short history of the Mime Troupe at UCSC


curintu said:

People are both better and worse than they seem. That is, there is far more to even the most simple person than is evident by their personae. People are deep, even the seemingly shallow ones. Everyone is feeling so much more than they let on... I have a friend who has a huge part of her life that is practically unknowable to her loved ones, so there is much that is a very important part of her which they will never see. Imagine the gulf that exists between different cultures. Love is an interesting word. "Please, a little less love and a little more common decency." (Kurt Vonnegut)

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