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San Francisco Mime Troupe

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The San Francisco Mime Troupe, founded in 1959, is San Francisco 's oldest theatre com'. pany. The group performs free in the Bay área parks, and tours cities and oampuses in the win; ter. The Troupe is a non -pro fit unsuhsidized j theatre collective, whose philosophy is tliat all : art is political. The Troupe present ed Bertold Brecht 's The : Mothert the Power Center two weeks ago, and spent three days in Aun Arbor, talking with people and picketing at stores selling Farah I pants. The Minie Troupe will be in Detroit to night at U of D presenting The Mother, and at '. Oakland i!, tomorrow witli anotlier of their plays, San Fran Scandals 73. Scandalssa ! vaudeville coinedy dealing with the problem of a city wtiich wants to use its revenue sharing '. inoney to build an opera house. The following interview with Melody and Joan of the San francisco Mime Troupe was j done by SUN reporters during the Troupe's Ann Arbor visit. SUN: For people who haven't seen you before, could you talk about the kind of theatre you do? MELODY: Our theatre is political. Most media try to créate an escape, especially televisión. The entertainment media try to ease tensions of society instead of making people think. From the beginning we're believed that theater can change people's lives. Because we are a theater that goes out to the people and are wholly supported by the people who see our plays, we've gone through the same changes as the people who watch us. We are not so committed to art that we isolate ourselves from the people. Doing theatre in the parks we found that if the people don't like you, they'll walk away. We had to become sensitive to the things that were important to them. If we talked to people about racism, Nixon's economie policy, or the war, they stayed and watched because those issues touched them in their everyday lives. SUN: Has the troupe been political from the beginning? MELODY: When the company began in 1965 it was simply an anti-establishment group. It wasn't Marxist or even overtly political in any direction. The people in the company simply wanted to créate a theater that would be available to more people and criticize the establishment as best they could. In the years since then, however, certain things have come up like lawsuits over the right to have shows in parks and arrests for obscenity and marijuana. These, as well as studying Bertold Brecht and his theater have led us to a more political consciousness, both in our plays and in the organization of the company, which is now a collective. SUN: When you're in San Francisco, do you work with other people trying to form theatre groups? JOAN: We work with political groups who want to créate a short-term group or develop their own theater. We've worked with a Filipino group and a prisoner's union, also with some women who are going to start a street theater and a Chinese group who want to do something similar. We've been doing this a lot over the last two years, but we can't créate a new play every time someone calis us up. It's much more effective to work with people who are trying to créate their own theater. SUN: But haven't you published some of your plays so that other groups can put them on the stage too? MELODY: "The Woman's Play" was published in the December 1971 issue of Ramparts magazine. We've also published a script about a telethon showing what the telephone company is. We don't actively distribute our plays, however, we just make them available if people ask us. We're in a difficult position, and I guess it's something similar to what the Raifibow People's Party has gone through. We've read how people accuse the RPP of being capitalistic and making money off the people with products like tee shirts and rock productions. We can relate to that because we've always been faced with. the dilemma of having to make a living off what we do. If someone does our play in a town that we're coming to, then people have seen it already and aren't so apt to come and see us. There goes our bread and butter. So we have to do things that we cali business-like rather than capitalistic. We copyright our material, and we a-k people who are going to do our plays for commissions and royalties. We're really happ to have groups do our plays, though. Even if people start doing them without anv political intention, they can t help but come to a different place after they analyze what's happening in the play. Political groups can get a lot out of the plays just by doing readings of them for themselves. We've had letters trom small groups telling us how the plays have led them to do a lot of thinking. And that's a really good feeling. SUN: Why did you decide to do Brecht's The Mother this year, rather than write your own play as you have done in the past? JOAN: We had a big debate over what we were going to do this spring. We all wanted to do a play about the people, because most of our plays so far have been about the enemy. It's harder to créate a play about socialist héroes and heroines. They're usually the most boring people in our plays. But that's what we're interested in: the people, the contradictions among themselves and the changes they go through. The Mother shows the audience what people getting together can do. Another typical debate was over whether to have the Mother set in Russia or the U.S. The revolution in Russia has failed, and we didn't want to go out in the parks and get in long debates defending Russia. Brecht, who wrote it in 1931 just before fascism overtook Germany, wrote it in such a way that it transcends later history. No matter what has happened since then, The Mother is a powerful play because it really happened there in Russia and was the beginning of a lot of other struggles. What's interesting is that the only places we've gotten into that debate about Russia and China have been on a couple of campuses. here and in Rochester. There'sa lot of political sophistication here, and along with it a lot of cynicism and sectarianism. I think it's wrong for us to come into a place and sympathize with it. SUN: Don't you think there's a need for sectarian debate? MELODY: There's a real basis for those differences, but we feel that some of these groups battling each other over the differences between Russia and China are passing over some more important things. Someone last night asked us why we don't direct our discussion toward revolution rather than things like rent control and tenants unions. But we feel that people learn from being involved in actions that directly affect them and other Americans - not by debating the strategies of other revolutions. One of the things that's clear from The Mother is the length of time that any struggle takes. The play covers changes that took the mother herself thirteen years to make. To have someone say they want to talk about revolution now just makes me think how long anything takes to really get there. Nothing happens overnight. It happens over a long period of time and it happens day by day. Revolution doesn't grow so much out of discussion about China and Russia, it grows with experiences and takes a lot of time and patience. SUN: How do you feel about what's happening in the country right now? MELODY: I don't feel defeatist at all. I really feel a motion in this country that is different from the motion of the sixties. It's hard to see or feel. Pm a student worker from the sixties and those were exciting, explosive times when you could see and hear what was going on, real confrontations. What's going on now is much more subtle and much more an undercurrent. Many people are cynical but tliere's also a much greater awarenessand a greater disillusionment with the American system. This is what makes our job so urgent. People are looking for alternatives and it's time to build something better. I think it's wrong to stop at things like rent control and food coops, what's important is that people have gotten away trom abstract part of revolution and have starled to initiate community programs to improve conditions in the places where they live. It's a mat uring process where people ..gdí.iw(illí.4gw,riv0iíd.WoUSJUllüíÍü.oiaAhÍa&s.... work with the people they are living with. People are beginning to have children. They're looking for some! thing that is more stable than running from one l demonstration to the next. What's difficult is building something that will survive when things get harder, as I'm sure they will. j JOAN: I think one of the biggest things is the feeling : people have of being powerless, that the country is too vast and too big to combat. But when we were in Minneapolis, it was really an exciting place to be. There were groups of people working together - on a : theater, a woman's union. It was really an active '. community. I We stayed in communal houses. It was really won derful seeing men and women living in communal : situations developing supportive relationships. '. The Alliance people from Madison stopped in to see our shows, and they were really great people. While we were there, the Karl Armstrong trial was going on, and : we were there for the sentencing. Armstrong pleaded '. guilty, which was an amazing choice. Wliat he was able to do by pleading guilty was to put the war on trial. People carne from all over, including the CIA and AID, : and talked about the insanity of the war and why the : real crimináis were going unpunished. The people supporting him feit they had a responsi bility to take the consequences of an action. and then ; take it furtlier, not going backwards or denying it ar l saying it was wrong. Instead, the action must be looked at to see what was right witli it and wliat was ' wrong. That was what Armstrong's decisión to have that kind of trial was based on. This is what made it different from eailier politica! trials. Now we must start : dealing with things in a new way. We can begin to say ' this is the mistake we made, and now let's try to cor reet it and move on.