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Something’s Amok At The SF Mime Troupe

On August 10, two theatre people on the Board of Directors of The SF Mime Troupe –Joel Schechter and I resigned.  Prior to that four others – long time Board Members -- also resigned in April 2015

Is this some sort of indication that things are spiraling down or are they spiraling up? A non-profit political theatre enclave has trouble holding onto its knowledgeable theatre folks, even some of its previous members?  Could this be a reflection of the final years of  the Obama era?

To assume a parallel between a small group of eight or so people in a so-called collective, and its Board of seven and the trajectory of the Obama years is curiously apt; however, the trajectory of the SFMTs regression over a longer term more closely follows the observations of Francis Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward in the essay “Four Grassroots Organizations” (see Poor people's movements: why they succeed, how they fail, N.Y. Vintage, 1979)

The first phase of a grass roots organization is its community connectedness; after a few years, there’s a shift to focusing on the organizations stability, and in the third phase, the primo concern is the organization itself.  In each phase, the management shifts as well.

A studied and longer (historical)  view may change this analysis; however,  for now, the following is a fair frame of a US progressive organization’s  origins, growth, and in this case, twisted decline.

In April 2015  four long-term members: Peter Snider President (40 years), Joan Holden Secretary/Treasurer (30 years), Merle Goldstone (15 years plus), and Becky O’Malley (more than 10 years), all resigned from the SFMT Board.  Joel and I held on to see what would happen.

As founder and Director of the SFMT, I separated from the organization in 1970 and returned to the Board in 2005. Joel Schechter, who as a Professor of Theatre Arts at SFSU, has been on the SFMT Board for seven years. Although we don’t agree on all aspects of a critique, we do agree that the Board, once a source of internal discussion and advice, is now a fund raising clique, with little or no control of the leading playwright’s family. We both agreed it was time to leave the Board. Our formally submitted reasons follow.

Statement by R.G.Davis August 10, 2015 to the SFMT Board of Directors

Whereas this organization is now producing shows that denigrate the left, shows composed by a supposed black progressive that result in a rejection of any alternative to the Democratic Party – it’s time to out the cat in the bag.

When I heard the title of the new play was “Freedomland,” I knew it was invented by M. G. Sullivan but didn’t know ‘til we heard a reading and saw a run-through that the point was to exaggerate the left, thereby dismiss it, and then ridicule it with old TV sitcom characters while posing as topical and “political.”

Joan Holden had invented the selection of “hot topics” – she would find a current issue and then parley it into a melodramatic format. She insisted on melodrama. Sullivan now patches together melodrama with music and punkish humor.

The change from Holden to Sullivan now evidences a liberal decline. The first iteration was liberal parodies of the ruling class with a “shot of hope” to counter liberal angst.  Now comes Sullivan’s central function: to take a hot topic and twist it off course by focusing on either an irrelevancy like ‘potholes’ or already exhausted efforts. The play’s function is to dismember any radical intent or action, like including the Occupy Movement (in “For the Greater Good”: 2012) and stating what it needed was a “charismatic leader.” This certainly detracts from any essential discussion of that movement which, by the way, in 2013 was wiped out by Homeland Security in two weeks under the Black President -- the one who received a Nobel peace prize. More recently, the Obama administration has droned-dead many around the world & prosecuted six whistle blowers, more than any other president. He recently jailed a black whistle blower to illustrate his fairness.

The historical trajectory of the SFMT from the ‘60s radical critique of racism in the society with the “Minstrel Show or Civil rights in a Cracker Barrel” – has moved from challenging entire societal conditions to stopping at simple liberal faults or simply saying blacks are essential, rather than focusing on the conditions of the culture, of capitalism and class-social-economic racism. The minstrel show was the opposite of what we have seen in the last two years with Sullivan’s use of black fake revolutionary figures who are opportunists (imagine an opportunist who knows the character well, and then plays a fake Panther who exaggerates the rhetoric of the Panthers) -- ignoring what the Panthers actually did besides calls for revolution, like stopping drug pushers in the Fillmore, their Oakland breakfast program, and policing the police. Ridiculing the left leaves only the Democratic Party as the best instrument of social progress – the bipartisan instrument of social regression.

Since this April, the exodus of four older members of the SFMT Board who had some sense of history, theatre, and other interests than fund raising – has been followed by selection of those who have donated 1,000 dollars to the SFMT at a luncheon as the best candidates for Board.  Now that a Stanford University fundraiser and his cohort, an Apple corporate employee, run the new board with the support of the Family Sullivan, the conservative faction in power considers anything less than cheerleading slander.

It is symptomatic that such a financial standard should be the determining factor for Board membership. The Collective itself is a bogus entity actually run by the author of the summer play – i.e. Sullivan -- so that the plays and the Board are now united in producing the kind of commercial entries favored by NEA grants. The trick here is to present plays as if you were progressive while bashing the left and distracting the liberals. The Empire is at home here.

The organization has sufficiently consolidated its control to eliminate any voice of history or theatre, or radical critical voice. May the contradictions fester.  After ten years on the SFMT Board, it is time for me to resign.

Joel Schechter’s Letter of Resignation (August 10, 2015)

I am submitting this letter of resignation to end my term as a member of San Francisco Mime Troupe's Board.

For the past few years while on the Board I have tried to serve the San Francisco Mime Troupe as an advisor.  I never saw myself as a fund raiser, and I was not appointed for that purpose; but given my experience in professional and academic theatre as a dramaturg, theatre historian, and play director, I thought that I could offer some useful advice to the Mime Troupe on play selection, season planning, and playwriting.  The advice has included a talk to Collective members on the history of the Living Newspaper and the Federal Theatre; a proposal and outline for a play about Edward Snowden; a list of existing modern political plays (by Brecht, Fo, etc.) that might be staged by the SFMT; a call for new playwrights to join with the Collective, and not simply be taken from within existing Collective membership; a call for new Board members who could offer artistic and political advice; suggestions for improvement of plays in progress.    While I never expected the Collective to take all of my suggestions, it has taken almost none of them, and that includes suggestions made at the first reading of the current season's play.

I am not resigning simply because I am disappointed in the quality of the play written for the SFMT this year; but I have to say that the quality of the new plays written for the past four or five years has disappointed me, to the extent that I no longer want to support the work of a company that does this kind of play. While some of the Collective's members are talented as actors, designers, and technicians, the group suffers by not having new playwrights capable of providing texts and ideas that take the SFMT forward into the 21st century.  The Collective needs to become more up to date artistically and in its political concerns. For the past two years, summer plays have been dominated by recollections of Black Panther and Black radical life in the 1960s.  I have to agree with R.G. Davis that given all the major political and social upheavals going on in the world, the focus on politics of the 60s verges on nostalgia and avoidance of other issues, current issues.  While I think issues related to Black lives and police brutality in America are important, there are more creative and compelling ways to present them than through a parody of Black Panther rhetoric, which has been a major part of plays for two seasons.

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