Arts Listings

SF Mime Troupe’s ‘Too Big Too Fail’

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday July 30, 2009 - 11:16:00 AM

Too Big to Fail, the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s 50th anniversary show, swings through Berkeley again this weekend, playing outdoors in Willard Park Friday evening and Saturday afternoon. 

It’s a storytelling play, “in the tradition of the West African griots,” with song and dance, that follows a villager who takes a loan from a new Wall Street subsidiary in his neck of the jungle to become the Goat Lord of Kanabeedomo. Then economic downturn, symptoms of investment bubbles, of pyramid schemes—and Filije is faced with losing Bamusa the goat, his original, beloved collateral. 

The troupe will perform Too Big To Fail at 6:30 p.m. Friday and at 2 p.m. Saturday at Willard Park, with other local performances at 7 p.m. Aug. 6 at Oakland’s Lakeside Park; 2 p.m. Aug. 22 and 23 at Berkeley’s Live Oak Park; 2 p.m. Aug. 29 at Oakland’s Mosswood Park; and 7 p.m. Sept. 16 at Laney College in Oakland. All shows are free and preceded by a 30-minute music set. 

The show was written by Michael Gene Sullivan—who first saw the Mime Troupe in Golden Gate Park as a teenager when he aspired to teach history (“It was everything I wanted to do, in one event”)—and Ellen Callas, and features stage direction by Wilma Bonet and musical direction by Pat Moran (who penned music and lyrics). It is the latest and most topical offering of the Mime Troupe’s mission—as Sullivan put it—to challenge the stories of American-style capitalism.  

That mission came with the founding of the troupe in 1959 by R. G. Davis as a project of Actors Workshop, the seminal San Francisco theater company. Davis, a student of dance and of the founder of modern mime, Etienne Decroux (teacher of Jean-Louis Barrault and Marcel Marceau, who played Barrault’s father in Marcel Carne’s film, Children of Paradise), started a studio to explore mime and language, eventually leading to shows in the style of Commedia Dell’Arte, the Renaissance physical comedy with antecedents in the mimes of classical antiquity. 

Performing in the parks from the early ’60s, the Mime Troupe found itself in run-ins with the law, from obscenity busts for reciting Jean Genet’s “Chant D’Amour” to its civil rights satire A Minstrel Show, immortalized in Robert Nelson’s film, Oh Dem Watermelons. Davis has spoken about the close collaboration at the time with now well-known composers like Steve Reich and Morton Subotnick, experimental poets, filmmakers and political journalists. Luis Valdez left the company to found Teatro Campesino; Peter Coyote, a former Digger, went into movies; Bill Graham, Mime Troupe business manager, started his career as impresario staging benefits for the troupe’s bail fund. (Davis remembers seven busts, on various charges.) 

Davis, who remains on the board of the troupe, left the company in 1970, partly in disagreement over a shift in style towards a kind of musical comedy in the streets, what the Mime Troupe has performed ever since. Joan Holden, who wrote about 30 plays for the troupe, counters that “melodrama,” as Davis characterized what succeeded Commedia, was a more familiar American storytelling style with “undreamed power” to put over the social issues the Mime Troupe addressed, particularly, in the ’70s, the Women’s Movement. 

Holden, director Dan Chumley and composer Bruce Barthol (once of Country Joe and the Fish) typified the troupe’s production team for the closing decades of the last century; Sullivan, Velina Brown and Ed Holmes are names more familiar to its audiences today. 

The old timers exclaim over its unexpected longevity. But Sullivan has expressed what may be the real heart of the company’s continuing mission: to contribute to the creation of a world in which the Mime Troupe would be unnecessary. “We still have a long ways to go,” he said. 



6:30 p.m. Friday and at 2 p.m. Saturday at Willard Park, Berkeley. All shows are free. For information on the continuing celebrations, exhibitions and discussions of the Mime Troupe, through this coming fall and winter, call (415) 285-1717 or go to