As the San Francisco Mime Troupe celebrates its 60th anniversary and continues to operate in shifting political contexts, Michael Gene Sullivan passionately maintains that the core mission of the unapologetically leftist theater company hasn’t changed since 1959.
“In terms of what we do, our consistent message of social and economic justice is not something you really alter over time,” says Sullivan, 58, who has directed, written and starred in more than 30 productions since joining the collective in 1988. “If it’s about justice, it’s about justice and it should be the case, forever.”
This year’s new show, the swashbuckler comedy “Treasure Island: A New Musical,” opens, as is customary, on the Fourth of July in Dolores Park, and is free. Outdoor performances continue throughout Northern California through September.
Despite its name, the group has never done silent pantomime. It started as a humble indoors avant garde project by Ronald G. Davis, who was influenced by an Italian Renaissance comedy form called commedia dell’arte. In 1970, it became a collective, and has since presented unwaveringly anti-establishment, overtly political shows in genres varying from thrillers to sitcoms.
With capitalism, racism and sexism perpetually in its crosshairs, the troupe has expanded beyond the Bay Area, touring the U.S., Europe and even Cuba. It has won three Obie awards and a 1987 Tony for excellence in regional theater.
Keeping production costs low with its simple, singular stage design, the troupe is funded by audience donations and wavering grant awards. Last year, the National Endowment for the Arts, which funded it intermittently since the 1980s, rejected its $25,000 grant proposal.
“Treasure Island” stars Sullivan, Lizzie Calogero, Keiko Shimosato Carreiro, Andre Amarotico and Brian Rivera and features music by Michael Bello and lyrics by Daniel Savio.
Though it’s loosely based on the seafaring treasure plunderers of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, the story focuses on the eponymous Bay Area island, where reports of toxic contamination continue to linger.
Viewers can expect the usual villains and victims always at play in a Mime Troupe production. Once again, the story pits common folks and working class people against capitalism, corporatism and greed.
Still, Sullivan warns against interpreting Mime Troupe shows simply as a broad stroke of an us-versus-them situation. He says each production raises questions about how audiences are complicit to the problem at hand, whether it’s police brutality, racism or climate change.
“With our shows, we challenge the audience every time,” says Sullivan, head writer of this year’s production. “If you’re selling them, ‘You guys are all great, but it’s those bastards over there,’ then you’re not really doing much.”
He hopes patrons will mobilize, even in today’s increasing age of complacency, where people are constantly “valuing luxuries over necessities.”
The troupe is susceptible to the same issues confronting its followers.
“One of our biggest struggles is not being nostalgic,” says Sullivan, mentioning that its activism must remain as strong as it was six decades ago. “We as the mime troupe can never rest on our laurels in any way.”
Though group members pride themselves in their ability to turn political activism into a digestible, comedic 90-minute entertainment, their top priority is to push the audience into action.
“Don’t see a mime troupe show and relax,” Sullivan says. “Be entertained, laugh, sing along, have a good time, but be activated by it.”
IF YOU GO
Treasure Island: A New Musical
Presented by San Francisco Mime Troupe
Where: Throughout the Bay Area
When: July 4 through Sept. 8
Tickets: Free; $20 donation requested
Select upcoming performances
Music starts 30 minutes before show
2 p.m. July 4: Dolores Park, S.F.
2 p.m. July 20: Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, McLaren Park, S.F.
7 p.m. July 24: SF Mime Troupe Studio Space, S.F. (RSVP required)
7 p.m. July 25: SF Mime Troupe Studio Space, S.F.
2 p.m. July 27: Balboa Park, S.F.
2 p.m. July 28: Yerba Buena Gardens, S.F.
2 p.m. Aug. 11: Glen Park, S.F.
2 p.m. Aug. 18: Potrero del Sol Park, S.F.
2 p.m. Aug. 31: Peacock Meadow, Golden Gate Park, S.F.
2 p.m. Sept. 1-2: Dolores Park, S.F.