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When positive coronavirus tests exploded across the U.S., the performing arts were devastated. The COVID-19 pandemic forced theaters, music venues, concert halls and many more spaces where people can gather and enjoy the arts to close up shop, unsure of when they can open again.
However, in San Francisco, after 61 years of live performances in parks across the city, the San Francisco Mime Troupe — a collective of theater professionals who don’t actually perform silently and are known for their politically charged plays — or SFMT, is no longer performing in person, but they’re still putting on a show.
Inspired by radio serials popular in the 1940s and ’50s, the SFMT is putting on a series of radio plays called “Tales of the Resistance” biweekly on their website and on multiple Bay Area radio stations. The wholly original cross-genre plays — the released episodes range from detective noir to comedy to horror — are charged with SFMT’s traditional brand of subtle-as-a-molotov-cocktail leftist activism, using current events to criticize capitalism’s ills.
“We’ve never done anything like this before. We’ve never canceled the summer. We’ve been out there when it’s been cold or heat waves,” said Michael Gene Sullivan, an SFMT collective member who’s writing this summer’s radio series.
“This is too important a year, we can’t not do anything. So we have to do, therefore, something,” he adds.
The SFMT wanted to continue performing after the first statewide lockdown in March, but in a way that would maintain social-distancing practices and avoid potentially exposing members of the troupe to the coronavirus. With radio plays, the cast and crew do not need to leave their homes, all of the recording and rehearsing happens completely remotely. The cast rehearses on Discord, an online communication service, and records their lines at home.
Sullivan, an avid listener of the old radio serials that inspired “Tales of the Resistance,” came up with the idea for the troupe to record their own radio show, with each episode centering on a different character and storyline. A past episode, “Jade, for Hire!” tells the story of a hard-boiled private detective investigating corporate malfeasance while dealing with institutional racism he experiences as a Black man.
The SFMT hopes that current events, and its shows, will convince people what the troupe has been arguing on stage for decades — that a better world is possible without corporate greed and capitalism.
“There are people who’ve suddenly woken up and gone, ‘Oh my God, what the hell?’ but we’ve been talking about it forever,” said Velina Brown, the collective member who is directing “Tales of the Resistance.”
The highly political nature of the SFMT’s plays, in a normal year, lets the troupe amplify the messages of activist groups present at the performance, which the audience can then donate to. However, the digital performances consumed from the audience’s homes render that impossible, so members of the troupe are speaking at panels hosted by the San Francisco Public Library in order to further discuss the themes and critiques of the plays.
The SFMT has lost revenue due to the pandemic, since the troupe mostly subsists on donations, and passing around a hat while looking people in the eye is more likely to net a donation than asking audiences to click on a button at the bottom of the screen, according to Marie Cartier, a collective member helping write “Tales of the Revolution.”
“I think it’s just a lot easier to not donate online. People are so used to getting streaming content for free,” Cartier said.
Cartier adds that the troupe is faring decently financially for the moment because, despite the diminished amount of donations, the cost of creating a show for radio is much less expensive than performing in person. While the SFMT has managed to make ends meet so far, Sullivan says that he worries about the future of theater.
With the pandemic intensifying existing inequalities, Sullivan says he’s concerned that many working-class actors of color will be forced to leave the industry because of financial burden. Sullivan points to the German government’s billion-dollar investment in the arts to keep theater professionals in the industry, and says that the lack of public investment in the United States will drive many out of the theater business.
“A lot of these new voices are going to have to leave because they’re going to have to get a job somewhere, they’re gonna be struggling mightily. They’re gonna end up working at Target rather than being on Broadway,” Sullivan said. “Without some real subsidy, theater could become much whiter and much more male.”
* The San Francisco Mime Troupe plans on continuing the “Tales of the Resistance” radio plays well into winter, the next one, “Dimension 2020!” premieres on Aug. 15. Stream past and upcoming episodes on SFMT’s website or listen at one of the radio stations listed here. To donate to SFMT, go here.