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NEA Rejects Grant for SF Mime Troupe

by Tony Taylor

San Francisco Mime Troupe members Velina Brown, left, and Marilet Martinez performed "Walls."
San Francisco Mime Troupe members Velina Brown, left, and Marilet Martinez performed "Walls."  (

The San Francisco Mime Troupe may be down, but it won't go out in silence.

The avant-garde troupe issued a news release this week announcing that the National Endowment for the Arts rejected its $25,000 grant proposal, and the organization is recalculating its budget to move forward with its 2018 performance season.

"In spite of our now eliminated NEA funds and the growing trend to devalue arts funding, we will continue to speak out loudly against the tyranny of bullies on and offstage," read a statement on the main page of SFMT's website. "We are up for whatever hurdles lie ahead."

The Mime Troupe regularly performs for free in Bay Area parks. The grant rejection may have been due in part to lesbian content in "Walls," the troupe's summer musical about immigration.

"Trump NEA Grants $20K for Lesbian Illegal Alien Musical," screamed a headline on the right-wing Breitbart News site in June. The troupe stated in its news release that Breitbart News was bolstering the case made by President Donald Trump for defunding the NEA entirely.

Michael Sullivan, a collective member and resident playwright at SFMT, said that as one of the few theater groups that doesn't take corporate underwriting, the troupe is in a "tight squeeze." SFMT is totally dependent on contributions from foundations, individual donors, and government grants, like the NEA.

"Our mission is being a voice of the working class," wrote Sullivan in an email to the Bay Area Reporter. "Dependency on corporate money can have a chilling effect on the consideration of any play that critiques the corporation, or capitalism in general."

Its summer 2018 show, ironically about the rise and fall (and rise again) of socialism in the United States, is now in jeopardy.

Sullivan said there are certain costs that cannot be cut.

"Our performers, designers, and full-time staff are all paid, and our material costs are already bare-bones," he wrote. "If we cannot make up the $20,000 we may have to cut back on free performances, which means we may not reach as many communities as we would like."

Since 2012, the Tony Award-winning SFMT has received up to $20,000 from the NEA for each production, but the political satirists who perform free shows in public parks may come up short for the 2018 season.

"We do not know if this sudden evaporation of funds is a direct result of the relentless attacks on our friends at the NEA," Sullivan said in a statement. "We hope this will be a temporary circumstance. If the only people in Congress who talk about free activist theater are those who oppose it, then theater of, by, and for the people cannot survive."

The experimental troupe got its start in 1959 with silent, avant-garde, indoor performances by director Ronald Davis, a trained dancer and mime. By the mid-1960s, the show moved to outdoor parks, combating capitalism and racism by mocking the absurdities of contemporary life during the formative years of America's civil rights movement.

Rarely, if ever, charging admission, the SFMT has relied on post-performance donations from audience members, "pass the hat" style.

"The grant from the NEA would have been used for general costs, like payroll," Sullivan said. "Many people think because our shows are free, our writers, actors, and musicians are creating and performing for free."

According to Sullivan, who's married to troupe member Velina Brown, SFMT employs seasonal, full-time jobs, and as a workers' rights organization it is committed to paying workers for their labor. SFMT relies on volunteers and friends of the company through the non-production, off-season months.

Dwindling grant support since the market crash of 2008 shrunk the mime troupe's cast size from six to four actors and from four to three musicians.

"Every little bit helps," added Sullivan. "The NEA grant would have paid for two of our summer performers and now we have to fill that hole."

The troupe's annual budget is now less than half a million dollars "on paper," said Sullivan. The budget does not take into account the thousands of off-season hours put in by collective members and volunteers needed to fulfill their mission.

In the 1970s and 1980s, SFMT's budget was double its current numbers and everyone was on salary, touring the U.S. twice a year and Europe every other year.

"As governmental arts budgets have shrunk, so has ours," said Sullivan. "Donations have remained strong, and if weren't for [that] we would have folded long ago."

An NEA spokeswoman told the B.A.R. that the agency has not yet made an official announcement for its first round of 2018 grants.

"The NEA would never comment on an application that is not recommended for funding," Victoria Hutter, assistant director of NEA public affairs told the B.A.R. Wednesday.

According to Hutter, each year, thousands of nonprofit organizations apply for grants. Each application is reviewed and recommended for award by a panel of citizen experts and laypersons from across the United States. Their recommendations are forwarded to the National Council on the Arts, then to the chairman for a final decision.
"Prior NEA support is not a factor for consideration," Hutter added.

To donate to the SF Mime Troupe's educational and performance funding, visit


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