There’s little wonder as to why the San Francisco Mime Troupe chose the subject matter for its new seasonal play Breakdown (which opens Sat/1 at Berkeley’s Cedar Park, plays Dolores Park, SF, on July 4, and runs throughout the Bay Area through September 4). Our city’s mental health is currently the subject of national debate. Publications from every which-where have discovered the clicks they can get from unfairly stigmatizing SF’s houseless community members, and perhaps as a result of such wack PR, the mayor has signed on to the governor’s plan for forced treatment for addiction issues, ironically called the CARE Court.
This effort’s priorities seem woefully backwards, given the results of an extensive UC San Francisco study that were recently released. They suggest that the homelessness crisis—which, yes, was found to be caused by a lack of affordable local housing—can exacerbate mental issues among the individuals it impacts. In fact, two-thirds of the 3,200 houseless people surveyed reported experiencing deleterious mental health symptoms.
Such systemic impacts on our mental health are explored in Breakdown, whose protagonists include unhoused 20-something Yume, beleaguered social worker Saidia, and FOX News personality Marcia. The latter has no problem with using San Francisco’s mental health struggles as a way of striking fear into the hearts of suburban TV audiences.
Their tales will be explored on al fresco stages in free-of-cost park performances, as has been the Mime Troupe’s tradition nearly since the group was founded in the late 1950s. From that day forth, the “democratically run, multi-ethnic, multi-generational, multi-cultural, gender-balanced theater of social justice” (as it refers to itself on its website) has sought to explore the hot-button issues of our time for the benefit of eclectic audiences across the Bay.
Michael Gene Sullivan has been living the mime life for some time now. In a recent tribute to the Troupe’s dearly departed former music director Bruce Barthol, Sullivan talked about his own first exposure to the company’s work as a teen in the late ’80s, when he attended a performance in Golden Gate Park of Factwino Meets the Moral Majority with his father and marveled at Barthol and Dan Chumley’s tandem portrayal of the double-headed Armageddonman.
He has since co-written more than 30 plays for the Mime Troupe, making him the ideal person to talk about both the group’s most recent production and of its evolution over the last few years. Sullivan took a moment out from last minute preparations for Breakdown to answer some emailed questions for 48hills.
48HILLS Why did the SFMT chose to focus on mental health images for the company’s summer 2023 production?
MICHAEL GENE SULLIVAN We’d been wanting to create another show that addressed both the challenges facing the unhoused, and the increased national negative propaganda regarding progressive solutions to urban problems. One of our newer collective members Marie Cartier suggested we do a show about mental health. (In addition to being a writer and circus performer Marie is also a social worker in San Francisco.) I felt this central theme of mental health, and the bureaucracy around serving those suffering, was a way to deal with all three of the issues.
48HILLS In addition to mental health being the play’s theme, Breakdown features a neurodivergent lead character, Yume. What kind of consideration and planning did the Troupe do ahead of portraying characters on stage who are dealing with issues of mental health?
MICHAEL GENE SULLIVAN The Mime Troupe has two collective members with master’s degrees in psychology—one in counseling, the other in social work, and they have both been great resources when it came to creating and portraying Yume.
48HILLS Breakdown also stars a FOX News host and a television producer, and the channel’s “discourse” seems central to the plot. How much FOX News footage was watched in preparation for this play, by whom, and what were their conclusions about the channel’s current talking points after said immersion?
MICHAEL GENE SULLIVAN As the head writer it was my unfortunate task to study Fox’s broadcasts, as well as read articles by and about [Rupert Murdoch’s other media corporation] News Corp. I also read a book the birth of modern propaganda during WWI, which developed with both the spread of literacy and the invention of the radio. The key to propaganda is to create a simple answer to a complex question; an answer that absolves the recipient of responsibility, identifies a blamable “other,” dehumanizes that “other,” and raises the issue to life-or-death stakes so that anything done to that “other” can be justified as self-preservation.
This is what Fox and other purveyors of propaganda thrive on—everything, no matter how seemingly trivial, is a raised to being an existential threat. It’s easiest for the propagandist when times are tough, and there is a general sense of anxiety which can be focused on whatever the propagandist wants. Economic uncertainty? Climate change? A pandemic? Political powerlessness? The goal of the propagandist is to take all that anxiety and fear and channel it toward an object in such a way the propagandist benefits—to either challenge the status quo, or to demonize those who challenge it.
48HILLS Are there any new locations or other features of the play’s tour this year that diverge from previous Mime Troupe productions?
MICHAEL GENE SULLIVAN Most of the Mime Troupe shows I’ve written have not taken place is San Francisco. Besides 2019’s Treasure Island, I often set my scripts in an unnamed or fictitious town so that any issues in the show can be seen as an issue of the town where we are performing. This time however, with the nation’s propaganda war [that specifically focuses on] the Tenderloin, I decided to set the show in that neighborhood. Besides countering the narrative of failed progressivism breathlessly belched at the nation nightly, I also wanted to remind San Franciscans that the Tenderloin is not a district but a neighborhood, with a history and families and friends and businesses and politics. When we allow some bigoted, besuited brain donors to condemn a neighborhood of our city because it forwards their own agenda—we have to push back for the good of the entire city. Every neighborhood has issues—some much more than others—but it is up to us to help those most needy of our neighbors, not allow them to be objectified by people we wouldn’t trust to successfully pet a kitten.
48HILLS I hear that new cast member Andre Amarotico helped to spearhead the effort to get an HVAC system installed in the Mime Troupe’s building. What else has his addition brought to the company?
MICHAEL GENE SULLIVAN Andre is a very, very intelligent collective member and actor, and his insights and feedback have already been extremely helpful in his short time with us. We wanted Andre not just because of his talent onstage, but because he had shown us over our years working with him that his curiosity and thoughtful analysis would be great benefits to our storytelling. And he’s nice—a characteristic the benefit of which can never be overestimated.
SAN FRANCISCO MIME TROUPE’S BREAKDOWN runs Sat/1 to September 4. Various times and venues throughout greater Bay Area. More info here.