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Art and Revolution: Creating poetic justice

Art and Revolution: Creating poetic justice


February 2, 2003
Sentinel staff writer

Grant Wilson of Art and Revolution is dressed in a tuxedo coat with
tails, funny glasses, and a bike helmet. From the front of the helmet
protrudes a wire. At the end of the wire dangles a piece of funny
money, just out of reach. Through throngs of anti-war protesters,
Wilson gracefully lopes, chasing that buck. He doesn’t say a word. He
doesn’t have to.
As the United States heads into what seems like an inevitable war
with Iraq, in the midst of a downwardly spiraling economy, led by a
President who didn’t even win the popular vote, more and more
people are heading into the streets to voice their dissent.
Just a few weeks ago, 150,000 (last official count) sign-carrying,
puppet-bearing, song-singing people filled San Francisco from Market
Street to the Convention Center. Through that crowd Wilson chased
the dollar.
Tapping into the ancient practice of making fun of those in power,
Art and Revolution, a local group of 20 artists and activists that
includes Wilson, has found that making people laugh with skits,
giant puppets, and songs goes hand in hand with making people
“Tragedy and laughter go together” said Mike Sammet, radio host,
teacher and member of Art and Revolution.
“The political situation is tragic and so it’s not very hard to make
people laugh about it.”
According to Paul Ortiz, community studies and history professor at
UC Santa Cruz, street theater groups personify a trend in democratic
“More people than ever feel their opinions and ideas are not being
accounted for by mainstream politics,” Ortiz said.
“Street theater is a way to speak, not necessarily verbally, and to
imagine a different kind of world.”
Imagining a different world involves drawing on lessons of the past,
including the persistence of street theater in political movements, and
the job of the fool in medieval courts.
“In the past the court jester played a serious role in society,” said
Wilson, social worker, and founding member of Art and Revolution.
“They served to point out absurdity and to ridicule those who took
themselves too seriously. It’s too bad that’s not a cabinet post.”
Protest with laughter
Dr. Frankenveggie had a great idea. With the tools of genetic
engineering, he would graft strawberries and salmon. But the
shoppers weren’t going for it.
“We’re not going to eat it,” they cried.
Sammet, host of KSCO radio’s show “Talk About,” has played the role
of Dr. Frankenveggie in more than one of Art and Revolutions
performances of the skit.
“It’s a way of presenting your argument against genetically
engineered food that’s funny and creative,” said Sammet, who
admitted his portrayal of the mad scientist scared a few children.
“People respond to creativity. They can see that 20 people made and
painted puppets and wrote a script and they respect that.”
While there are a number of regular members, there is also a flow of
people joining the ranks of puppet builders, song writers, playwrights,
costume makers, painters, sculptors and poets.
“We’ve set up the organization in a decentralized way,” said Sara
Ringler, painter, Watsonville middle school teacher and long-time
member of Art and Revolution, who created a huge puppet of an
electrical plug for a skit about the PG&E fiasco in 2001.
“It’s a pretty good model for a volunteer organization. We try to
respect everyone’s creativity and their willingness to participate at
whatever level. We try to model a better world by being one.”
Meeting monthly, the group pools ideas and then divvies up the
“The group is really amoebic,” Wilson said.
“We encourage ideas and output. It’s inspiring to hear creative ideas.
One person’s ideas becomes a catalyst for another person.”
Calling the poet last
The name Art and Revolution was coined by a group in San Francisco,
co-founded by dancer and political organizer Alli Starr. In the
mid-90s, Starr and then-partner David Solnit traveled around the
country to see what other activists were doing.
“The tendency in political groups is to call the poet last,” Starr said.
“But if we don’t find creative ways to build a movement, then our art
suffers and our political organizations suffer.”
Drawing on skills learned from Wise Fool Puppet Intervention in San
Francisco, Bread and Puppet Theater of Vermont, and other street
theater groups in Chicago and Minneapolis, they gathered the skills
needed to launch a huge puppet protests at the National Democratic
Convention, the World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle,
and road shows all over the country. As they traveled, they
encouraged the formation of groups based on their model.
When they came to Santa Cruz four years ago for a performance and
day of workshops at UC Santa Cruz, they were met by a crowd that
spanned a wide age range.
Starr remembers one of the founding members of Santa Cruz Art and
Revolution in particular: the late John Ledgerwood.
“Though he could barely bend his knees, he took my dance class,”
Starr said. “There he was, nearly 80, dancing in the grass. With
The fun spread quickly and there are now Art and Revolution
chapters in Sonoma, Stanford, Davis, Sebastapol, Seattle, Portland,
Chicago, and Columbus, Ohio, as well as a rash of other political
street theater groups active nationally and internationally.
While there is no leadership from the original San Francisco group,
there is a constant sharing of skills. Last fall, Santa Cruz, Sebastapol
and Davis chapters meet at Sammet’s house for a conference. Among
workshops on public speaking, sign-making, puppetry, movement, was
a workshop on “invisible theater” an innovation of Augusto Boal,
founder of Brazil’s Theater of the Oppressed. What makes it invisible
is that the audience of a short play doesn’t know they are watching
After the conference Santa Cruz members joined their San Francisco
compatriots to practice their new skills.
“In one skit there was a guy standing at the BART station in front of
the Gap in downtown San Francisco,” Sammet said.
“He was talking about the USA PATRIOT act and how innocent people
were being arrested and deported and suddenly these guys in black
suits grab him and stuff him into a car. There are a couple of plants in
the audience and they say ‘hey did you see that? They can’t do that,
can they?’”
Another group went to FAO Schwartz toy store dressed as ROTC
recruiters. There, they loitered in the military toy section and
recruited preschoolers for military action.
The street’s a stage
Provocative is the goal of Art and Revolution aims for, though they
never know what form that might take.
Last Christmas, Art and Revolution members took their Anti-Corporate
Christmas Carols (“Deck the Halls with Sweatshop Labor”) to the
Capitola Mall.
“The security guards were there right away,” said Wilson. “They were
videotaping us and asking us to leave. Then, a number of shop
owners came out and said we were more than welcome to sing in
front of their stores.”
Though downtown has been a hotly contested stage for street
performers, nobody in Art and Revolution recalls negative heat for
their on-street antics.
“Anybody who opens a shop in downtown Santa Cruz should know
what they’re getting into,” said Keith Holtaway, executive director of
the Santa Cruz Downtown Association.
“It’s like moving into an airport and complaining about the planes. I
think all people really want is mutual respect.”
Respect for the audience is something Art and Revolution aims for.
When Brent Adams first saw the group performing in the streets of
Santa Cruz, he was amazed at the sense of good intentions
expressed by the theater.
“It’s really different than yelling or handing out fliers,” said Adams, a
waiter and bartender, who joined the group in time to play the role of
a gun-toting Afghan soldier in “We Got the Money, We Got the Guns,”
a skit about U.S. military meddling.
“It can become a closed club where we might have signs, but the
only people reading them is ourselves. We all have to support each
other, whether we agree with each other or not.”
It is dialogue they’re after, not monologue.
“People respond vocally, verbally, sometimes in opposition,” Wilson
said. “We encourage that. We’re building community not a bunch of
anonymous shoppers.”
According to Ortiz, it’s that breakdown of the typical division
between audience and performer that makes street theater so
“In the anti-sweat shop movement of the ’90s, people updated street
theater,” he said. “Workers got to speak back in the midst of the
performance. These were the voices excluded from the debate about
Free Trade. They showed that all of us have the ability to perform
aspects of our lives that touch us most deeply.”
Theater as a tool
During the inauguration of George W. Bush, Art and Revolution staged
a mock coronation of King George the Second.
“We walked down the street as peasants and serfs in medieval garb,
begging for food,” Sammet said.
“I felt like we were part of a long tradition of street theater.”
Street theater as a political tool has roots going back as far as
slavery times. The call and response of African American spirituals are
the foundation of what UC Santa Cruz history professor Ortiz calls
“democratic culture.”
One of the early examples of street theater was performed during a
1913 International Workers of the World (IWW) strike in Patterson,
N.J., Workers acted out the parts of the boss, elected officials,
police, and workers to demonstrate what they were unhappy with.
“Many of these workers were immigrants coming from many different
cultures,” said Ortiz.
“This became a way, especially in the labor movement, that people
could communicate across cultural lines. With street theater you
don’t even have to say anything. It gives people a chance to express
what they think and to be a star for probably the first time in their
During the ’60s, street theater thrived again, with many groups using
masks, costumes, and comedy to communicate to a diverse crowd of
people. One of those groups, the San Francisco Mime Troupe,
provides inspiration and mentorship to Art and Revolution.
Another leader of the street theater movement of the ’60s was the
San Juan Bautista-based El Teatro Campesino, founded by playwright
Luis Valdez.
El Teatro Campesino is now settled into the community, but for many
years, it performed theater in the fields and worker strikes in support
of more traditional forms of protest used by the United Farm Workers
“El Teatro could educate the workers about what collective bargaining
was and why it was needed,” Ortiz said.
Dramatizing the struggle of farmworkers was more compelling than
getting up and making a speech. And it’s very empowering to get to
poke fun at the boss. It’s not something you get to do in the course
of a work day.”
Ringler acknowledges the influence of El Teatro Campesino on the
workings of Art and Revolution.
“I always think of Luis Valdez when I’m planning a piece of theater,”
Ringler said.
“He would always lay out the problem in a clear way and then offer
people solutions.”
Contact Nancy Redwine atnredwine (at)


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