San Francisco in the 60’s was the home of many radicals who made shifts in culture that had lasting effects on progress in America. The underground art movement met the civil rights and peaceful leftists. Through this mingling of creativity and activism evolved a group of people focused on direct action, often through the use of street theater.
Running from 1967 to 1968, The Diggers were based in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Some of its founding members also belonged to the San Francisco Mime Troupe whose claim to fame was their free political satire shows in Golden Gate Park that often ended in arrests for not getting proper permits. The Diggers aimed to create a society free of money and capitalism, provided a daily free food service, free stores and free health clinics with volunteer help from University of California medical students.
They threw free parties with music from the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane. On a number of occasions they staged their own street theater events. In December of 1966 they held “The Death of Money” where members dressed in animal masks and costumes and filled a coffin up with fake money. Together they marched down Haight Street singing “Get out of my life, why don’t you, babe?” to the tune of Joplin’s “Death March.” This event was a central theme in Trip Without A Ticket in the Digger Papers and helped set the stage for “The Death of Hippie” in October 1967. Masked members carried a coffin with the words “Hippie– Son of Media” to mark the end of an era in Haight-Ashbury. Any news outlets that reported on the event would transmit the Diggers’ message that hippies were a media creation. They referred to this as “creating the condition you describe.”
This group didn’t come without criticism. The way they assigned labor between members is sometimes perceived as sexist compared to modern thought. Men were supposed to be the brains of the group, forming ideas and making plans. The women, who were the source of much of the group’s financial support through welfare and social assistance, did most of the day-to-day chores. They were the ones collecting food, cooking it and serving it. This set-up seems to be fairly typical for the era, but it could be argued that the other values held by the group helped lay the groundwork for greater strides in gender equality.
The Diggers were far from the only group that resorted to guerilla theater, but they made significant contributions to the radical uprising in San Francisco. The openness to revolution, the rage against oppressive structures and the way they channeled that anger into public displays made it a prime area for rapid growth in counterculture. Activists today could certainly learn a lot from the Diggers, the vision they had for the future and the way they went about making impressions.
Why choose street theater or guerilla theater?
Street theater is a largely non-violent tactic, perfect for budding activists that are just starting to dip their toes in a movement. It could be a great way to flex creative muscles and help people discover passions and talents they hadn’t yet realized. They might find they have a knack for organizing, advertising, public speaking or any modes within the wide array of artistic expression. Protests can often be disheartening when they don’t yield the intended results and may deter people from further participation, but the goals of street theater are more abstract. It’s a method that seems to be okay with just attracting attention. In the meantime it will help the self-esteem of members by creating space for activists to nurture each other’s creativity. These relationships are the same ones that can grow and evolve to form the kind of free services that some people may need in order to survive and flourish with a newer, stronger sense of support. It maintains the idea that “theater is territory,” that street stages become liberated spaces by the very nature of the people doing the performing. It helps people with self-confidence by being avant garde and unapologetic. It helps people grow their ability for sympathy by embracing the bizarre and unconventional, and it’s a great outlet to release the tension that we all feel from our personal and shared experiences.
“Pop Art mirrored the social skin. Happenings X-rayed the bones. Street events are social acid heightening consciousness of what is real on the street. To expand eyeball implications until facts are established through action.”
– Trip Without A Ticket, The Digger Papers