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Using Theatrical Devices to Counter Culture
by Marcus Del Greco
Introduction & Notes to the Bibliography
In theatre as in all forms, artists differ as to what motivates them to the promotion of their craft. This essay is concerned specifically with a group of performing artists, the San Francisco Diggers, who acted to affect social and cultural change in the 1960s. Our goal will not be to argue the validity of the Diggers' platform, but to examine the theatrical tools they used to demonstrate their vision.
The Diggers were founded by a group of ex-San Francisco Mime Troupe members who took the name Diggers after the original English Diggers of the 1640's. The English Diggers fought Cromwell's soldiers against the King's confiscation of grazing lands on the premise that no individual had a right to claim private property for themselves. A childhood friend of original San Francisco Digger Emmett Grogan provided the inspiration for the adoption of the Digger name. Grogan's friend (according to Grogan) believed that material values (the struggle for private property and capital) had out-muscled freedom of personal expression in the battle for the human psyche (footnote 1).
During my research I have loosely concluded that the Diggers' contributions were two-fold in nature: first, their actions in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco (mostly between the years 1966 and 1968), and second, their written contributions to dramatic thought. Several Diggers, still seeking new ways to spread their meme, have made their memoirs available in archives on the World Wide Web, which is where the bulk of my bibliography stems from. Other now Web-available articles were originally published in Bay Area periodicals of the day, and are computer archived for the purpose of counter-culture research. These are often telling of how contmporary psychedelic culture both affected and was affected by a group of people who understood and pondered theatrical values.
Therefore, this paper refers mainly to primary source materials. As any reader, I was at first suspicious that the Diggers had been self-congratulatory in their memoirs. It was the job of my research to determine if they had been, and I soon decided they had not. In fact, it seems the Diggers as individuals did little to assert their personal egos as pop icons of the new counter-culture. What they did do was act in a somewhat anonymous fashion within the Haight-Ashbury community to begin realizing the material aspects of their nascient spiritual philosophy. Posters for Diggers events featured well-known hipsters from afar (like Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsburg) if any.
To balance the primary source material, I consulted other books on the 1960's counter-culture from a historical perspective (also in bibliography). My main aim was to determine if the Diggers were similarly credited by other authors for the influence they claim to have had in the burgeoning Hippie movement. In many cases, the Diggers were mentioned in passing along with The Communication Company (see the section on the C.C.) as active in the now-famous neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury. All sources mentioned Haight-Ashbury. What the reader will come to understand is that, in effect, the Diggers were Haight-Ashbury, and the unique spirit and character of the community was glued together by the Diggers' organization of theatrical rites. The world's youth who would be called Hippies took their cue from Haight-Ashbury, and Haight-Ashbury took its cue from the Diggers.
The recent Web availability of primary source materials on this subject is my reason for what some readers may consider excessive quoting in this paper. At present this paper is one of only a handful of essays (2) retrospecting the Diggers' historical impact on culture and how they used theatre to create it. This is because most materials written by and about Diggers were unavailable to researchers until the mid-90's when construction began on the Digger Archives page, and also because of the lack of a Digger pop icon whic renders the subject somewhat obscure. I quote thickly and often of Coyote's memoir in particular, as it contains the best-detailed chapters on the time period between 1966 and 1968. It also doesn't hurt that his prose is interesting.
I have also used some odd sources (such as Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray) to present a partial philosophical history of the life-imitating-art theme (among other themes) to which the Diggers owe much. Though slightly out of place in a paper like this, these references are relevant in context in that they place the Diggers in a tradition of thought. It is an effort to pull Hippie philosophy "down from space" by way of association.
"'. . .I never quarrel with actions. My one quarrel is with words. That is the reason I hate vulgar realism in literature. the man who could call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one. It's the only thing he is fit for.'
'Then what should we call you, Harry?' she asked.
'His name is prince Paradox,' said Dorian." (3)
Action As A Value
The triumph of the Diggers over the other idealists of the era was their awareness of the value of action. Action is the driving force behind theatre. It is also the hardest, dirtiest work, as Wilde's Lord Henry (Harry) knows well. But "the man who could call a spade a spade [who] should be compelled to use one" makes a fine description of many 60s dreamers. Declaring "I have seen Utopia" and actually getting there are two different things.
The Diggers labored to bridge the gap between reality and fancy that troubled the counterculture. The paradox of Lord Henry applauding action and then criticizing it as a low pursuit ("it is the only thing he is fit for") illustrates the symptoms of anything that never gets done. The result of living purely in the intellectual realm. The dreamer must learn to be a doer, or an actor...one who acts. Theatre's advantage is that it turns ideas into temporary realities through action (not just that of the actors onstage). Through action, the Diggers got their point across. Digger Peter Coyote makes the analogy with a Native American story:
Action for the Diggers meant nothing less than "political" action in the usual sense, thouhg the brand of action the Diggers took undermined the very idea of politics. Politics, largely dictated by the struggle for power among individual egos, was clearly called to question by the ego-battering LSD experience. More important now than who would headline the next Democratic ticket was what people in communities were doing to demonstrate their visions of a greater society, and, by believing their own theatre, to manifest it.
Among the actions taken by the Diggers between 1966 and 1968 was the establishment of the Free Store. The Free Store was conceived as a place where the confines of a monetary economy would be contradicted. The influx of Eastern philosophical thought to the Haight, combined with the widespread use of consciousness-expanding drugs, moved many to reexamine the foundations of capitalism and the idea of personal ownership. The Free Store constituted a small stage, using real business space in the Haight, where scenerios of social Darwinism versus social responsibility were played out by real people.
Customers of the Diggers' Free Store were encouraged to take "freely"of whatever sat on the shelves (they filled the store with "the available detritus of an industrial culture" (5)), but also to give to the store if they so chose. But beyond being simply a charity center, the Free Store provided an environment for people to switch roles in the economic ensemble at will and take action for themselves, as Peter Coyote remembers:
The prerogative of taking individual action while remaining conscious of the good of the whole is the basis of theatrical ensemble. It was also the foundation of counter-culture thought in the Sixties. Few did as much as the San Francisco Diggers to show conscious action as a value in the context of their work, walking a narrow line between art and politics to affect culture.
The reader must not confuse the Diggers' seemingly radical economic platform (including their religious use of the word "free") with their work: their tactics. The spiritual awakening that was the Hippie movement informed its participants less about the details of a revolution than the urgent need for one. This pure inspiration to action triggered a creativity of tactics that was most evident in artists of all kinds. The Diggers, as thespians, perhaps understood the process best as it was happening.
The following sections of this paper will show many examples of how digger actions spoke louder than words.
Dressing Up and Dressing Down (Costuming the Revolution)
Clothing trends tend to be described in terms of "fashion," and are understood as aesthetic fads that come and go. Only sometimes does fashion hint at the psychology of the people wearing the clothes. In the late '60s, mere fashion became costuming as the act of dressing became increasingly conscious. The Diggers of Haight-Ashbury set the tone once again by dressing up for their revolution. Costuming styles created by Diggers were copied worldwide as they attracted media attention and were commercialized by the now-legendary "Hippie Tours" conducted by bus.
Conscious dressing meant an encouragement of personal expression. The Diggers chose their costumes understanding this. As Peter Coyote writes:
Certain aspects of Digger costuming are so well-known today that they are recognizable as the "Hippie" stereotype: tie-dye shirts, faded jeans, long hair, beaded jewelery, etc. Favorite themes of Hippie costuming formed around psychedelic experience, accentuating bright colors and patterns to both mimic and inspire drug-induced "visuals." (8) Hippies also embraced Mother Nature by including flowers and feathers in their accessoration, influenced largely by Native American spiritualism.
Another feature of Digger fashion which shouldn't be understated was the tendency to "dress down." Though evident in the 1950s, "casual" dress didn't reach its appex of chic-dom until the late 60s when the prevalence of the word "equality" triggered a reaction. Desmond Morris describes the phenomenon as it happened to the highest brackets of society:
What Morris leaves out (as he was writing a book on human behavior, not on the 1960s) is that middle-class white kids were also dressing down, opting for denim and thrift-store specials (in the Haight, Free Store items). This conscious costuming manifested when so many young Westerners sought to stress character rather than affluence in their dress. As Paul McCartney sang, "money can't buy me love." (10)
Those who saw pictures in newspapers, magazines, and on television of Haight-Ashbury's Summer of Love in 1967 were unknowingly being manipulated by the Diggers. the vision of hundreds of young people in seemingly "crazy" clothing had a kind of disinhibiting effect. The media broadcast the costume plot to the world, and the play was on.
One Peace of Business
If one political calling stood out among the set of those attributed to the Hippie movement, it was the need to end the war in Vietnam. The goal of peace was arguably the only goal agreed upon universally in the hip community of the Haight and of the world. Allegiance to this idea became the membership due of the entire movement, and it was a Digger who provided the not-so-secret handshake.
Much like the case of costuming which we just examined, this section deals with another aspect of theatre which the Diggers used as a community-bonding ritual. More akin to the area of acting than of design, the power of business is often underestimated, as it encompasses the set of the smallest movements an actor can make. But the history of symbolic gestur, and its ability to speed communications concerning human allegiance, is a long one. With only our hands we attract like-minded individuals by praying, saluting, or generally taunting them into our lives with gesture. Here, we deal with one manual gesture in particular: the Peace Sign.
Well known today as a Peace sign by much of the world's post-WWII babies, it was actually in rally for the war that the gesture found it's origin. winston Churchill introduced the two-fingered "V" as the Victory Sign during the course of the war (11) and it was formed by the most people ever at once on V-Day. But when the newsreels of V-Day end, the Victory sign virtually disappears from the media until a short, low-profile article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in November of 1966. The article is short enough to reprint here:
The photograph of the article depicted the five in various poses, reveling in the right of performance. Emmett Grogan, in celebration of winning in court, made the Victory Sign at the camera. This caught on in the Diggers' Haight Street community and was soon used along with the word "peace" as a hip salutation. This piece of business as used by the Diggers, in addition to the costuming, completed the image of the Hippie as most remember it: the extroverted thespian of life, making a Peace Sign and smiling with naive idealism.
The roots of this idealism, and the unanswered question of its alleged naivite, are dealt with in the next section.
This section is not about the formation of a new political party. Interestingly, though the youth movement of the 1960s is regarded as largely political, no one party emerged from the brew as a representative of its goals. We will see how this indicates that the movement was predominantly spiritual as opposed to political in a causal sense.
Just as Dionysus and his wine can never be separated from the theatre, the Diggers phenomenon and the 1960s can never be separated from the fad of intoxication that dominated Haight-Ashbury during that time. The expansion of consciousness incurred by th psychedelic drugs that flowed through the Haight spawned the kind of social idealism that didn't always stick to the material world when the drugs wore off. But the vision and imagination that the drugs catalyzed proved the first step in revolutionizing a culture that was still learning the value of equal rights and peace. The happenings in places like Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York City were broadcast around the world and set the tone for a brief popular culture of personal and political freedom that was shared globally.
Amidst all the partying the Diggers were acting, using their applied theatrical knowledge to transform Haight-Ashbury, for a short time, into a workable set for the counterculture to play on. Peter Coyote, actor and original member of the Diggers, desribed the process most concisely: "... imagining a culture you would prefer and making it real by acting it out." (13) This is the primary accomplishment of the Diggers: they made the counterculture "real" by gathering costumes, props, and characters together to consolidate the consciousness of their community.
And because of the celebratory nature of the spiritual awakening of marijuana and LSD, Digger events often became nothing more than gigantic parties with a theatrical context. In the early days when some of the Diggers were still members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, they began to expand the concept of their theatrical events "outside the walls of traditional theatre." (14) Affiliated with a group known as the Artists Liberation Front, they sought to include poets, performers, and musicians in their events and provide for the greater participation of the audience. This, for many, meant dancing.
Here we come to the rise of legendary concert promoter Billy Graham. Graham was the business manager for the Mime Troupe in 1965 when they held two benefit events that created a new genre of performance entertainment.
The Fillmore became famous for events (many promoted by Graham) that "combined multi-media light shows with the high-emergy music and the costumed dress of the people who came to dance." (16) The theatrical element of spectacle, introduced fully by the Diggers in the mid-to-late 60s, was what ultimately sent the Rock and Roll concert into dominance in the performing arts. We are reminded of how spectacle, when married to early jazz music, contributed to the rise of the American Musical.
Billy Graham continued to promote events for such groups as the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, as well as a host of others, for the next couple of decades. Meanwhile the Diggers continued to operate in the Haight in the late 60s, sometimes collaborating with Graham to stage yet weirder and wilder events. One of these was the First Human Be-In of January 1967, inspired by the Love Pageant Rally of October 1966, where speaking guest Timothy Leary welcomed people to "the first manifestation of the Brave New World." (17) The Invisible Circus was another of these Free Fairs sponsored by the Diggers and the Artists Liberation Front, where artists encouraged people to participate in the creative process while bands played music. The best known free event of this sort followed a couple years after the heyday of Haight-Ashbury, but owes its concept to the Diggers: the free weekend of music in Woodstock, New York.
These mass get-togethers became famous because of the character of the people that comprised them. Criticism of psychedelic culture commonly pointed out over-optomistic idealism in the apirit of these events... a lust for an intangible utopia. But many remember utopia very clearly from having visited there, at least for a moment. Barbara Wohl, a member of the Mime Troupe, remembers:
The realization of reciprocal theatre in all artistic moments (the idea of an instant and improvisational exchange of emotion and sensation between people) became experientially accessible to the general public with psychedelic drugs. Artists like the Diggers produced participatory shows that were designed to provide venue for folks to manifest their visionary experiments in real space and time. In the sense that often strong political agendas emerged from individuals who attended these spiritual events, it can be said that the Diggers were in the business of organizing political "parties" all the time.
The politics of the Hippie movement formed around the spiritual changes that were happening inside individuals, and their cultural implications. This causal relationship reveals left-wing politics as a secondary feature of what was primarily an artistic renaissance. To this writer, the Diggers' place in history gains depth and validity by way of this observation.
The Communication Company
Among close collaborators of the Diggers was the Communication Company, a team of two men who ran a "quick & inexpensive printing service for the hip community" (19) of the Haight. As any successful theatre needs top-notch people to promote its shows, the Diggers recognized the Communication Company as the perfect vehicle to broadcast their happenings to the folks who would eventually make them happen. Peter Coyote gives the best first-hand history of the Company, so we will let him lead us through its story. Here he tells of the Company's origin:
Though Coyote glorifies the theft of the Gestetner machine(s), he doesn't do so without providing a punch-line as a testament to the Diggers' creativity:
This proved to be a linchpin relationship for the success of the Diggers. While performance-oriented demonstrations of their ideas were the core of their approach, publication helped solidify their identity. The Communication Company printed both prose and poetry by Diggers that can best be described as messages intended to shape the consciousness of the hip community.
And the consciousness of the Communication Company featured a socially inclusive attitude. Much of the printing they did for freelancers was at no charge, so the word "company" in their name didn't reflect a motivation for profit. Rather, it was seen as a branch of an actors' company, putting out playbills for anyone with a show (or a revolution).
This attitude attracted Huey Newton, Commander-in-Chief of the newly formed Black Panther Party, to seek the help of the Company. Although the Diggers "were not serving black causes out of loyalty to an ideological analysis," they were nonetheless "allied [with the Panthers] by territory and a common love of freedom." (22) The two groups lived closely together, the Diggers in the Haight and the Panthers in the Fillmore, San Francisco's black ghetto. The Communication Company published the first two issues of the Panthers' party newspaper.
Walls, Doors, and Space
The philosophy of theatre begins with space. The players agree on a space in which to stage their show, and on this stage an entirely new world is created. Only by establishing the walls of the space is the artform defined and therefore limited to art, and the line between performer and audience becomes clear. By removing the boundaries, the Diggers thought, a more urgent theatre could be achieved.
This thinking was not new. Every thespian knows Shakespeare's famous line, "All the world is a stage." The Bard understood that in real life we are each both performer and audience member... observer and observed. But Shakespeare still chose to stage his work in the Globe Theatre, not in streets of the community where he lived. Though he could perceive all the character and action of the world as a model for theatre and a metaphor of the form, he did not utilize the world as his stage.
But Shakespeare is not at fault for this. He lived in a different time, and his motivations as an artist were geared to the readiness of his audience. The Diggers, however, worked during a period of intense utopian vision inspired by social timing and psychedelic drugs. The playing out of visions for a better world could best be held in the everyday world itself: on the streets of the Haight. In this way life would be forced to imitate art, instead of the other way around. We are again reminded of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, a story which flip-flops Art and Life in a cavalier manner. If one renders an alternative reality in Art, the present reality can be affected.
The writings of the Diggers in the late 1960s reveal why the destruction of artistic "walls" was so important to them. In an edition of the Digger Papers published by the Communication Company, it is written (anonymously):
This quote seems a simple restatement of the basic theatrical value concerning "space," but really illustrates more than that in the context of psychedelic culture. The part about "existing outside padded walls" at first suggests the power of theatre to display all of human experience in its raw form. But psychedelic veterans know that the Diggers were referring to the padded walls of normal consciousness which break down under the influence of drugs like LSD. And when these psychological walls come down, the tripper experiences the Theatre of Life, wherein art and reality share a symbiotic relationship, and Shakespeare's hypothesis is proven subjectively to the individual.
Why did theatrical events present themselves as ideal vehicles of expression for those experimenting with psychedelics in the Haight? Because theatre was a "universal pardon for imagination" to scores of people reeling from a drug-induced explosion of imagination that was sometimes indistinguishable from psychosis. Anybody acting weird or "freaking out" (24) could be said to be simply "acting," and their action pardoned by the declaration of theatrical space. This encouraged creativity and expression in the heat of the dramatic moment, known as improvisation. Peter Coyote described the acid experience as "improvisation in the theatre of the unknown," (25) and this is precisely what the Diggers encouraged.
The relationship between performer and audience was explored thoroughly by the Diggers. They manifested their ideas concerning perspective by erecting the Frame of Reference (also known as the Free Frame of Reference). An article in the Berkeley Barb describes the structure, one of the Diggers' most effective setpieces:
The Frame of Reference formed a doorway that symbolized the gateway between points of view. Walking through the doorway meant a change of perspective... a shift of mental location. Audience members became actors as they consciously passed through the Frame. To further endorse the changing of perspective (and to introduce proportions), the Diggers distributed handprops:
Again it must be remembered that Digger activities were geared to the psychedelic community of Haight-Ashbury, a population apt to be tripping in large percentages on evenings of celebration. Digger theatre was always grass-roots and interactive, designed to steer you "trip" (28) into one of personal liberation by insisting on the audience's right to take action.
Aldous Huxley preceded the Diggers in using doors to describe psychological liberation. His book The Doors of Perception re-introduced the metaphor into literature (29) after his discovery of psychedelics in the late 1950s. The Doors, a Los Angeles group which also payed homage to William Blake from the get-go, encouraged music listeners to "break on through to the other side" on the first track of their self-titled debut album in early 1967. The call for an expansion of physical and mental "playing space" resounded in the whole of the art world. The Diggers not only mounted their theatre on the world's stage in the streets of San Francisco, but presented perhaps the best embodiment of the "door" metaphor with their Free Frame of Reference.
The acknowledgement that the physical action of walking through a door can trigger a psychological response in an actor is a basic tenet of theatre. This translates to all actions in all spaces, and marries the physical and the mental as only theatre can. The primary contribution of the Diggers to psychedelic culture was in bringing this relationship to light by taking action of their own. They inspired thousands of Haight-Ashbury residents and passers-through to carry the torch of the counter-culture as actors on the world's stage, breathing life into utopian vision through the magick of theatre.
this history paraphrased from Peter Coyote, "Playing For Keeps" pp.
3-4. Emmett Grogan's childhood friend, Billy Murcott, is hinted at as "mysterious"
by Coyote, probably due to Grogan's fondness for creating characters.
Marcus Del Greco has been writing for the page, stage, and record since 1992. He founded mindmined.com in 1998 and continues as editor and developer of this domain and a small network of other creative websites. He lives in Alton, New Hampshire.
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