Victoria Lewis and Victoria Lewis
Beginning in the 1950s, triggered by the rejection of bodily variation on stage, a “democratizing impulse” moved through American theatre: a reconfiguration of who gets to be on stage and whose stories will be told. This essay tracks the practice of three theatre companies of disabled women: Other Voices (Los Angeles, 1982); Wry Crips (Berkeley, 1985); and AXIS Dance Company (Oakland, 1987).
This chapter provides a historical comparison of the collective practice of three theatre ensembles that emerged along the West Coast of the United States in the 1970s and 1980s: the San Francisco Mime Troupe; Lilith: A Women’s Theatre (San Francisco); and Family Circus Theater (Portland, Oregon). I was an ensemble member of both Family Circus Theater from 1973 to 1976 and of Lilith: A Women’s Theatre from 1978 to 1981. Family Circus modeled itself after and was formally mentored by the Mime Troupe, and Lilith absorbed several former Mime Troupe members over the years. My analysis draws on the limited scholarship of West Coast people’s theatre, as well as personal interviews with company members from the late 1990s and 2010, Lilith’s collaborative diaries, and my own ensemble experience. Though I seek to historicize and problematize all three companies’ utopian claims for collective practice, I do not intend to denigrate the groups’ radical aesthetic-political projects. I find their efforts toward structural reforms noble, the dramatic results often joyous and generous, and their legacy foundational to all such efforts today.1 If there is one cautionary note sounded in this tale, it would be the difficulty in all utopian efforts to sustain what Victor Turner called “permanent liminality”—the impossibility of institutionalizing communitas and maintaining absolute equality among all participants.2 I do incline toward the bottom-up strategies over the top-down, as I observe the former stand a better chance of resisting the inevitable accumulation of power in theatre practice at all times but especially when combined with a radical political agenda.