From Mao to the Feeling Circle: The Limits and Endurance of Collective Creation

Title of Chapter or Poem

From Mao to the Feeling Circle: The Limits and Endurance of Collective Creation



Theatre Arts


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.

Document Type


Book Title

A History of Collective Creation


Kathryn Mederos Syssoyeva and Scott Proudfit


Palgrave Macmillan

Place of Publication

London, UK

Publication Date






Digital Object Identifier (DOI)



collective creation, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Lilith: A Women’s Theatre, Family Circus Theater


Performance Studies | Theatre History

From Mao to the Feeling Circle: The Limits and Endurance of Collective Creation