Documentation Essay

Chasing Democracy: 
New Play Development and Utopia 
at the Network of Ensemble Theater’s Micro-Fest: Los Angeles

by Karen Jean Martinson


Karen Jean Martinson is a dramaturg and scholar who sees Micro-Fest: LA (December 2010) and its theme of Developing New Work as a unique experiment in democracy.  Martinson explicitly draws on the recent work of scholar Jill Dolan.  Dolan focuses on those fleeting moments in performance where the spectator glimpses new social realities, thrilling moments of aching beauty for which we may not even have words.  Dolan calls this dynamic “the utopian performative.” Long after the performance, these moments may help sustain the spectator in her daily life, as she labors on as a citizen in search of democracy, looking to find or help create the reality she may have glimpsed during performance.

Martinson explores these notions of democracy via the main four works in development presented at Micro-Fest:  Ghost Road Company’s Stranger Things, The Post Natyam Collective’s SUNOH! Tell Me, Sister, Watts Village Theater Company’s Clover and Cactus, and Critical Mass Performance Group’s Untitled (Amerykanski) Project.  These works include plays with music, on-line collective choreography,  theater rooted in a specific neighborhood, and theater overtly exploring the transnational workings of democracy via movement and research.

Martinson applies Dolan’s theory to the Micro-Fest, arguing that the utopian performative applies not just to the spectators but also, in the ensemble new play development process, to the artists.  Because ensemble theatre-making demands that many voices in the room contribute to creating the piece, democratic formations come about in the rehearsal room during the development of a piece.  The labor of these artists is a quest for those fleeting moments of insight and beauty that Dolan describes.  These moments in turn sustain the democratic labor of an ensemble process.

“Aesthetically, ensemble theatre chases the utopia of artistic excellence, hoping to create those transcendent, beautiful moments that take an audience’s collective breath away. Yet alongside these artistic concerns sits a utopic belief that these moments are best created through collective labor.”  Martinson concludes that Micro-Fest: LA’s exploration of new play development suggests democratic possibilities beyond the theater.  “We left motivated to share both the feelings and the strategies that we, as collaborative creators, have to offer to those outside our field and in our world at large.”


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