“Theatre ignited an appetite in youth to hear their voice in the world”

Posted on  by Centre for Urban Youth Research

In a piece published in The Conversation, Dr. Gallagher highlights the importance of art for global youth expression during the pandemic. The Centre for Urban Youth Research team asked Dr. Gallagher a few questions about the role of art, theatre, and other creative forms of expression in fighting injustice for and with young people. 

Dr. Gallagher, in your short piece recently published in The Conversationyou underscore the multiplicity and connectedness of the crisis felt by marginalized youth globally. Based on your extensive ethnographic research with hundreds of young people in drama classrooms from Taiwan to Canada in the past years, could you provide a brief description of the ongoing role of art, especially theatre, in response to the multiple inequalities and injustices emerging in the twenty-first century?

My collaborative, ethnographic study Youth, Theatre, Radical Hope and the Ethical Imaginary: an intercultural investigation of drama pedagogy, performance and civic engagement (2014-2019) methodologically centred storytelling through theatre to position researchers as witness to the stories and understandings the young people we met and worked with in Canada, India, Taiwan, England and Greece wanted to share. What worries did they have about their world? What messages did they want to convey to strangers?

We immersed ourselves in their creative works which revealed the voices of many young people struggling with disenfranchisement in their schools and broader communities, in many cases personally bearing the burdens of economic and political global crises, from Brexit, to racial injustice, to gender and queer oppression, to economic and refugee crises. For the 250 youth we met, it ran the gamut of feeling empowered by theatre and education, as in India, to feeling hopeless under the weight of economic crisis in Greece.Alarmingly, across all five sites, our quantitative data revealed a positive co-relation between age and the diminishment of hope. The older youth get, the less hope they feel; a disconcerting finding.

Our creative work with artists, teachers and youth across these sites became an arresting way to share young people’s stories and engage a broader public- whether that was parents and communities in India and England or school staff, peers and the general public in Toronto, Greece and Taiwan- in understanding, rather than fearing, youth-on-the-margins who continue to be the target of wide-spread social anxieties about race, class, gender and citizenship status. In India, our collaborator told us that theatre gave students the means to express what they could not speak. In England, growing out of a partnership between the Belgrade Theatre company in Coventry and Youth Social Services, young people living ‘in care’/in the foster system had access to, and support within, community arts programs to work creatively with peers they would otherwise never meet. In Greece, a traditional education system that has effectively shut out most arts classes, relied on the good will of teachers to create after-school theatre programming so young people could find expression for their dreams and their worries. In Toronto, the commitment of drama teachers invited young people to speak back to forms of systemic discrimination, such as anti-Black racism, and enact the world they wanted rather than the one they had. In Taiwan, queer youth were telling their stories through theatre for which there was little other room in their domestic and academic lives. Many youth in Taiwan, as a result, became engaged in social movements outside of school to fight for (and ultimately win) a piece of legislation for a marriage equality act, becoming the first country in Asia to do so. In these cases, theatre became a rehearsal for life and ignited an appetite in youth to hear their voice in the world.

  • You also highlight that “the social value of art has never been more important”. Could you tell us a little bit more about your thinking here? What makes it particularly important now?

In this time of a global health pandemic, where long-standing social inequalities have come into sharp focus given the many fewer distractions in a locked-down economy and the impossibility of ‘politics as usual’, art has emerged in many different quarters as a kind of lever for imagining new modes of being, new social relations, new political possibilities. For some, art-making has become a kind of ‘artivism’, a place where a hybridized, digital-mediated form of connection and even collective action has sprouted up. We’ve seen it from large cultural institutions, like the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s concerts connecting players from their homes to many independent theatre companies pivoting to digital storytelling and transforming the mounting of full productions to more intimate virtual offerings, to school drama clubs that have stayed in touch even over the summer months because for some, it may have been the only space of community they felt in their larger school environments, to citizens singing from their balconies to passers-by. People have found connection through art and used art to spotlight gross social inequalities. As one fine example, and there are many others, our theatre collaborator, Project: Humanity, a Toronto based, socially engaged not-for-profit community arts organization, quickly pivoted from their long-standing pro-bono work in youth shelters in Toronto to a newly imagined COVID-19 Artists Partnership Program, which pairs GTA youth shelter residents with artist mentors online. This move has extended the company’s tenets of care and creativity through the current pandemic. For some youth, such connections in these times have been life-altering.

  • Considering the cultural and political consequences of the pandemic, what potential can youth expression through theatre and other creative forms of action create for combating injustices in the post-pandemic world?

A play does not begin and end with the rise and fall of the curtain, but rather, with the different journeys that are undertaken long before and after the event of its making. The same is true even of digital collaborations. I would say this is, primarily, because of two things which I have particularly noted in this pandemic time: a desire for intimacy and connection; and, an appetite for having one’s voice out in the world. This latter point, in particular, which is often the outcome of the both exhilarating and difficult process of creating artistic work with others, can awaken the activist voice and can give one the experience of voicing difficult emotions and ideas and renewing one’s hopes and political dreams.

Once that voice is awakened and ‘survivable failure’ has happened (because we all know how likely challenge and failure are when collaborating with others to find new expression for deeply felt ideas), youth- and all of us- can become addicted to such new forms of creative expression. The ‘hard work’ almost always pays off, if not in the form of an ‘outcome’ or product, certainly as a process where powerful learning has resulted, where connections have been made, and intimacies shared. These creative processes, then, are our best chance for a just recovery, for a post-pandemic world that does not sink again into gross disparities between communities, and social and economic polarization.

  • In the book you have co-edited, In defence of theatre: aesthetic practices and social interventions (2016), you discuss theatre as “the last human venue” which enhances the potential for human beings to engage affectively in critical thought and political action. What do you think the role of online platforms is in this unprecedented time in keeping art as a space of encounters and possibilities for urban youth?

In speaking with some of my drama teacher-collaborators, I learned that as time wore on with distance learning over the winter and spring months of 2020, students began to ‘distance’ themselves, turning their cameras off even while in class, becoming disembodied voices, increasingly quiet too, as the teacher worked hard to keep invisible, silent students engaged. What started as a novelty- on-line classrooms- became a kind of intrusion that many youth came to resist. This is interesting to me as most dub the ‘youth of today’ as ‘digital natives’, addicted to devices and screens. In the fall of 2020, before the coronavirus hit, I was doing ethnographic work in a drama classroom in Toronto for my current study, Global Youth (Digital) Citizen-Artists and their Publics: Performing for Socio-Ecological Justice (2019-2024). The very engaging teacher struggled to keep his students off their devices and engaged with one another. The distractions were numerous and unrelenting. We came to read this behaviour as escapist, maybe even a consequence of loneliness. Connection on-line was more seductive than connection in-person, it often seemed. We did a lot of thinking about that as researchers. 

And yet, when devices became the only means of ‘connection’ once we were in to COVID times, there seemed to be an exhaustion that set in with mediated images and digitized conversations. The digital platforms for schooling, art-making, and political voicings fell far short. However, I did also witness an on-line original musical production of a group of drama students at the school who had continued to meet via google hangout during COVID times, under the guidance of a very committed teacher. And these students were clearly gaining a great deal from their communication with us (the research team) tuning in to hear/see their creative work, to be their audience. Perhaps school-as-usual had failed to tap into students’ desire to be heard, to voice their original thought and creation? But, the extra-curricular drama space had not. There is a lesson to be learned here about the importance of youth autonomy, creativity, and leadership even in forms of mass digital schooling. Most teachers are not necessarily equipped to use digital platforms in creative ways; it is not in their training. But, no digital space, however masterfully exploited, can replicate the intimacy of bodies in space. That does not mean other kinds of creative on-line encounters, learning, and political mobilizing cannot happen, however. In trying to replicate live experiences, the digital platform will always fall short. Recognizing the virtual world’s unique forms of expression and connection, without efforts to overstate its possibilities or supplant live encounters, would be a better way forward. Affective and critical engagements remain hallmarks of powerful youth art and activism, whether in-person or via digital platforms.