This International Theatre Day, UTP author Kathleen Gallagher of Hope in a Collapsing World reflects on her life and research in theatre.
International Theatre Day was created in 1961 by the International Theatre Institute (ITI) and is celebrated on March 27th by the international theatre community. It is compelling to imagine all of the different kinds of communities across the world who engage in stunningly different forms of theatre-making joining, to appreciate and celebrate together, the languages and expressions of theatrical communication. It is precisely theatre’s vastness, aesthetic variety, and practical ingenuity that makes it impossible to induce into a universal set of practices or aesthetic effects and yet, in my view, there is something un-nameable shared in the act of making theatre. And it is well worth celebrating.
My own life and research in theatre has made me especially attuned to what theatre makes possible for those who turn towards it, whether professionals or amateurs or students. In the professional world, it can carve out space where social rules and hierarchies can be challenged, where innovation and vision can be fostered, where individuals and communities can act otherwise. In drama classrooms, where I have spent the better part of my life as a teacher and researcher, I have had a close-up perspective on the drama classroom, itself, as a workshop for hope. My recently published book (2022), with my playwright collaborator Andrew Kushnir, Hope in a Collapsing World: Youth, Theatre, and Listening as a Political Instrument, recounts a deep investigation into the kind of hope nurtured by theatrical collaboration and the kinds of democracies built within a creative ensemble, through my ethnographic study of secondary and tertiary drama classrooms in Canada, India, Taiwan, Greece, and England. I have carried this work out alongside teams of researchers, artists, and students working locally in all of these different sites. The young artists at the centre of this book have important things to say to all of us about art, about citizenship, about globalization, and about transforming the divisive and polarizing politics of our world. At the end of the book, Kushnir’s beautiful Verbatim play, Towards Youth: a play on radical hope, invites readers to hear those unadulterated young voices as a “call to thought” for our beleaguered adult world.
Through watching young people struggle, with common purpose, to bring a creative work into being through the languages of theatre, one fundamental understanding of hope I came to is that of hope as a practice, not a possession; one does not have hope, one practices hope. Cornel West talks about being hope as a mode of being in the world; Terry Eagleton argues that one can have hope without feeling that things will turn out alright and that is why hope is the opposite of optimism, which does not take despair seriously enough. Philosopher Richard Rorty talks about “social hope,” while Isabelle Stengers argued that we become more hopeful when we find solidarity and connection to others, what she imagines as a different kind of political ecology. I observed that transformative possibility of hope in the ecology of drama classrooms where young people, in the activity and relationship of creating and “walking in another person’s words,” as Verbatim theatre artist Anna Deveare Smith describes it, practiced hope, against odds and unhopeful conditions and perceived themselves and others anew. In the creative processes I witnessed across vastly different cultural, political, and geographic contexts, young people were being challenged to give divergent views air to breathe, to articulate dreams and fears; here, they practiced hope despite hopelessness and created a temporary laboratory for hope.
As a researcher of young artists and theatre, I have turned to “listening” as a critical method, as the subtitle of the book indicates. Obvious on the face of it, I have always been drawn to what I hear from young people, to the metaphoric heft of “voice.” The important part of a researcher listening is that it demands that one defer meaning and not foreclose on understandings that may come from refraining from speech. Every act of listening invites the possibility of change for both speaker and listener. There is a reason why ancient Greek philosophers and dramatists privileged listening to a play over seeing it, calling the place where plays are performed an auditorium, rendered in medieval Latin as “auditorius,” literally meaning “a place where something is heard.”
I close this brief introduction to my research in theatre, on International Theatre Day, with an invitation to think differently about a familiar theatre truism. The idea that drama, as a discipline, helps grow confidence in young people is a familiar and powerful narrative, but in my book I argue something slightly different; it is not the presence of confidence but the absence of insecurity that is most important to the student of drama, and to the creative spirit generally. What is important for me in this distinction is the outward-facing aspect of security. Unlike confidence, security is a fundamentally and necessarily relational condition. My empirical data across sites illustrated quite powerfully that to feel secure in one’s context, in one’s “ensemble,” affords a significantly different orientation to the world, that of young people coming to experience their interdependent selves bound up in the fates of others. What the drama classroom creates, then, is a meta-space where young people can watch themselves as learners and creators, but they also, importantly, see themselves providing things for others, becoming key audience members to the emerging selves around them. I have seen countless examples around the world where that space of collective creation enables new formations of community and portends the conditions of hope.
On this International Theatre Day, I invite you to listen to the voices of young artists. Our sad, vexatious, warring, climate-depleting, adult world is desperately in need of the wisdom they hold. But further, I invite you to seek for yourself a space of creative collaboration with others, wherever that might be, to nurture in you what it means to hold with care the stories and worlds of others. Happy International Theatre Day.