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Act I Scene I

Reflections

 

Bogotá, Colombia

Educational Development and Pedagogical Research Institute (IDEP) 

 

October 2015

Dear Friends in Bogotá,

I write to you from the plane after a full three days with you. There is so much to say. Perhaps I should have taken time to digest my time with you, to consider its impact. And yet, there is an urgency to this letter; I could not wait to begin reflecting on my time with you. I could not wait to bridge the gap of space and time, to bring my experiences closer again, as they risked fading into the background with the return of 'normal life'. The immediacy of theatre, the urgency of its messages presses upon me.

            It is a marvel to travel and I am all too aware of the privilege I have in making such journeys to other worlds. As I waited for my plane to take off, I reviewed the many photographs I'd taken over the weekend, in Bogota, by night and day, and in schools and university lecture halls and workshop spaces. A visual record of our time together, but a pale version of the 'real' thing. Always.

 

***

On the day prior to my talk and workshop, I had the profound experience of visiting three very different schools, meeting and talking with four very different teachers. First, I had a coffee in a small cafeteria and heard the convictions of Hector, a teacher who lives critical pedagogy with his students and in his performance practice. I was enthralled by his description of his research and performed research, a performance to make visible the 'hidden curriculum' of schools and its impact on teacher identities and student subjectivities.  After a probing of Foucault, McLaren (after whom Hector named his Bonsai plant), I was energized by this teacher and artist who thinks deeply about his practices in schools and on stage and who makes his research scream. He provocatively used the Catholic confessional prayer, "I confess, to God the Almighty Father..." as the structure within which he spoke the unspeakable for teachers. When we moved to Raphael's classroom, I saw the performance piece Hector had been anxious for me to understand. I saw the graffiti on his shirt, written by spectators of his piece whom he had asked to react to the piece through this writing on his clothing, and the single chair- his set- standing in for the kneeler, the central symbol of his 'confession' about teaching. The unspeakable parts. The silenced thoughts. The repressed feelings. 

Bogota Photo 1 Raphael ScreamBogota Photo 2

           In Raphael's class, it felt so familiar. I met students who were impassioned by their ideas of institutional (school) and social change. Students who shared a pact with their teacher: together we can re-create the terms of engagement; together, we can imagine school differently; together, we can harness theatre to our political projects and make the world see us anew. I loved every minute in that classroom. I loved how anxious the grade 11 students were to engage me in conversation. I hated that I couldn't speak to them in Spanish. I was moved by their efforts and their pleasures in trying out their English on me. All the while, quiet, soft-spoken Raphael smiled: their defender and greatest fan. It gave me deep pleasure to watch how social relations between students and teacher can be re-made in the context of a theatre classroom.

Bogota Photo 4Bogota Photo 3

           After that, we moved on to Freddie's school. No time for formal introductions. The students and their committed teacher are in rehearsal. They are preparing to tell the story of disappeared Mexican students whose lives remain unrecognized by a government in collusion with an underground drug economy.

  bogota photo 6

Right to the heart of the story, they moved out of the rehearsal hall and into the spaces of the school, the garden, the playground, the lobby, the sidewalk out front. Their unsuspecting audience of students, teachers, administrators, documentarians, visiting guests followed them as they writhed and chanted, and moved their story through the spaces of the school and the street. Out in the front of the school building, we found a long line of 43 chairs, each with a name of a disappeared young person affixed to its back. The absent-presence.

bogota photo 7bogota photo 8bogota photo 9

bogota photo 10bogota photo 10bogota photo 12

Cultural geographer Doreen Massey writes that while places may have boundaries, these borders are open and porous. Spaces inform and are informed by, the outside. In this way, spaces should find definition, not by exclusion, bordering and ordering, but by the specific “constellation of social relations” (Massey, 1994, p. 154) within and around them. The space of the street, the meeting of intentional spectators, unsuspecting passerby, and youth made possible by those committed students. And...the power of metaphor. Metaphor affords multiple entry points, invites strangers in, provokes analogous and critical thinking, and can command formidable affects. I was breathless. My collaborator-playwright, Andrew Kushnir (in Gallagher and Freeman, in press 2016), says this of metaphor:

...one of the attractive differences between storytelling in film and theatre is that theatre can feel much more like work. The illusion is more tenuous and demands more audience involvement and reinvestment. There is intense rejuvenation when the work pays off, when you feel, as an audience, you have helped hold up the metaphor, when you feel like you have been in silent but communal dialogue with the play, when you have situated yourself and your spectator-peers in a dilemma, dialectic, or investigation. It is a distinctive feeling... The act of sitting still with that particular focus, in communion with others doing the same [is] entirely revivifying.

And playwright David Hare (2005) writes:

A play is not actors, a play is not a text; a play is what happens between the stage and the audience. A play is a performance. So if a play is to be a weapon in the class struggle, then that weapon is not going to be the things you are saying; it is the interaction of what you are saying and what the audience is thinking. The play is in the air.” (118)

So, my friends, what kind of a metaphor is theatre for the world? What is in the air?

 

***

After the 'performance', Jorge, Freddie, Angela and I enjoyed a delicious lunch of trout. Freddie video-taped our conversation. I didn't know why, but I liked that he was capturing our reactions for later reflection perhaps? To share with his students?

bogota photo 13bogota photo host

            After our lunch, we moved on to Adelaida's school, in the one of the most challenging areas in Bogota, Barrio Santafé, llamada Zona de Tolerancia (Neighborhood Santafé, called Tolerance zone). Jorge, my wonderful host, had warned me that I would meet an extraordinarily committed teacher. However, I wasn't prepared for Adelaida. We enjoyed a coffee before meeting with her students. Her principal joined us. Adelaida's students are the children of sex workers who live in great poverty. Many have difficult psychological and physical challenges too. I took no pictures here. I have no visual record of those young people. But, I have the image reverberating in my mind of a teacher who had taken the stories of her students and given them poetic life. Through a mock black set, with a miniature figure of herself, she told the re-considered stories of her students and honoured their worlds with poetic language, detachable eyes and ears and hands on her 'puppet', so she could tell the stories from specific senses: what they hear, what they see, what they touch and smell.

bogota photo 14bogota photo 15

She will soon translate this miniature work into an embodied solo performance. But, on the day I was there, she performed it in miniature for the first time for her students. Then, she handed out a survey to them, inviting them to talk confidentially to her, through the survey, about whether the poetry had accurately captured the ideas and experiences they had shared.

 

***

After this energizing and moving day, we came to our conference day, Saturday October 3, 2015. It began with an opening indigenous ritual in which we promised to 'move the word' between us. And we did.

            In my talk, I had the opportunity to share the work of my last research project, and the publication of my book (Gallagher 2014), with a warm and receptive audience. We talked about what it means to be engaged in/through theatre. How we engage as teachers, as artists, as researchers and, importantly, how we understand the engagement of our students. We began with Irigaray's (2013) vital idea of 'beings-in-relation':

How can we both preserve and develop our freedom as humans? It is precisely by cultivating the between-us, but not only as individuals who simply belong to a same people…Rather it is at every moment, in the relation with the one whom we are meeting, that we must cultivate the energy born thanks to this encounter…Starting from desire we can do so many things, and first of all become humans, alone and together, always safeguarding the relationship between two different beings… Transforming our needs into desire requires the mediation of art, in our gestures, in our words, in all our ways of relating to ourselves, to the other(s), to the world… Art does not amount to a kind of unnecessary work that is suitable only for some artists. Art ought to be a basic daily undertaking carried out by everyone for passing from nature to culture, from the satisfaction of instincts to a sharing of desire, that is, for preserving and cultivating the between-us. Art is more critical than morality if we are to enter a culture of humanity formed by beings-in-relation…(pp. 21-22)

            I shared my ideas about 'social justice seeking theatre', a form of theatre I witnessed young people engaging in across the very different spaces and through stunningly different aesthetic practices in Toronto Canada, Boston USA, Taipei Taiwan and Lucknow India. And, considering our intercultural meeting place in Bogota, and my great interest in collaborative global ethnography, we pondered Appiah’s (2007) critical question: “What do we owe strangers by virtue of our shared humanity?” (p. xxi).

bogota photo 15bogota photo 16

            Finally, turning to a great theorist of story-telling in our world, I shared my thinking about what the writing of Hannah Arendt might offer us as ethnographers, artists and teachers who wish to tie our art-making and research to projects of cultural engagement, social intervention and educational change. In my new research project, Youth, Theatre, Radical Hope and the Ethical Imaginary: an intercultural investigation of drama pedagogy, performance and civic engagement (2014-2018), working in sites in Toronto Canada, Athens Greece, Lucknow India, Tainan Taiwan and Coventry England, I aim to do just that. We spoke of Arendt's idea of a practical equality of concern. Arendt’s 'visiting the stories of others' is, as I understand it, a way to not see with others’ eyes, or through standing in the shoes of another (as is commonly used metaphorically in the theatre) but attempting to visit, that is, to see someone else’s position through one's own eyes. In other words, where empathy can conflate difference, critical visiting makes it central. Arendt helped us to understand that whereas human differences are irreducible, there is still reason to believe that communication can occur. And where communication is conceivable, change remains possible (see Gallagher 2011).

            We worked physically, in a workshop on Verbatim Theatre, and ultimately celebrated the opportunity we'd had to meet each other. Hannah Arendt (1968) reminds us, powerfully, of the significance of such encounters:

However much we are affected by the things of the world, however deeply they may stir and stimulate us, they become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows… We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human (p. 25).

bogota photo 17

Thank you my dear friends of Bogotá. Until we meet again.

In solidarity,

Kathleen

 

 

Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony (2007) Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: Norton.

Arendt, Hannah. 1968. Men in Dark Times. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Gallagher, Kathleen (in press 2016) Politics and Presence: A Theatre of Affective Encounters. In Gallagher, K., & B. Freeman (Eds.) (in press). In Defence of Theatre: Aesthetic Practices and Social Interventions. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press.

Gallagher, Kathleen (2014). Why Theatre Matters: Urban Youth, Engagement, and a Pedagogy of the Real. Toronto. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press.

Gallagher, Kathleen (2011) In Search of a Theoretical Basis for Storytelling in Education Research. International Journal of Research and Method in Education. 33(1): 49-61.

Hare, David. (2005). Obedience, Struggle and Revolt. London, UK: Faber. 

Irigaray, Luce. (2013). In the Beginning, She Was. London, New Dehli, New York, Sydney: Bloomsbury

Kushnir, Andew. (in press 2016). If You Mingle: Thoughts on How Theatre Humanizes the Audience. In Gallagher, K., & B. Freeman (Eds.) (in press). In Defence of Theatre: Aesthetic Practices and Social Interventions. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press.

 

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