A space of ‘survivable failure’: Professor Kathleen Gallagher on her new book

By Perry King
June 18, 2022
Kathleen Gallagher
Professor Kathleen Gallagher has released a new book: Hope in a Collapsing World: Youth, Theatre, and Listening as a Political Alternative

Professor Kathleen Gallagher, whose research has aimed to make an impact on our understanding of youth and social inequality, has released a new book.

Hope in a Collapsing World: Youth, Theatre, and Listening as a Political Alternative presents the process and findings of Gallagher’s “Youth, Theatre, Radical Hope and the Ethical Imaginary” research project – which was a five-year international study investigating how the drama classroom can help young people grow into engaged citizens. The book was created in collaboration with Andrew Kushnir, a Toronto-based playwright. His play “Towards Youth: A Play on Radical Hope,” is a verbatim piece created from interviews collected during the Gallagher’s projectand is included in the book.

Professor Gallagher is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a Distinguished Professor in the department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning, and cross-appointed to the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Toronto. Previously, she held two Canada Research Chairs and in 2017 was a winner of the inaugural University of Toronto President's Impact Award for research impact beyond the academy. In 2018, she won the David E. Hunt Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and has garnered over millions of dollars in SSHRC and other research funding. Two of her books have won awards from the American Education Research Association.

In honour of this new release, and celebrate its findings, OISE News spoke with Professor Gallagher about the ins and outs of the book – including its supporting research and projects.

The book launch takes place at Streetcar Crowsnest in Toronto (345 Carlaw Ave.) on June 22nd from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Remarks by Professor Gallagher and Andrew Kushnir will start at 7:30 p.m. with a book signing to follow. We are asking that people attending the event be fully vaccinated and wear a mask when they are not eating / drinking.

Book Launch Kathleen

To RSVP for the event, here is the Eventbrite page.


For those learning about your research the first time, how do you collect data and do your research within theatre-making spaces? 

Professor Kathleen Gallagher: I wouldn't say we “collect” data in the traditional sense but, rather, we create data/artefacts/creative work alongside young people in their theatre-making spaces that help us explore, together, the questions at the centre of our inquiry.

In the case of the Radical Hope project (Youth, Theatre, Radical Hope and the Ethical Imaginary: an intercultural investigation of drama pedagogy, performance and civic engagement), we were interested in how young people understand “hope” and we quickly learned, from many youth, that they conceptualize hope altogether differently than most theoretical or philosophical conceptions. Hope, for so many of the young people we worked with, is a practice, often a way of orienting oneself to the world against significant odds. Hope, then, is not a possession, not something you “have” but something you do; something you practice. So, once we learned this in the “fieldwork,” through informal conversations with youth, through important discussions with a teacher, in exploratory drama work, and in interviews, we could delve more pointedly into the drama storytelling that could further surface their understandings about this concept. This work is then mostly led by the youth themselves, and by their teacher too, who is a critically important collaborator in the whole process.

The creative work undertaken helps all of us to explore what is often an interruption to our habitual ways of thinking about research concepts like, in our case, 'hope'. The generation of data through drama shakes concepts free of their fixedness as something is co-produced by researchers and teachers and students, in our case. That's one small example of how a research concept is 'undone' by a creative practice, that is then more deeply explored by further speculative and imaginative and embodied creative practices or performative writing that use the various models and languages of the theatre to explore it. It's a collective undertaking- researchers, students, teacher, and artists, who are interested not only in what social science can know, but also what it, in conversation with artistic practices, can disrupt in order to become a force for bringing new ideas into the world.

Why and how did you come to understand the power of theatre-making spaces on children and students?

Professor Kathleen Gallagher: I first experienced it at the age of four myself, when my older sister in high school would practice her theatre monologues for me, her audience of one. She would create a “set” in her bedroom, don a costume, and speak monologues I barely understood. But I was captured by the storytelling. So, of course I would go on to study theatre in high school and university and recognize that it was not just me, but many others who could be enraptured by theatrical storytelling.

I then became a high school drama teacher, and this was really where I became convinced that important conversations, identity-formation, conflict, the joy and the pain of collaboration, were happening in that drama space, that place that often looks messy and incoherent. I learned that youth were “trying on” selves, not just in performance but for real. I learned that activist voices could be awakened. I learned that creating something and having a shared purpose, was the most “human” thing anyone could do. So, it became a space I would centre in my life as a researcher. It was infinitely interesting to me, always changing, always challenging, how it was a laboratory for social relations, a “rehearsal space” for art and for life.

In this book, what is one way that students demonstrated their understanding about the state of our democracy? Is there optimism, pessimism or a socio-political outlook that you hadn't seen before?

Professor Kathleen Gallagher: By focusing on particular creative projects, in different geographic and cultural drama-making spaces around the world (including India, Taiwan, England, Canada, and Greece), and having conversations highly attuned to specific local contexts, guided by distinct aesthetic and pedagogical practices, we could see across these different contexts how the “screen door” between the “outside” world for students and their creative practices “inside a drama space” were in a constant conversation, a tussle, a dance.

We could see clearly how the drama methods were facilitating the exploration of their own personal lives and social and political concerns. We could clearly hear their worries and their desires in that space which became a meta-context in which the stakes of their “real lives” could be carefully and imaginatively explored in a context they could control and co-create with others.

In this space they were co-creating, they could critique political systems, adult systems, that were excluding them, disregarding their needs and desires, including schools. They could speculate on other forms of relationship that could counter-act what was often experienced by many as disenfranchisement. They could clearly see where privilege resided and where it did not in given contexts. They could try out other selves, other worlds, other rules. And they could also escape into speculative worlds when the pressures or the ideas they were surfacing became too difficult. They could, as Canadian theatre-maker Dustin Harvey says, ‘make what they need’. And they could come to know what needs to be in place for people to be able to count on one another even when the social bonds of the broader world were failing them. Or even when the creative projects themselves failed.

To have a space of “survivable failure” was critical. We learned MANY things about youth critiques of our current political and social systems, too many to name in this short answer. But, to give one of the more obvious examples, we arrived in Coventry the night before the Brexit referendum in the UK. We then engaged in very rich discussions about the outcome of that referendum which none of the young people we worked with had had a voice in. They were all too young to vote. And so, we could look at a democracy in this case where highly informed and highly committed young people did not have a say in a major political decision, the consequences of which would have profound effects in their lives.

Despite their critical engagement with the news, their desire to have a voice, and the many other forms of activism they take up, in this case their silencing in one referendum opened the door for their critiques of other social systems and structures where they feel their voices are unwelcome, disregarded. We could take the pulse of our democracy in that drama room and know that we were not doing well and that systems of power continue to suppress the many voices we need to be hearing. Their socio-political outlook needed to be a part of the conversation as well as their critiques of the harmful political propaganda they felt subjected to. We can imagine a participatory democracy differently in the hyper local space of a drama classroom, or an individual school. And these “experiments” are critical to the health of our failing western democracies.

How has collaborating with Andrew Kushnir, a playwright, impacted your research?

Professor Kathleen Gallagher: It has completely and entirely impacted my research in all the right ways. While I was always doing research using both ethnographic methods and “drama methods” with youth, teachers, schools, social workers, community-based programs and artists, working closely with Andrew in particular – over many years now and with whom I share so many values and ethical commitments, especially regarding the personhood of youth – the art-making of my social science research has been further centred. And, interestingly, the research itself comes under the scrutiny of an artist who is seeing it from his own different perspective.

Andrew also works closely with my team of graduate students who benefit greatly from his 'outsider' perspective and who themselves bring to Andrew so much important understanding about what it means to engage in collaborative ethnographic research and how we take care of each other in those endeavours. Often, my graduate students bring very rich artistic backgrounds of their own to these shared projects and so it becomes a way for us to extend our community to include not only Andrew but all of his important professional artistic communities. Andrew has said that I am a researcher-artist, and he is an artist-researcher. Our collaboration has afforded us both a deeper capacity to lean into the hyphen and the hybridity of these terms.

How much further are you in answering the academic questions you set for yourself? What's next in your journey?

Professor Kathleen Gallagher: Everything that we have learned in the Radical Hope project, what we have “found” and created, and what we have learned from our ways of working, have been carried forward into our new project. We are working with many of the same international communities and have also added new partners in Bogotá, Colombia. We are sitting deeply with many of the beautiful and very worrying findings from it, like the fact that while hope can be better understood as a practice, and the care received and given by young people is deeply connected to their school and broader civic engagement, we also now know that practices of hope, and hopeful dispositions, diminish strongly with age, across all of our international sites. (And that should tell us something very clear about how our democracies are failing us).

While we know that making drama with others can bring a wide range of benefits to those engaged in it, we also know that whether young people perceive themselves as “in the minority” or “in the majority” in their own social contexts changes the nature of those benefits and reveals how specifically different young people’s needs are and therefore how our practices of schooling and art-making and world-making must better understand these material and creative differences. 

One of the elephants in the room in our last study was the existential threat of the climate emergency. It was difficult for many young people to approach, differently situated around the world, to attend to their own feelings, and to grasp what might be possible. Our new project, consequently, has aimed to more carefully draw important lines between social and ecological justice, to understand how our forms of environmental education continue to fail us, and how these failings are intimately connected not only to important questions of power and governance – but also to the capacities youth are afforded to bring a social and artistic analysis to the 'scientific' problems before us.

Our new project is called: Global Youth (Digital) Citizen-Artists and their Publics: Performing for Socio-Ecological Justice (which we call Audacious Citizenship for short) in which, among other things, we are asking whether we can build movements that refuse climate fatalism through site-specific performance. Can performance become a site for socio-ecological justice? How is ecological degradation related to political polarization? What do intergenerational collaborations afford us? How can interdisciplinary pedagogies, digital and live arts, help us reconsider both the questions and the purported answers to the climate emergency? How are these things related to a global ethics of care?

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