Ten years ago,The Middle Placewas a breakout moment for actor-turned-playwrightAndrew Kushnir.
As creative director of the socially engaged theatre company Project: Humanity, Kushnir developed and wrote this documentary play about young people living in a shelter.
After a tour of Toronto high schools, Alan Dilworth’s production ofThe Middle Placewas picked up by Theatre Passe Muraille and Canadian Stage for their 2010 and 2011 seasons and won a bunch of awards. Kushnir’s since written and co-created a number of acclaimed productions includingThe Gay Heritage Project,Small AxeandWormwood, and became artistic director of Project: Humanity in 2016.
The Middle Placewas also a milestone for Kushnir because it brought him into contact with University of Toronto professor Kathleen Gallagher, who saw one of the show’s high school performances. At that point, Gallagher was working on a major government-funded research project about the ways in which performances of live and digital drama in urban schools affect student engagement; Kushnir’s play was right up her alley.
“She approached me and said, ‘This feels like a different way of listening to young people,’” explains Kushnir.
Gallagher’s research team at the U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education conducted some 75 post-performance interviews with audience members whenThe Middle Placeplayed in professional theatres, something she says was “totally mutually beneficial.”
Kushnir constructedThe Middle Placeby taking quotes from transcripts of interviews he conducted with young people, who were then played by professional actors — an approach usually called documentary or verbatim theatre. Gallagher offered Kushnir another description of what he was doing: “ethno-drama,” a term that likens the theatremaker’s work to that of an ethnographer.
As Kushnir explains it, Gallagher said to him, “‘Don’t you see that by virtue of trying to transport these voices from interviews … that transfer is allowing the public and all of us to engage with personhood, with humanity? We’re able to make sense of how to be better with one another, how we’re not being great with one another. That may shift policy.’ She’s the one who kind of blew it open and went, ‘This is not just about strong storytelling.’”
Buoyed by their shared interests, Gallagher included Kushnir as co-researcher in her next (and still ongoing) project, “Youth, Theatre, Radical Hope and the Ethical Imaginary,” which explores the experience of high school students in drama classes in five countries: Canada, England, India, Taiwan and Greece.
Along with traditional scholarly outcomes such as publications and conferences, a result of the project is Kushner’sTowards Youth: A Play on Radical Hope,premieringthis week at Streetcar Crowsnest in a Crow’s Theatre/Project: Humanity co-production, directed by Kushnir and Chris Abraham.
Gallagher describes her Radical Hope project as driven by “hardcore research questions about the question of hope and its cousin, the notion of care.”
These grew out of an unexpected and surprising finding of her urban schools project: that providing care to others — parents, grandparents, peers, members of a religious community — didn’t detract from young people’s experience of education but in fact enhanced it: “The extent to which young people gave care was hugely, positively correlated with how engaged they felt in their education,” says Gallagher. And not just felt: such students tended to perform better academically.
In a related exploration, Gallagher and her team undertook in-depth interviews with young people studying drama who live in what mainstream society classifies as underprivileged conditions. “What they taught me was, ‘I practise hope and hope isn’t about the future, hope is about the present,’” explains Gallagher. “All of my kind of philosophical, theoretical reading around hope had been a kind of future-oriented idea. Then I realized: hope is a daily practice.”
These discoveries led Gallagher to wonder if “what we had found about drama’s role in young people’s general engagement in school could be ‘scaled up,’ as it were. We wondered whether the drama room might also be a rehearsal space for broader forms of youth civic engagement.” Thus was birthed the Radical Hope project, which explores notions of hope and care (for oneself and others) through drama workshops at the five research sites, and looks at how participating in drama may orient students toward active citizenship.
Kushnir travelled to all the locations and compiled a huge amount of research in the form of interviews, videos, photos, sound, written observation and physical artifacts. In his play, a company of nine actors play young people and their teachers in the five locations and some of the project’s researchers, including Gallagher and Kushnir themselves; in total they play 35 young people and 21 adults.
Initially the goal was to turn the material into five one-act plays: “We thought, ‘You know, Robert Lepage has done it, Bernard Shaw’s done it … we can invite audiences for a five-hour journey if we want,’” says Kushnir, with a self-deprecating grin. He scaled the project back into a single two-hour play, in part because they felt “something was being impaired by seeing (the locations) as separate entities,” he says.
Kushnir likens his writing process after this realization to reducing a sauce on a stovetop. “By virtue of cooking it down, by creating more of a flow through these sites and in fact giving me more of a poetic licence to overlap sites … I think that it makes for a more loaded, saturated experience,” he says.
Kushner is acutely aware that putting documentary material onstage is an ethically delicate undertaking, because he’s depicting real people’s experience and making many choices about what to include and what to leave out. He composed the script in ongoing dialogue with Gallagher and their fellow researchers and depends on his co-director Abraham to be an outside eye assuring that this intense condensation of material will make sense to audiences.
When I ask him why he finds this work important, Kushnir becomes emotional.
“It’s feeling a deep sense of responsibility, and really imploring the powers of representation and the powers of metaphor to help us see the world in a more hopeful way, but also in a way that mobilizes us … In the early days of Project: Humanity we used to think about a call to action, but I’ve been shifting my thinking about that and wondering if it may be better to really engender in the audience a call to thought.”
Towards Youthis at Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Ave., until March 16. See here for more information.
Karen Fricker is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter:@KarenFricker2