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Kathleen Gallagher2

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  • 1. Urban School Performances: The Interplay, through Live and Digital Drama, of Local/Global Knowledge about Student Engagement Kathleen Gallagher When qualitative research is conceived as a series of moments, performances, creative encounters, and temporal relationships that can never be repeated, rather than a series of value-free and distanced observations, the research encounter itself cannot help but challenge some of the traditional questions about the nature of truth, the power relations of knowledge, and the politics and ethics doing research. Differences of epistemology and method in qualitative research, however, eerily echo the larger cultural schism between science and art, which might also be characterized by the tension between standing apart and being fully involved. In this presentation, I am aiming to map out the methodology of a piece of research that takes as its subject and often its method how youth work with theatre, what they create, in what contexts, for what purposes and to what effect. Our empirical qualitative research borrows much from the theatre. We work in a way that resonates with Gearing’s description of researches as “emotionally aware inter-actor(s) engaged with other actors” (Gearing, 1995, p. 211). In the course of this presentation, I would like to briefly point to four interesting aspects of our research that derive much of their impetus from the theatre: i) the break with objectivity; ii) the polyvocality of the research voice, ii) performance as a digital and live form of listening/communicating in the field; iii) the relationship between performance and research: pragmatic and theoretical tensions; and iv) creating a framework for inviting the critical reception of (digital) performance work. The Study Urban School Performances: The interplay, through live and digital drama, of local- global knowledge about student engagement (USP) is an international research project that is examining, through attention to theatre contexts and practices in schools, how the relationships among culture, identity, multiculturalisms, student engagement and theatre have an impact on the lives of youth in schools and communities traditionally labeled ‘disadvantaged’ in the cities of Toronto, (Canada), Kaoshiung (Taiwan), Lucknow (India), and New York City (USA).i This Canadian-led project brings together diverse cities to examine student engagement, theatre pedagogy and performance, and success at school from a local-global perspective and to illustrate how such a multi-site ethnography is changed by arts-based, participatory, and digital/performative research methods. Because the insights of youth about questions of engagement with school remains a central concern, this project seeks new ways to engage diverse youth in the research process, in the context of four communities equally concerned with ‘raising the bar’ for those students most disengaged from traditional practices of schooling. Bringing the social and the performative together, USP is engaging youth, teachers and researchers in a creative inquiry, using digital-drama research tools (see Gallagher and Kim 2008), to better understand the relationship between engagement and the social, academic and artistic contexts of schooling. Given the importance of context in ethnographic research, we also examine the relationship between youth’s sense of agency
  • 2. and the social structures and rules within which they operate in schools, in order to generate context-specific profiles of resilience and ‘at risk’. Of particular interest to studies of theatre and pedagogy, we will determine the nature and quality of the relationship between achievement in drama/theatre and school engagement by closely examining the pedagogies particular to the collaborative processes of theatre-making. In other words, the research project is concerned with how young people ‘perform’- socially, academically, and artistically- in school contexts situated in marginalized communities. The research therefore examines both the cultural and everyday performances and the artistic performances created by youth in the particular context of drama lessons. In other words, we are talking about the aesthetic- and social- work undertaken in the context of the drama/theatre classroom and how we come to know that through ethnographic study. i) The break with objectivity The ‘objective sciences’, those that stake their claims to truth as some contrary of art, in other words, the other side of subjectivity, the universal, have produced a system of technologies (involving organization, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and, most of all, a mindset1) that has profoundly modified our culture. To better elucidate the power and prevalence of this system, I turn to feminist, experimental physicist Ursula Franklin, who has helped me to rethink the science of social science research. I use Ursula Franklin’s notion of a system of technologies in order to rethink more generally the ‘scientific method’ in research. In our performative research, we resist the conventional separation of knowledge from experience, an important marker of traditional science, in its aim of discovering universally applicable laws of nature and to extract the general from the particular. Franklin (2006) points to the intrinsic lack of context in any general law that limits that law’s usefulness and that the emphasis on abstract over concrete experience has significantly lessened the confidence of people in the astuteness of their own senses (p. 315). It is not that we think nothing ‘in general’ can be gleaned from the specificities of what we encounter in our research sites, only that we must keep the particular and the general in fruitful tension. How do we do this? We take up the theoretical discourses about ‘youth’ currently in use, we look into writings on devising, on interculturalism in theatre, on collaborative artistic processes and we situate these against the thematics of conversations with youth in our sites, the conversations they have with each other that we are privy to, the reception of their theatre work in their own communities, and our own aesthetic and substantive judgments of what they create. ii) Polivocality: Researcher and Participant Voices Why would we bother seeing Hamlet 100 times if limitless interpretations were not possible? And yet, this somehow goes against conventional wisdom in research circles. The remnants of positivism, perhaps… a resistance to losing one’s authoritative voice, perhaps… or maybe it’s just quite difficult to carry out. The open reading of a research moment means that multiple interpretations can surface and a different form of 1 For a carefully drawn out account of these processes, see Franklin, U. (1999) The Real World of Technology [revised edition] Toronto: Anansi Press.
  • 3. triangulation can occur. Ethnography is being constantly reinvented through an ever widening set of methods used to engage in the specificities of particular research contexts. Traditional notions of triangulation have indeed lost their hold. But what is gained and what is lost in an ethnographic turn that borrows from performance, from participatory research methods, from the visual turn in research? And what of ethnographies whose terrain is global? No longer the site specific, culturally bounded entity it once seemed to be, what kind of knowledge does ethnography produce when it pushes beyond the traditional limits of time and place? When it is multi-voiced? Is it simply the predictable emergence multi-site ethnography or is there more going on? Here I draw on Ursula Franklin’s critique of the ‘scientific method’, which eclipses what we might call the social processes of fact-making or knowledge production. Our challenge is to find ways to reveal the social processes of our fact-making. Our different voices currently emerge in fieldnotes, in meetings, and in co-authorship. But the bulk of analysis is before us and the pressure for consensus looms. iii) The Relationship between Performance and Research: Pragmatic and Theoretical Tensions The work of Irish playwright, Brian Friel’s theoretical writing on the arts/theatre have helped me to think more consciously about ‘participation’ in research and use it, methodologically, as counterpoint to those technologies that fix us/our research participants and cause us/our research participants to mistrust or even subvert our own senses and sense-making. In Friel’s (1999) view: The arts grow and wither and expand and contract erratically and sporadically. Like beachcombers or Irish tinkers they live precariously, existing from idea to idea, from theory to theory, from experiment to experiment. They do owe something to the tradition in which they grow; and they bear some relationship to current economic and political trends. But they are what they are at any given time and in any given place because of the condition and climate of thought that prevail at that time and in that place. And if the condition and climate are not right, the arts lift their tents and drift off to a new place. Flux is their only constant; the crossroads their only home; impermanence their only yardstick. Once they realize that they have been so long in one site that they have come to be looked on as a distinct movement, that city hall is thinking of extending the city boundaries so that they can be absorbed into a comfortable community, they take fright, attack the movement—the apparent permanence—that they themselves have created, reject the offer of hospitality, and move to a new location. This is the only pattern of their existence: the persistence of the search; the discovery of a new concept; the analysis, exploration, exposition of that concept; the preaching of that gospel to reluctant ears; and then, when the first converts are made, the inevitable disillusion and dissatisfaction because the theory is already out of date or was simply a false dawn. And then the moving on; the continuing of the search; the flux. Impermanence is the only constant (p. 16). We have experienced this kind of impermanence already in our Toronto sites. The challenge is to make a virtue of these highly changeable contexts by working
  • 4. improvisationally and being led by participants’ theatre and social performances. What are they asking us to care about? Creating a Digital Framework for Colloborative Theatre Research: a) Questions of Judgment: Aesthetic and Social b) The vertical and the horizontal in ‘live’ and ‘digital’ performance What do we do when our ‘live’ theatre event becomes digitized. There are aesthetic, methodological, and theoretical aspects to this move that bear examinination. French- Canadian playwright/actor/director Robert Lepage (in Delgado & Heritage, 1996) likens the “live” experience of theatre to a sporting event. People scream and shout at a sporting event because they believe it may change the course of things. In theatre too, he says, people want to believe that they are somehow changing the event, that their presence is changing the course of things (p. 146); theatre does not “fix”, like an image or a word captured by the ‘objectivity’ of the lens; the ‘truth-telling’ camera. The traditional function of the camera, then, is more akin to positivist notions of research. Aesthetically, it can be seen to be fixing a moment, freezing a relationship, ‘capturing’ a true picture, A primary challenge for post-positivist researchers, then, who choose to use video in their research, is to negotiate the research relationships in order that research participants are not merely testing and being tested/critiqued by the lens and the researcher but contesting and returning the gaze. Robert Lepage reflects upon these important aesthetic qualities, in a 1996 interview, when he describes the differences between theatre as a “vertical form” of art and film or television as a “horizontal form”: It’s vertical on many levels in the sense that I think theatre has a lot to do with putting people in contact with the gods, whatever that means. That’s where theatre comes from. Plays were written in a vertical manner about human aspirations... There is a sense of spirituality in theatre: it’s a medium that you could use to talk about spirituality, about spiritual quests. Of course, there’s a reason why film has a horizontal frame; because cameras pan and cinema is all about everyday life and realism. Being at that level it goes from left to right, or right to left. Sometimes it does pan up and down, but in general horizontal stories are better told with film. Maybe the shape and frames of film will all change one day. But why hasn’t anybody invented a vertical screen after a century of cinema? The medium technically and symbolically is about the horizon, the land on which human beings work and walk (p. 144). In research terms, then, to design research with an eye toward the ‘vertical’ would mean to ask research questions that have many potential answers contingent upon the relationships that are cultivated through the research and relationships of historical contingency across time and space. Extending further this aesthetic metaphor, Lepage suggests that there are two ways to tell a story: a metaphorical way and a metonymical way. Metonymy is a horizontal telling - a beginning, middle and end - with things happening in a certain order. But metaphorical telling is like seeing a piece of theatre where there are many levels, where things seem to be connected in a “vertical way”. What would it mean,
  • 5. methodologically, to design a study that connected people, their contexts and relationships, in horizontal and vertical ways? The question itself points rather obviously to the need for multiple perspectives (both digital and ‘live’) in the seeing and the telling of research. This is likely one reason why forms of literature, theatre, and visual media have proliferated in the representation of qualitative research. These artistic forms enable researchers to evoke the nuances and complexities of fieldwork and other research activities. Over the last 20 years, ethnographers have been challenging the very conventionality of ethnographic writing and proposing “more open, messy and fragmented texts” (Denzin & Lincoln 2000; Ellis & Bochner 1996-cited in Dicks et al,, 2005, p. 31, Fusco, in this volume). Postmodern researchers, like Patti Lather and Chris Smithies, have experimented with ‘vertical’ forms of reporting (see Lather & Smithies1997), while other researchers have exploited the vertical powers of theatre in qualitative research dissemination (see Gallagher, 2006; Goldstein, 2003; Conrad, 2002; Saldana, 1999; Norris, 1997; Donmoyer & Yennie-Donmoyer, 1995; Mienczakowski, 1995). But using digital video in our research challenges us, in a very fundamental way, to revisit our more habitual ‘modes’ of operating in the field. Dicks et al (2005) argue that “[t]he film-based ethnographer sees the field through the camera lens, while the writing-based ethnographer observes first, and then writes. The camera lens works to 'enframe' the field into compositions, while the constantly moving human eye tends to organize it into scenes” (p. 82). And even beyond the filming itself, the practice of video editing is particularly powerful in enabling us to ‘see’, organize, and analyze research data in new ways: Editing “rituals serve as a ‘frame’ whose stabilizing effect experienced through repetition in cycles and in rhythmic recurrences, allow us to see things with a different intensity, and … to perceive the ordinary in an extra-ordinary way” (Leimbacher & Trinh 2005, p. 135). So our first challenge is selection: what do we choose to post for our collaborators abroad? Our next challenge is: how do we give them enough context so they can make sense of what they are seeing without directing their attention to what we have seen in the clips. And three: what other vocabularies are available to us beyond the judgment of whether the work is ‘good theatre’, ‘good for young people’, ‘good for these kinds of young people’. How do we talk about the tensions of the aesthetic and the social that are inextricably linked in the clips we post for analysis? Can the interiority of the lives of research participants or the sense of timelessness that often marks ‘live’ interaction be ‘translated’ to digital video modes? Can research that exploits digital modes of recording and representing avoid the pitfalls of the objectifying gaze of the camera? Can collaborative forms of research proliferate with the inventive and artistic use of video as a more collective rather than a hierarchical research process? Can digital video research expand the research imagination by evoking new postcolonial research narratives? These are some of the questions for which we do not yet have answers.