- Why Theatre Matters: Urban Youth, Engagement, and a Pedagogy of the Real by Kathleen Gallagher
In Why Theatre Matters: Urban Youth, Engagement, and a Pedagogy of the Real, Kathleen Gallagher presents a five-year, multi-sited ethnographic study examining the nature of student engagement in urban schools and theatre classrooms. Currently a professor and the Canada Research Chair in Theatre, Youth, and Research in Urban Schools at the University of Toronto, Gallagher amplifies the lived experiences of high school students and drama teachers, framing their wisdom with her own expertise as a researcher and pedagogue.
Why Theatre Matters is most immediately applicable to K-12 drama teachers in urban school contexts; however, Gallagher’s reflections and analysis invite educators in all disciplines and contexts to understand how theatre creates and maintains spaces of engaged learning for marginalized youth. The invitation, however, is not a simple one; this expansive text is full of theses and tangents loosely organized into six chapters, requiring the reader to use personal relevancy to navigate the research. However, even without experience in a K-12 drama classroom, I found Why Theatre Matters consistently useful, inspiring, and enlightening; I finally hid my highlighter to prevent each page from saturation in fluorescent ink.
In chapter 1, “The Complexity of People, Conversation, and Space as Data,” Gallagher describes the high schools in the multi-site ethnographic study, including three international (India, Taiwan, United States) and two local (Toronto) schools. In chapter 2, “The Social and Pedagogical Context for Engagement,” she interrupts a common narrative of disengaged students with narrowing attention spans, bringing critical attention to systemic barriers in student engagement, including school spaces, the prevalence of individualism and neoliberalism ideology, and students’ intersecting identities. Used to introduce each barrier are transcriptions full of warm, authentic voices from the study’s subjects, which provide moments of delight and deeper understanding for readers.
Chapter 3, “The Multi-dimensionality of Engagement,” introduces the scales designed for the qualitative portion of the study. These scales serve to simultaneously illustrate the intricate nature of student engagement and to disentangle its contributing factors. Of particular interest in this section is Gallagher’s justification of her research methods; her thoughtful acknowledgment of the balance between the fields and methodologies of theatre and education is useful for anyone who finds their research on similar tightropes.
In chapter 4, “Social Performances: Students and Teachers Inhabit Their Roles,” Gallagher interrogates the idyllic perception of a drama classroom as a safe, equitable space that provides a retreat for all. She examines the performances that teachers and students must maintain to create this ideal in reality, performances that often rely upon neocolonialist tropes of “a White teacher ‘caring’ and ‘saving’ Black youth, a school as safe haven; art making as the social leveller; and aesthetic engagement as social cohesion” (130). Gallagher illustrates these social performances with interviews from students and teachers, contextualizing their ideas with research on student engagement in the education field.
Here, Gallagher challenges popular conceptualizations of engagement, asserting that “[i]f we take test scores or selfreporting data as evidence of engagement, as many of the above-cited studies do, we miss in my view, the precariousness of engagement and the fact that engagement is earned moment by moment in a classroom, is contingent upon the social relations in the room and the historical ones that precede them, and is enhanced or diminished by teacher and student actions” (132). She offers a critical point of [End Page 373] understanding for any educator currently attempting to both engage students in learning and navigate oppressive systems and ideologies that inform culture and classrooms: engagement does not happen in a vacuum and cannot be measured by summative assessments. Students and teachers must work toward engagement through embracing a complex, multivalent understanding of the outside world and its systems.
Chapter 5, “Life or Theatre?” examines the practices and realities of drama teachers navigating this “capricious” (167) form of engagement. Gallagher describes the experiences of students and teachers when witnessing a Verbatim play—a style of...