BWW Interview: Andrew Kushnir Lets Young People Lead the Way in TOWARDS YOUTH
Andrew Kushnir's latest work, TOWARDS YOUTH: A PLAY ON RADICAL HOPE, made its debut on February 28 at Streetcar Crowsnest's intimate Guloien Theatre. While the final product is a 2-hour examination of drama classrooms from around the world, Kushnir had to facilitate a detailed writing and editing process to bring months of research to the stage. Based on his and co-collaborator Dr. Kathleen Gallagher's travels to schools in China, England, India, Greece, and at home in Toronto, Kushnir also incorporated contextual information from an international network of collaborators to develop an in-depth look into what's happening in drama classes globally.
With previous experience in documentary playwriting and an ongoing interest in how today's youth fit into society, Kushnir's focus was in bringing the real people behind the characters to life in a respectful, honest, and serious manner. "I think something that has been an ongoing practice in my work as an artist is recognizing how the voices of young people deserve more stages and deserve to be magnified in any way possible. I think we often think of them as being taught, but if we find new and better ways of listening young people can be teachers."
Kushnir's working relationship with Gallagher, now nearly a decade long, leverages the similarities between both professionals' studies and work. "Kathleen is paying attention to the way young people talk and the particulars of that - that's the point of convergence where my form of theatre and her form of research share a lot of values and qualities." The pair met while Kushnir's play THE MIDDLE PLACE was on a 21-school tour, including it's showing at a location where Gallagher was conducting research. When it came time for her to begin her Radical Hope research, she brought him onboard immediately. "She knew that I would have to go to India, to Taiwan, to Greece, to England, and to her site in Toronto to get a first-hand account of what she was seeing in the drama classroom."
While Kushnir prepared for his travels, he also developed a few precursory notions that were often laid to rest upon entering the schools. "I went into those travels thinking young people should probably have lots of similar qualities, ideas, and impulses. I do think a good reason we subscribe to this idea of a shared world where we're all a lot closer to one another is because of social media and globalization and all of that. I really discovered that there were distinct differences and that context is so particular. For example, the girls in India, they're contending with an oppressive patriarchy and other things young people in North America are not familiar with - so, as much as I'd like to say all young people around the world are sort of one team, I think what was really evident is that given your context you're going to be mobilized in different ways."
"The play examines the idea that the drama class is a space where people can bring their real lives into school and potentially be equipped to change the world. When you foreground your life in the classroom, your society is going to come into play in different ways. In India you've got an oppressive patriarchy, and in England we were there during Brexit, during the vote and the aftermath, so those young people were really vibrating with the effect of that."
The issues in the Taiwanese classrooms were structured around the state's ongoing cultural struggle, plus the stress induced from dealing with a neighbouring superpower. Greek students represent a generation who have only known austerity and are caught in the midst of humanitarian and refugee crises - although Kushnir struggled to understand one teacher's methods during research.
"We had a teacher in Greece who had a very different way of teaching than we were curious about. For her, the drama class was all about kids having fun - it was very games-based. We had some quote-unquote serious questions we wanted to talk about, and we were met with a fair bit of resistance. What I've learned since having time away from there, from writing and watching actors navigate it, is that that teacher is dealing with incredible amounts of contextual stress. She is dealing with a country that is really struggling, her job security is not guaranteed, there's so much pressure on students to excel academically. I rushed to judgment, I think, because I was frustrated that we weren't able to ask some of the questions we were interested in. Now I take a step back and realize she's doing her best. My partner says, 'Be kind, because everyone is fighting a great battle,' and it really feels apparent to me that that particular teacher is in a very tight spot and is trying to protect and keep her young charges in a state of good mental health while providing a context where they can play, which cannot be underestimated."
Upon returning to Toronto and beginning the writing process, Kushnir was faced with a multitude of difficult choices. "It's a very heart-filled process because on the one hand you're revisiting all these classrooms and incredible people you've met. Even as I've been co-directing the piece with Chris (Abraham) I feel as though I'm going down memory lane on a moment by moment basis, but there is the painful side of it which is that I can't possibly include every moment I perceived. I did collaborate a lot with Kathleen and I paid attention to what our international collaborators care about, so there are a lot of influences on what makes it into the play, but it does have to make a case and be dramatically sound."
"Ultimately what I want more than anything is I want this to matter. I want young people to matter. I want us to really perk our ears and listen to young people in a meaningful way, so I say my guiding compass, and most privileged moments, are where assumptions get interrupted - where a young person has said something that makes you go, 'Wow, I have to rethink the world.' The moments where a teacher does something that you didn't know was possible in a school."
When asked what audiences can expect from TOWARDS YOUTH, Kushnir explains that there are entry points for anyone to connect to the characters and issues. "I think audiences will really be struck by the music of a drama room - by music, I mean yes, musicals happen in the drama room - but I'm talking about the way young people sing with one another. It can be a hard song, and sometimes it can be a tough song to be in the room with, but I do think it provides incredible insight as to how we're doing as a democracy, as parents, as teachers."
"I don't think anybody is excluded from that song and it's just been awesome over the last few weeks to go into a room with the actors going, 'Okay, how do I do this, how do I find the tune?' I suspect if anyone's be in a drama class they're going to recognize the sound right away, but I also understand that people who didn't opt for that in their lives might say, 'Oh wow, this space is way more complicated that I thought it was."
"We all have a similar relationship to that place and that context. It's funny though, as we get older I do think we forget the complexity of that time in our lives and how many big feelings we were having, how many questions we wrestled with, and in a way what some of the hopes and dreams we had for the world that maybe the world crushed or deprioritized for us. What I found really powerful about this piece is it's like a big dose of young people at a point in their life where they're wrestling with the world, and that wrestling is fundamentally hopeful. It really makes you think that we can learn something about how to persevere through obstacles as opposed to succumb to them by looking at these issues through young people."
TOWARDS YOUTH: A PLAY ON RADICAL HOPE runs through March 16 at Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Ave., Toronto, ON.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://www.crowstheatre.com/whats-on/view-all/towards-youth-a-play-on-radical-hope