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From left: Aldrin Bundoc, Zorana Sadiq, Amaka Umeh, Loretta Yu, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Liisa Repo-Martell, and Emilio Vieira, foreground, in Towards Youth: A Play on Radical Hope.

Aleksandar Antonijevic/Courtesy of Crow's Theatre

  • Title: Towards Youth: A Play on Radical Hope
  • Written by: Andrew Kushnir
  • Genre: Documentary theatre
  • Director: Andrew Kushnir, Chris Abraham
  • Actors: Aldrin Bundoc, Amaka Umeh, Emilio Vieira, Jessica Greenberg, Liisa Repo-Martell, Loretta Yu, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Tim Dowler-Coltman, Zorana Sadiq
  • Company: Project: Humanity and Crow’s Theatre
  • Venue: Crow’s Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to March 16

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Towards Youth: A Play on Radical Hope, a new play on at Crow’s Theatre, is a curious hybrid of the academic and the artistic.

For almost a decade, playwright Andrew Kushnir accompanied Kathleen Gallagher, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, on her anthropological research trips to urban drama classrooms all around the world.

But the verbatim play, a type of theatre with dialogue based on transcripts of interactions and interviews, that has resulted not only chronicles Gallagher’s research, but was also originally commissioned as a part of that research.

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So, the Project: Humanity and Crow’s Theatre co-production now on stage has been funded, unusually, by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant as well as by the Canada Council for the Arts.

The question explored for audiences in the show: “As democracies thin out all over the world, is there a radical hope to be found in the humble high-school drama classroom?”

The verbatim play not only chronicles professor Kathleen Gallagher's research but was also originally commissioned as a part of that research.

Aleksandar Antonijevic/Courtesy of Crow's Theatre

Towards Youth begins in a boisterous Toronto on the day after Barack Obama was first elected president – where a teacher (Jessica Greenberg) struggles, and mostly succeeds, in wrangling her adolescent students into creating a performance about the doorway between childhood and adulthood.

Then, jumping forward eight years to the day after the Brexit referendum, we drop in on an extracurricular drama program in an economically depressed part of Coventry, England, where the difference in life expectancy drops by 12 years between two bus stops.

As guest artists at an old-fashioned drama class in Athens, Gallagher and Kushnir work with students to improvise scenes about refugees and the financial crisis, much to the annoyance of their teacher; and in Tainan, Taiwan, they listen in as a drama group full of emotional 18- to 22-year-olds explore anxieties about their future in the only, and imperilled, democracy in the region.

Finally, the two visit Lucknow, India, and a school for disadvantaged girls and boys where drama is incorporated into all teaching – and we meet an inspiring educator who makes an argument for turning her students into “misfits” who will go out and make their country better.

Under the co-direction of Kushnir and Chris Abraham, Towards Youth is most successful as a showcase of an extraordinary ensemble of actors who, though assembled for this one project, seem incredibly in sync.

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While Liisa Repo-Martell and Emilio Vieira primarily play Gallagher and Kushnir in the play, the other seven actors in the ensemble change roles scene to scene, playing students of all different ages and backgrounds with great energy and originality; indeed, I’ve never seen the group dynamics of teenagers represented so well on stage by actors who are not, themselves, teens.

While Liisa Repo-Martell and Emilio Vieira primarily play Andrew Kushnir and Gallagher in the play, the other seven actors in the ensemble change roles scene to scene.

Courtesy of Crow's Theatre

Towards Youth also shows how simple it is really for an inclusive ensemble, intelligently deployed, to be playful with race and representation without being called out for caricature or cultural appropriation. (Check it out, Robert Lepage.) Every actor gets a chance to play a character who seems like themselves on the surface, as well as many others who don’t.

Standouts include Loretta Yu, throughout, but especially as a passionate and political drama director in Taiwan, and Zorana Sadiq as the funny and formidable teacher endeavouring to make India a safer place for women, one improvised scene at a time.

While each part of Towards Youth is interesting as a quick portrait of a society and its struggles glimpsed through the lens of a drama class, it’s hard to really figure out what the episodic play adds up to as a whole.

A brief snippet of Gallagher’s writing (including her guidance for the actors) is recited with reverence at the beginning of the play, but as a character she is vague, often observing from a catwalk that extends out from the centre of the stage into the audience. I never really understood the exact purpose of her research or the methodology; she comes across here as a pro-youth and pro-drama guru, which Deanna H. Choi’s new-age sound design accentuates. (What is “radical” hope, anyway?)

I’m a great believer in the links between theatre and democracy, but, in recent years, we’ve learned of high-profile cases where drama classes have caused harm to their students – and how inequities in society are as likely to be reinforced by drama and its educators as challenged by them.

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While it has top-notch acting, direction and design, Towards Youth can feel simplistic, or even propagandistic – and is perhaps an illustration of the perils of a documentary artist not being sufficiently at arm’s-length from his subject.

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