Fiona McDonagh and Dorothy Morrissey: Using Theatre to Trouble Gender with Young Children

Fiona McDonagh and Dorothy Morrissey's Paper from Day One of the ITYARN Conference 2019

A Paper by Fiona McDonagh and Dorothy Morrissey, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick (Ireland)
Presented at the Conference of the International Theatre for Young Audiences Research Network (ITYARN), part of the ASSITEJ Artistic Gathering 2019 in Kristiansand, Norway. You can see the Roundtable that followed this paper at the following link: Roundtable on Collaboration with Youth in TYA.

Abstract: This paper stems from a Theatre making project designed to trouble gender with young children. The project was underpinned by post-structural readings on gender identity by Butler (1999; 2004) and Davies (2003). The aim was to ‘enable the participants to grapple with limiting positions and categories provided in the dominant discourses and to re-imagine their futures’ (Cahill 2010, p.155). In the project, two Theatre Artists/Researchers, one Research Assistant, and an Infant Teacher/Researcher set out to trouble the taken-for-granted gender narratives of a class of five and six-year-old children in their first or second year of primary school (junior and senior infants) in Ireland. 

The Theatre making was generated from a series of photographs featuring two ‘genderless’ characters in a variety of everyday situations. The photographs were used by the teacher as a starting point towards troubling the children’s positioning of themselves within dominant narratives of gender. 

Throughout the project, images, language, and other embodied processes were used to make meaning, represent meaning, and generate various perspectives. In this way, the practice of making Theatre itself was used as a research methodology and the research/data collection techniques were integral to the Theatre development process. 

In this paper, we explore how we used the children’s responses to the photographs to develop a short interim theatrical performance composed of simple episodes involving both characters. A key aspect of this was the role played by the infant Teacher/Researcher in opening spaces for children to imagine, question and discover for themselves. 

We explore too how we used the children’s responses (immediate and in the weeks following) to an interim performance to develop a final theatrical performance, also composed of episodes. Therefore, the children became ‘co-creators’ as well as ‘receivers’ of the work. In addition, we interrogate the responses of the children to that final performance. At all stages of the project, we aimed to draw out multiple perspectives and confront contradictions and so create an uncertain space that would allow the children to shift positions and re-story the narratives within which they were living their lives. The focus on just two characters may have served, however, to reinforce rather than challenge the binary system in which gender is enmeshed. In our presentation, we chart the shifts and re-storying that occurred throughout the various stages of the project.