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"Risk Hope:" Using Songwriting Methods to Compose Music for Research-Informed Multi-Media Theatre

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

Kael Reid, PhD Postdoctoral Fellow, Children, Childhood and Youth Studies Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies York University, Toronto, Canada

We resonate in music. Music enters our bodies and reverberates inside us. When entwined with people’s lived experiences of difference, song can make a difference in people’s lives—in the life of the storyteller and the listener. We encounter one another through song. This is music’s power.

This blog post is about a robust musical research creation method I have developed called “collaborative ethnographic songwriting” (CES). I am enthusiastic about this qualitative method because it allows me to merge my background as a queer professional songwriting and recording artist, performer, and public pedagogue (Cherry-Reid, 2015, 2020), with my more recent work as a researcher and scholar. More importantly, this method is an evocative, heartening medium for sharing research findings.

CES is an applied, musical method of inquiry. It involves collecting, analyzing, understanding, and disseminating people’s stories in song. The “applied” part of this method draws on the field of ethnomusicology and it means utilizing music to improve people’s lives in some way. At the end of each CES project, my collaborators receive something tangible: a professionally-composed song about some aspect of their lived experience. When we carry out research processes with and about people, and they are willing to let us be a part of their lives in this way, we must do it with heart. We must strive to give something back to the people who generously contribute their time and energy to our inquiries and who invite us to utilize our art in their own research inquires. CES provides this because participants end up with a musical account of their lived experiences. A song about one’s life is a powerful affective keepsake.

Using CES methods, I have composed music for research-informed theatre productions using theatre scripts (Goldstein et al. 2018; Reid & Goldstein, 2021), multimedia storytelling projects (Gruson-Wood et al., under review), and qualitative interview material (Hauge & Reid, 2019; Reid, 2022). Some of the stories I have fashioned into song in collaboration with others include a young bisexual feminist scholar’s experience of young adult breast cancer and mastectomy; a young trans man’s experience at a summer leadership camp for queer and trans youth; a woman’s experience of coming to terms with her same sex desire; two lesbian parents expressing their love for their child; and newcomer children’s fantasy tales about belonging and connectedness. Examples of this work can be found on the Arts-based Research page of my website.

From a methodological stance, Madison’s (2012) work in critical ethnography guides me when working with CES. CES provides a creative, moving way to recount social justice issues in an ethnographic musical form. The “critical” in critical ethnography means that this methodologybegins with “an ethical responsibility to address the unfairness or injustice within a particular lived domain” (Madison, 2012, 5). Critical ethnography, then, is a critique of the kind of ethnographic studies that focus on gathering, analyzing, and disseminating data for the researcher’s gain, without contributing or enhancing to the research participants’ lives in any substantial way.

A critical ethnographer is compelled to use “the resources, skills, and privileges available to [them] to make accessible…the voices and experiences of subjects whose stories are otherwise restrained and out of reach” (Madison, 2012). As a critical ethnographic method, I use CES, along with the resources, skills, and privileges available to me to help make audible people’s stories in song that might not otherwise be heard. In this way, this method contributes to emancipatory discourses and the circulation of marginalized stories into broader publics.

Furthermore, a critical ethnographer, according to Madison, “takes us beneath surface appearances, disrupts the status quo, and unsettles both neutrality and taken-for granted assumptions by bringing to light underlying and obscure operations of power” (2012, 5). Bringing together people’s lived experience with modes of musical communication—lyrical form, vocal melody, tone, and instrumentation—not only takes us beneath the surface of appearances, it takes us—audiences, composers, and performers together—to another place. Through the weaving together of lyric, melody, and instrumentation, we are transported to another dimension, somewhere beyond the present moment. It is in this dimension where the performing body conveys story and feeling, and the listening body responds with emotionality, physical sensation, and resonance. It is through these embodied experiences that we come to feel the disruption of the status quo, and the unsettling of neutrality and taken-for granted assumptions of which Madison writes. All the while, the ways in which power operates relationally and systemically is brought into focus through the criticality of collaborative ethnographic song and the story narrated within.

Research-informed theatre typically involves conducting in-depth qualitative interviews with participants on a particular topic and then utilizing the interview material to develop a theatre script. While doing my own doctoral research at the University of Toronto (Toronto, Canada), I was also an artist-researcher on an arts-based project called, “LGBTQ Families Speak Out.” Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and headed by Principle Investigator, Tara Goldstein, this project involved conducting 37 video-interviews with, 2SLGBTQI+1 families and young people across Ontario (Canada) about their experiences in public schools. Then, the findings from the interviews were shared in various ways with pre-service teachers, teachers, community educators, and other 2SLGBTQI+ families (

One of the ways we shared the project findings was through a 90-minute, multi-media, research-informed theatre production we created called, Out at School.2 We gave 3 three performances of Out at School at Toronto Pride (2019), as well as shorter sections of the play when it was in progress at academic conferences in Canada and the USA, LFest in Wales, UK, and at an elementary school in Toronto. Out at Schoolincludes a set of verbatim monologues, colourful illustrations that were used as backdrops for the scenes in the play, and three songs, which I composed and recorded. These songs are called “Pushing the Envelope” (2017), “Let Love be the Way” (2018), and “Risk Hope” (2019).

When Tara first asked me to compose these songs for Out at School, of course I enthusiastically agreed to take on this exciting work. After all, I had been writing my own songs for a couple of decades at that point. But, I had never composed songs for a theatre production before and I wasn’t sure how to go about it. I had no idea where and how to start! But, after taking some time to think it through, it occurred to me that I could use the research skills I had been developing during graduate school to accomplish the task. I put on my “researcher’s hat” and went to work.

The coding process I developed is similar in some ways to coding a qualitative interview. This process, however, involves a 3-layer method of analysis. First, I read over each theatre script in the set of plays in its entirety. During this first read-through, I survey the scripts with a “bird’s eye view perspective” to discern the overall impression or arc of the plays together as a whole. This level of coding is like a broad sweep of the collective scripts. In this level of analysis, I discern the tone and feel of the scripts while documenting the predominant themes, ideas, or concepts. I call this first layer of coding “macro-coding.”

Second, I re-read the set of scripts again, coding for specific anecdotes or stories. I call this second layer of coding “narrative coding.” Here, I focus on particular accounts or stories of lived experiences that are narrated in the play. In this second read-through, I highlight the narrative sub-plots throughout the set of plays.

Third, I re-read the set of plays again and pinpoint key phrases, metaphors, similes, idioms, descriptive phrases, and words that particular characters in the scripts say that stand out as thought-provoking, compelling, evocative. These codes are connected in some way to the overarching themes that I make note of during the first macro-layer of analysis. I call this level of coding “micro-coding” and I use these micro-codes as actual lyrics in the song.

To compose lyrics, I set up a typical Westernized song framework on a word document on my laptop. For example, a framework might look like this:

Verse (sub-theme) Chorus (sub-theme) Verse (sub-theme) Chorus (sub-theme) Bridge (sub-theme) Chorus (sub-theme) I replace the word “sub-theme” with themes that emerged from my coding process from the theatre scripts. Adding these sub-themes to each section of the song helps guide what I write for each section. I then compose lyrics that align with each sub-theme, while including, where possible, verbatim key phrases and words from the scripts that support each sub-theme. As the lyrics begin to materialize, I begin experimenting and improvising on my acoustic guitar and with my voice until I find chords and a vocal melody that works to support the message in the song.

I don’t know how to explain this process clearly in words except to say that this experimenting and improvising is listening-feeling work. I am listening and feeling through my body as I experiment and improvise, searching for the moment when a feeling surfaces that aligns with the emotionality of the message—in my body as I play my guitar and, in my throat, as I sing. There must be a certainty to the listening-feeling I experience, an affirmation that the vocal melody, supporting chords, and the arrangement of the lyrics and the music convey the message and the feelings I want to convey. Because I understand from my own experiences as a genderqueer person that how someone’s experiences are interpreted and represented matters greatly (Hall, 1998; Madison, 2012), I take care to match, as closely as possible, the music I am creating for the story I’m communicating in song.Taking care in my songwriting work means consistently paying attention to my own bodily responses as I compose and record and using those bodily responses to guide my creative decisions.

Taking care in my songwriting also means checking in with my collaborators—individuals, research teams—at every step throughout the songwriting and recording process. When I engage in songwriting projects for research-informed theatre projects, the “collaboration” in collaborative ethnographic songwriting occurs between myself and the playwright, not with the participants who were interviewed. This includes discussing lyrics, asking them about the feel and tone they want for the composition, and communicating about the production of the song, including the kinds of instrumentation and vocal arrangements that should be used to conjure and circulate the emotion of the story narrated in the song.

Knowing this, I draw on Fusco’s (2008) ethnographic work and her understanding of care. Instead of relying on the positivistic definition of accuracy which refers to ‘correctness in detail,’ Fusco proposes that we think with the Latin root of accuracy—accuratus—which is translated by the 1998 New England Oxford Dictionary as ‘done with care’ (163). Thus, when I compose, I attempt to make “some accurate comments about the everyday world” (163) in relation to the interview material included in the theatre scripts.

Some might contest this: that I should check directly with interview participants to ensure what they have said or the experiences they have shared is represented correctly in the song. From an ethical standpoint, I might agree with this. However, there are three reasons that I feel confident in this form of collaboration when composing songs for theatre. First, the songs are focused on themes and participants’ stories as a whole, rather than individual experiences. Second, when the script for Out at School was created, the team sent each participant the scripts so that they could review any part of their interview that was incorporated into the scripts. They were given the opportunity to edit, delete, or add anything to their interview before the script was finalized. Thirdly, anonymity of participants was protected through the use of pseudonyms, if they chose so.

Pushing the Envelope is the first song I composed and recorded for Out at School. The theme in this song—and an overarching theme throughout the entire play—is the idea that 2SLGBTQI+ families and students often find themselves in the position of having to explain their families, identities, bodies, pronouns, and relationships to school personnel. I also include some lyrics written in the form of questions, which invites listeners to do some of their own intellectual and emotional labour around some of the themes in the song. The questions invite them to consider their own identities, relationships, and family-building processes in relation to people who identify along the 2SLGBTQI+ spectrum, and how they might experience privileges or barriers in schools and society.

The lyric “we shall overcome” is a nod to the well-known, gospel-turned-activist song We Shall Overcome, a prominent anthem sung during the American Civil Rights movement. This reference is also an acknowledgement of the long tradition of singing in order to overcome adversity, galvanize community, and inspire social and political change. I also included several verbatim phrases from the theatre scripts. For example, the idea that we won’t always have to be “pushing the envelope,” and that we won’t have to engage in this kind of activism someday because queer and trans people and families will be a part of “the fabric of this world” are lifted directly from the monologues of Out at School.

Focusing on the same theme that 2SLGBTQI+ students and families must explain themselves to school personnel, Let Love be the Way is the second song I composed and recorded for Out at School. This idea of having to explain one’s identity and relationship builds on the work of trans scholar and visual artist, benjamin lee hicks’ (2017). hicks notes that the presence of 2SLGBTQI+ families and students is not—but should be—expected in schools. Let Love be the Way focuses on the privilege that some people have access to in relation to their gender and sexual identities, while highlighting the barriers that 2SLGBTQI+ people face. The lyrics comprise various questions—based on the stories in the script—that are directed at cisheterosexual individuals. I also incorporated some of the experiences I have had, as well as the experiences that some of my queer and trans friends have had in relation to having to explain our identities and relationships to others. In essence, the song invites cisheterosexual individuals to do some intellectual and emotional labour related to the questions posed.

The chorus references Lee Airton’s No Big Deal campaign. Airton developed the No Big Deal campaign in response to push-back that occurred from one particular white cisheterosexual (former) professor on the University of Toronto campus who refused to use students’ and faculties’ chosen pronouns. The song ends with an important question about what systemic change might look like in schools, rather than stopping at simply accommodating 2SLGBTQI+ families and students. This question invites listeners to think more deeply about the politics of power implicit in the word, “accommodation.” This question also asks audiences to consider what it might mean for 2SLGBTQI+ people to have to engage with a system that wasn’t created with them in mind.

Risk Hope is the final song I composed and recorded for Out at School. Risk Hope ties the major themes of the LGBTQ Families Speak Out project and Out at School together and to bring the play to a close. The idea of “hope” is a prominent theme in the play, especially near the end. The song drives home the point that storytelling—in all its iterations—is vital to creating social change. It insists that taking action—even in seemingly small ways—is a performance of activism and an expression of hope for a better world.

The song begins with a reference to “The Times They Are A-Changing,” a 1964 song by American singersongwriter, Bob Dylan. This is an acknowledgement that, still to this day, “the times” are constantly unfolding. It reminds us that society is in a constant state of becoming and moving forward—even if incrementally—towards equity and justice for all. In the bridge, I honour the scholarship of the late American cultural theorist and queer scholar of colour José E. Muñoz. His scholarship on queer performance and hope was integral to the composition of this song and to my understanding of the importance of telling queer stories through the arts.

“Queer” according to Muñoz, is “a rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world” (2009, 1).Hope, Muñoz claims, is an anticipatory feeling of the “not-yet” (3). He argues, “we need hope to counter a climate of hopelessness that immobilizes us both on the level of thought and transformative behaviors. None of this is to say that hope is easy to find or never misleading or potentially appropriated by reactionary agents and movements. Hope is a risk. But if the point is to change the world, we must risk hope” (Muñoz in Duggan and Muñoz, 2009, 279). The song, Risk Hope, is a rejection of the here and now and an insistence on the potential for another world. It is a call for us to resist settling for what currently is—the covert and overt ways that queer and trans folks and communities are marginalized—and an invitation to stand and face with hearts and arms wide open: “the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with possibility” (Muñoz, 2009, 1). This horizon of possibility is what we reach for; it is what we move towards, collectively.

Risk Hope is also a nod to the researchers of the LGBTQ Families Speak Out project, and the creative work and energy that infuses Out at School: “these words” that were carefully chosen from the interviews to craft the monologues; “these colours” that were meticulously selected to illustrate themes from the interviews that were used as a visual backdrop to the play; and “these songs” which were mindfully composed to narrate the participants’ experiences through music.

CES is a research method that allows people’s stories to be told in song. It is a process that accounts for people’s lived experiences and culminates in a sonic interpretation of those experiences. In song, we feel the realness of stories, of living, of life. This is the power of collaborative ethnographic songwriting.

To listen to Pushing the Envelope, Let Love be the Way, and Risk Hope, please go to:

1 2SLGBTQI+ stands for “Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex.” The “+” denotes the infinite ways people may choose to label their gender and sexual identities that are not captured in this limiting acronym.

2 The script for “Out at School” can be found in Goldstein, T. (2019). Teaching Gender and Sexuality at School: Letters to Teachers. Routledge. An updated version of the play renamed “This is Our Family,” can be found in Goldstein, T. (2021). Our Children are Your Students: LGBTQ Families Speak Out. Myers Education Press.

References Cherry-Reid, K. (2015). Singing queer: Archiving and constructing a lineage through song. [Master’s thesis, The University of British Columbia]. cIRcle. Cherry-Reid, K. (2020). Music to Our Ears: Using a Queer Folk Song Pedagogy to do Gender and Sexuality Education. [Doctoral dissertation, University of Toronto]. Goldstein, T., Salisbury, J., hicks, b.l., Reid, K., Koecher, A. & Baer, P. (2018). Inviting Startling Empathy Through Performed Ethnography: A Queer(ed) Collective Research Project. In Gallagher, K. (Ed.) The methodological dilemma: Creative, critical and collaborative approaches to qualitative research (pp. 171-191). Routledge.

Fusco, C. (2008). ‘Naked truths’? Ethnographic dilemmas of doing research on the body in social spaces. In K. Gallagher (ed.) The methodological dilemma: Creative, critical and collaborative approaches to qualitative research (pp. 159-184). Routledge. Gruson-Wood, J., Reid, K., Haines, J., Rice, C., & Chapman, G. (Forthcoming). ‘The Game of Queer Family Life:’ Exploring 2SLGBTQI+ parents’ experiences of cisheteronormativity, racism, and colonialism through digital storytelling in Ontario, Canada. Journal of Homosexuality. Hall, S. (1998). Representations: Cultural representations and signifying practices. Sage. Hauge, C., & Reid, K. (2019). A production of survival: Cancer politics and feminist media literacies. Studies in Social Justice, Special Issue: Civic Engagement and the Politics of Literacies,3(1), 118-141. hicks, b. l. (2017). Gracefully unexpected, deeply present and positively disruptive: Love and queerness in classroom community. Occasional Paper Series, (37). Retrieved from Madison, D. S. (2012). Critical ethnography: Methods, ethics, and performance. Sage. Muñoz, J. E. (2009). Cruising utopia: The then and there of queer futurity. New York University Press.

Reid, K. (2017). Pushing the Envelope. [song]. Kael Reid Music. Reid, K. (2018). Let Love be the Way. [song]. Kael Reid Music. Reid, K. (2019). Risk Hope.[song]. Kael Reid Music. Reid, K. (2022). “The Children’s Creative Voices Project:” Using Collaborative Ethnographic Songwriting to Express Musical Agency and Imagine New Worlds. The Recorder: Ontario Music Educators’ Association Journal, LXIV(3),10-18. Reid, K., & Goldstein, T. (2021). Queering classrooms and schools. In T. Goldstein. Our Children are Your Students: LGBTQ Families Speak Out (pp. 105-146). Myers Education Press.

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