When we give kids more power, we allow adults an opportunity to be more vulnerable. And that’s exactly what the world needs, argues Creative Director Darren O Donnell.
You’re the founding director of Mammalian Diving Reflex. What’s your company about?
Mammalian Diving Reflex started in 1993. I trained as an actor initially. We did stage-based work with experimental scripts.
Around the year 2000, there was a movement in the visual arts in particular, and specifically around one theorist, Nicolas Bourriaud, who’s a French curator who wrote a book called Relational Aesthetics. That book laid the theoretical groundwork for artists who wanted to make a difference in the world but had kind of given up on the lefty, revolutionary idea of a vanguard.
He had described artists becoming more interested in ‘microtopias’ than in large-scale, utopian, centrally planned visions. So learning to inhabit the world in a better way is, I think, almost a quote. That inspired a lot
of my friends who were in the visual arts. There wasn’t much going on in theatre, so I started to look at how it could be applied to performance.
I began to do work in that realm, abandoned making script-based theatre, and then published a book called Social Acupuncture in April of 2006, which outlines some of the early thinking and why theatre might be actually a perfect place. Unlike many art forms, the audience and the performers are in the same space at the same time, so why aren’t they acknowledging each other and working together to do interesting things?
Is this where Haircuts by Children came about?
Yes, Haircuts by Children was one of the projects that was within this ‘social acupuncture’ realm. We had no idea that it would be this international hit that continues to tour today, nor that it would lead to a bunch of subsequent projects. But it was really fun to make. I enjoyed working with children much more than I’d ever enjoyed working with adults.
I’d spent a lot of time reading about relational aesthetics and that movement in the visual-art world. There was a project I really liked called The Rules of the Game, which was a very simple project. An artist, Gustavo Artigas, took two basketball teams from America and two soccer teams from Tijuana and got them to play each other. The soccer teams played each other and the basketball teams played each other in the same space at the same time. And he had four sets of cheerleaders. He was showing the co-existence of two cultures, essentially, in the same space.
I really loved that piece and loved the fact it was working with non-professionals, with young people, and that it occurred in a venue that was not a typical performance venue. I spent some time with that in my mind. Then there was a moment where I was in a place with a kid and some scissors. I tried to convince the kid to cut my hair. But the kid was too scared to cut my hair, and immediately the idea of the project arrived.
The first place we performed Haircuts by Children was in Toronto. We did it over the course of a month on four points of the compass — so downtown, east end, west end and the northernmost part of the CBD. We worked with kids at the local Parkdale Public School and got them trained as hairstylists. We spent longer than we spend now doing it, because now when we tour, it has to be quite quick. We basically trained the kids in the fundamentals so that they wouldn’t be frightened, and so that they would feel that they could be creative.
The kids run the whole salon—so they’re taking the bookings, sweeping up. We try to leave it all to them. We have rules that the trained hairstylist is not allowed to touch any scissors or clippers. We sometimes have them cleaning up and fixing, though. Kids will often leave a lot of hair, or they don’t notice. I like those touches.
We do a few things differently now. The first thing we ask the kids to do is make a list of all of the artforms they know. Then we ask them to list all the materials they know for each artform.
Then we propose the idea of relationships—social relations as a material. That’s what we say we do, and then we give the kids a bunch of examples from my practice and other people’s practices about relationships as a material. And we make it very clear that this is about the very strange relationship that is now occurring between you and this adult, where you have the power, you have the scissors very close to the eyeballs.
And it’s very awkward. There’s an intimacy here between a child and an adult who don’t know each other. And how do you navigate that intimacy when it’s very awkward? What do you talk about? We train them in small talk and how to have a bit of a bedside — or hair-side — manner.
Then we do an exercise called ‘What Kids Can’t Do’, and we ask them to list all the things they cannot do because they are children. First, we talk about the forum, and now this is the content, what we’re talking about in the show, the performance itself. They make a list of all the things kids can’t do because they are kids. Then we ask them to take positions on those things. Often there are conflicting positions within a class of kids, and we ask them to debate.
Things they’ll choose include not being allowed to smoke, not being allowed to gamble, not being allowed to get tattoos, not being allowed to vote, not being allowed to go on holiday by themselves.
Then it’s haircuts. We’ve focused on the forum, so that we understand this is a performance and what the materials are, and what makes this a performance and what the content of the performance is—children’s rights. And after that, we just cut hair.
What moments in these performances stand out as some of the most golden?
Sometimes somebody comes along with a hairstyle they’ve had for years and years, and the kids fuck it up, basically, but then the person likes and prefers their new cut. One guy in Vancouver had had the same style— he used to have a part, and it was really awful hair. The kids gave him a short haircut and a bit of a faux ’hawk and he’s rocked that ever since.
Another woman got her hair cut and the next day somebody came up to her and said, “What a great haircut; where did you get that?” And it wasn’t a crazy haircut or anything. It was just a good haircut.
The only bad things we’ve had happen are, I think on two occasions, people have just walked in off the street. Sometimes we’re packed with hundreds of appointments, and sometimes we’re scraping people off the street. This guy came in thinking he was getting a free haircut, and for whatever reason didn’t notice it was a performance and was shocked this kid had done this weird haircut on him. He’s mad and the kid doesn’t know what to do. I’m there, going, “Dude, it’s a performance. I thought you knew!” That’s happened twice.
Do the kids get paid for their haircuts?
There is often resistance to paying. If we’re collaborating with a school to do it, for whatever reason, they’re a little less open to paying kids. We have ways around that—we will do something like pay them all collectively so the whole class gets paid, and even then,
a school might insist that they donate it to charity. We’ll fight that, and say, “No, can we have a debate about how they can spend it? They have to spend it collectively,” so we’ve fought for the kids to have a pizza party or go to see movies together.
What other projects have you worked on with kids?
I did a bunch of projects called Parkdale Public School v. Queen West. Queen West is the kind of hipster- gentrifying area. Parkdale Public School was filled almost exclusively with kids who were immigrants, mostly from Asia, South-East Asia. There were a lot of Tibetan refugees, a lot of refugees from Vietnam. It was the children of those people I was working with, and really enjoying working with.
We created a ten-round encounter between the Parkdale Public
School students and artists in the neighbourhood—performances, public talks, public walks, dinner, dancing and a film screening. A while after these projects were finished, one of the kids got in touch and said, “What’s happening now?” I started a collective with him and his friends. Then we made work between them. The projects we developed together are now part of our touring repertoire, and each project must have what we call a ‘young Mammal’ or ‘junior Mammalian’. We also designed an umbrella project, which includes all the projects we made together plus a few new ones. It’s called TEENTALITARIANISM and it’s a festival within a festival of teen-oriented work or work made in collaboration with teens for an adult audience.
That’s the thing that differentiates the work I might make from other people who are making with or for kids: I’m not making it for kids. I’m making it for adults, at least, if not an intergenerational audience.
The collaboration with this particular group of young people is now seasoned on the road, and they’re co-directing projects with me—I’ve turned that into a model of working with young people, engaging with them in the cultural sector, that is based on the idea of succession, where you approach them as if you’re actually training them to take over your company and your job. This means there’s a different orientation towards the young people because now they’re colleagues.
We’re now trying to figure out how we can legitimately bring these young people into the company in leadership roles. Two of them are on the board. One of them is the president of the board. One of them is the HR person. She studied criminology. She’s very interested in reading contracts and reading legal policy stuff. One of them went to study accounting, and she’s our finance person. We have a real accountant when we need to be audited at the end of the year to balance the books. But they’re involved in all that kind of stuff.
What was your relationship with children like before you started working with them?
I didn’t have a relationship with children. I was just trolling around, looking for a performance idea I thought could be as interesting as The Rules of the Game. I had that in my mind for such a long time, and it was perfect in so many different ways. I was looking for something similar but obviously different.
The kids were secondary—it was more that they’re a population that is not often in contemporary cutting-edge performance as a material. Once I started working with them in that instance, and in other instances where it was mostly about the idea of fun, I started noticing the beauty of the intimacy that occurred. Adults and children don’t know each other, don’t spend too much time together, and they certainly don’t spend too much time in that kind of close proximity, navigating the kind of awkwardness that kids have to navigate. I thought that was very beautiful. Other people reported almost being moved to tears by that sight.
Another project called Eat the Street is a kind of Trojan horse: the kids are a jury that we drag around to a bunch of restaurants, and they evaluate the food and have an awards ceremony after two weeks. That’s the Trojan horse part, but the real part is an unusual community dinner between adults and children who don’t know each other. It’s an odd time. We’re able to materialise a vibe that you have at a really nice extended-family holiday dinner, where, although cousins are running around all over the place, they feel absolutely safe, and they’re in the basement, upstairs, the bedrooms, banging around, doing whatever they’re doing. And the adults are chill about it all. That was what it felt like.
My interest at the time was in how we make the social sphere more like that. Why are we so atomised? I think it’s gotten much worse, what with the effect of social media on our political polarisation, the distrust that’s happening, the shaming that happens online, the pointing fingers, the finger-wagging, all that.
The thing about children that I try to mobilise most often is that children are very odd human beings that are not quite human. They don’t have the same rights as adults. They’re the last visible minority to whom you can still discriminate. You can still discriminate against them legally: they can be banned from places. That’s a big one. You can forbid them certain magazines. Sometimes it makes sense, but overall, they are a certain kind of thing. The parents or adults, when they’re dealing with kids, are forced to do one of two things.
One: you can negotiate with them as equals. And, like anybody, just negotiate with them. Two: kids force you to act as an authoritarian or totalitarian. They force adults into this weird situation where you’re either an anarchist or an authoritarian. You have to control their bodies, as many adults do, and we have rules like shushing.
I’ve written a whole protocol based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: we’re not allowed to shush them, we’re not allowed to separate the two kids that are annoying us because they’re playing together. You can’t separate them because that’s against their freedom of association. You have to figure out how to be more interesting. The onus is on you. I like that kids force adults to be great people or to be assholes. They don’t give you a choice. You either negotiate or you are totalitarian.
I like seeing that many adults who think they’re super cool when push comes to shove, resort to being a totalitarian. I like that we’re dealing with that impulse in adults.
Tell us about your other project Nightwalks with Teenagers.
We made that project within the first couple of months of the new collective that was formed when one of the kids I mentioned earlier got in touch with me.
I would take them downtown and get free tickets to see performances. They would always insist on taking the hour to walk back to their neighbourhood, which surprised me. I thought kids were lazy, or whatever.
But these guys liked to walk. It was me and a couple of other adult chaperones who were quite lenient and would
let them play on scaffolding—and we would join them.
We’d have these walks back, particularly through the nightclub district, maybe at 10 o’clock at night. I noticed the kids were really enjoying the freedom to play—using the city as a kind of playground. And they were also very self-aware or self-conscious of the fact that they were a tribe of teenagers being observed by adults who were lining up to get inside nightclubs. So the kids would perform for them, or act out. And I thought all of that dynamic was interesting and fun.
So the way we make the project is that we explore the city with a group of kids, wherever we are. We tour with two senior Mammalian artists and two young Mammals who are now in their early twenties. We arrive in a place where we work with a group of kids. We do some of these same exercises: we talk about our work, about how social relations are material, that this is what this is, so they understand it as performance. Then we just wander around. What we as adults or artists do is keep an eye on what the young people impulsively do, but with our art-history knowledge or our performance knowledge, we can help contribute a frame or forum to it, so that it turns into a performance.
One of my favourite moments was in Bristol. We were in the middle of a wooded area, and one of the kids had to pee. He asked, “Can I go down there by those bushes and pee?” I said, “Sure.” So he peed, and during the performance, he would just stand there with his back to the path as if he were peeing. We’d get another kid saying, “Excuse me. There’s nothing to look at here, nothing to look at.”
That made the adults so anxious. It brought up all this weirdness about child protection and what children are allowed or not allowed to do.
In this context, it was very odd to have a kid peeing. But of course, any time you’re out romping around, somebody’s going to take a leak in a bush. It’s not a big deal.
We also just play—we invite a lot of adults to come and play. If it’s summer, we’ll bring water cannons or water pistols and have a water fight. But we try to watch what the adults are doing throughout the course
of this exploration, computise that as small performance moments, rehearse them and then do the walk.
Often, at the end, we all let off helium balloons with LED lights in them. We try to have moments of quiet intimacy. We also incentivise talking to the teens, so that if an adult talks to a teen and the teen is happy with that conversation, the adult gets a glow bracelet. That glow bracelet lets you do something else in the future, like take a path where you’re not going to get squirted by water pistols, or some other positive consequence.
How has your childhood affected the way you create?
It’s impossible to say, but my parents didn’t have the best marriage. My dad was a bit of a ladies’ man. He was a phys-ed teacher, classic 1970s curly hair, half Italian and half Irish. But my mother really wanted
to maintain the illusion of the TV show Father Knows Best. She cites that all the time. To her, that was
the ideal, and she was constantly failing. The problem was that nobody was acknowledging it. I knew what was going on, to a certain extent. I walked in on my dad making out with somebody when I was nine. To me, adults always just seemed like the ultimate bullshit artists. They were hypocrites. And they weren’t truthful.
Teachers also seemed to wield this enormous amount of power for no good reason. Most of them weren’t as smart as I was. That’s what it felt like—they were stupid or not nice. That adult hypocrisy drove me crazy.
Even as I grew older, within a family milieu, I was always at the kids’ table. I didn’t want to sit with the adults.
I thought they were boring, even in my late teens and early twenties. That was never anything I aspired to. So I was always hanging around— I was either in the kitchen with the women and children, or with the children playing. Those were warmer environments.
What do you think it is about young people’s perspectives that can help the world?
I think it’s the same thing as the importance of making buildings accessible for people who are disabled. What’s the point of including people with intellectual disabilities. Because we have to. How can we not? Anybody who is part of an excluded or marginal population, we have to figure out how to include them, because it’s the right thing to do.
In Toronto, there’s an urban planning organisation called 8 80. Their premise is that if you make the urban environment or landscape accessible to people who are age eight and age eighty, then everybody is included.
Laws are currently written for the rational adult person who understands that they come to the market and they sell their labour, and they have to negotiate, and they have to sometimes fight for the right to be paid fairly. And this idea of the liberal political subject is the person around whom most things are developed. That person excludes a lot of people.
The jurist and legal scholar Martha Albertson Fineman talks about vulnerability as the idea around which we should develop the ideal of the typical subject, the typical political subject. It’s actually a vulnerable person, and we’re all quite vulnerable and we’re all one minute away from a heart attack, a brain tumour, or a stroke, or being hit by a car, or falling down steps.
It would benefit us all if vulnerability were the idea around which the typical person was understood to be. I think children are that way too — if we figure out how to include children in much more of the decision-making in the world, then the decisions we make will be much more amenable to much more of the population.
Those are the big philosophical reasons to include kids. Kids also have a natural tendency to demand fairness. And they really recognise when there’s inequality or when their portion is not as big as their friend’s. They’re very sensitive to that. And they’re very open to redistribution; most of them are just little socialists. I think that understanding, the way they understand that fairness, is really visceral, and I think we should be bringing that to the table.
Even the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the committee that developed that treaty and
still monitors how countries are compliant, recognises that kids have a different kind of ethical and moral compass than adults. Kids aren’t concerned about somebody’s religion if there’s a game of tag that needs to be played. And with that kind of outlook, they can bring people together.
A happy kid on a public bus can unite the people sitting around it in shared eye contact and happiness, and help people talk. The mere presence of kids levels the playing field. And people are kinder to each other. Nobody wants to have a freak-out or a temper tantrum or scream at a colleague if there’s a kid around. It might be difficult, but you do try to be a better person in the presence of young people.
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