Australian Theatre Forum: International Collaborations Skype Conversation

by Jane

Getting My Haircut by Children at the Junction Regional Arts Conference

Our morning started with a Skype conversation between Lenine Bourke (Contact Inc) and Darren O’Donnell (Mammalian Diving Reflex ) on their international collaboration.

I first meet MDR at the Junction Regional Arts Conference in Launceston last year, where I attended haircuts by children.  It was an interesting experience.  I found the children who cut my hair rather timid, but they were probably feeding off my fear of hairdressers (it was the first time I’d been to a hairdresser since I was ten or so, and the first boy was so nervous he ended up asking someone else to do it).  The best part about the experience was the fantastic energy and crazy idea of being in a salon run by children: they took the bookings, they ran all the equipment, they wilfully whirred away at the electric razor – not on my head, but my friend Shaylee ended up with an undercut which, depending on who you asked, was a star, a map of Australia, or a road-killed cat.  One of the great things about the project, says Darren, is “adults and children who don’t know each other actually have a lot to say to each other,” and it was a really interesting experience getting to sit down and talk for forty minutes with children I didn’t know.

Mammalian Diving Reflex started as a theatre company, and then they moved into working with people, rather than performers.  Says Darren “We often work with non-artists as performers as participants.  We ask them to do what they do best.  We ask them to represent themselves and not be anything else, and we do that very theatrically.”

Darren’s book Social Acupuncture is a fantastic book on the philosophy of the company and how they work.  He explains that, like acupuncture, these acts of social intervention might be initially uncomfortable and awkward, but then they end up being good for you.  I very highly recommend it, and I would lend it to you, but I already lent it to someone and I haven’t got it back.

Much of the work is attached to placing children in positions they wouldn’t normally be in: Festival judging, food criticism, hairdressers, scaring adults.  Rather than this work being created for children, as Lenine Bourke explains is typical of shows in Australia created by children, the work by MDR positions the children as “valid artists that adults and arts industry would want to come and see.”

Talking of the juries of children that the company puts into arts festivals, Darren explains “When you sit and watch a show through the eyes of a kid, and you see the work through there eyes, you actually see it in a different way.”

The company is currently working with a group of teenagers who have dubbed themselves the Torontonians, who were in the original co-hort of MDR work in 2005.  Now, Darren is working with them to give them a company where they are producers and artists, “The bottom line with empowerment,” he says, “is economic empowerment.”  The Torontonians have been working with the company since they were ten, so they very closely understand the company, and Darren makes sure that he takes them to events in Toronto, pays them for their work.

The company also works with seniors (The Best Sex I’ve Ever Had), professors at university (Slow Dance With Teacher), and Lenine and Darren are working on several projects at the moment, including a version of The Best Sex I’ve Ever Had with people with a disability.

Talking about the relationship and collaboration Darren and Lenine work on, Darren says it works because they “Keep it loose, keep it generous, and don’t lock it in to shows, it keeps going.”  Lenine talks about the “Low pressure but high concentrate collaboration.  A very slow partnership which mostly started to happen after the first Launceston trip.  It also comes from sharing knowledge and all of the people we know.”

These works – working in a community but not labelled as “community arts” – creates work which is different and interesting, lying outside of the norm of what we would usually call “theatre.” Lenine and Darren collaborating across oceans, and collaborating with non-artists in work which is art for both a typical and atypical audience, brings art in to new possibilities.  I really hope my last experience of their work isn’t a hair cut and a purple streak.

Lenine closed the session saying: “There’s no kid saying I want less freedom: we just have to make a world where we can have it happen.”