In 2006, Darren O’Donnell – an artistic director of Canadian theatre company Mammalian Diving Reflex – gathered a group of 8-10-year-olds for an unusual project. Twelve years, 40 shows and a book later, Haircuts by Children is still touring, calling the Gold Coast’s HOTA home on September 29 and 30. But how did it come about?
“I was at a conference in the kitchen, and there was a kid there with a pair of scissors. I thought it would be funny if I asked him to cut my hair,” says Darren. “I thought he would find it fun, but he was actually really nervous. It got me thinking about how I could devise a context where kids would be able to enjoy that and have the skills to do it.”
Darren explains that, at the time, people were exploring unusual collaborations in the performance art world. Over a decade later, however, Haircuts by Children proves just as popular as it was when it started.
Visiting different locations around Australia and the world, Mammalian train local kids to cut, colour and style adults’ hair before unleashing them on the (willing) patrons of cultural and arts festivals.
Mammalian approach the training sessions in a non-hierarchical way, with a strict protocol for how they collaborate with children. Based on the simple principle of treating children the way they would treat an adult – no shushing or separating them from one another as punishment, for example – and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Mammalian’s training sessions set the standards for the program and provide a fun context for the children to do whatever they like.
“We only train them for as long as it takes for them to feel slightly confident, which is typically two to three days,” Darren explains. “In the crash course we suggest that the kids ask what kind of style the adults would like and they do their best to achieve that. I am often surprised by how much they can learn in that time.”
Darren adds that the adult ‘customers’ will usually agree to do something a little crazy and accept that something different is going to happen to their hair. Sometimes, he says, adults who have had one style for years and years are surprised by how much they like their new do and decide to keep it.
“One of the things that’s interesting about the project is the bubble of intimacy that occurs between children and adults who don’t know each other,” says Darren. “In our culture we have a massive ‘stranger danger’ thing and there’s very little intergenerational contact, so we’re providing a safe, controlled way of getting kids and adults to spend time together and get to know each other.”
In his 2017 book ‘Haircuts by Children and Other Evidence for a New Social Contract’, Darren proposes that children should be more included in our society’s decision-making processes, and their influence and power to challenge the status-quo given more credit.
“Kids are leading the way in areas like advertising, yet they’re not compensated, so we’re arguing to understand society and economy and young people’s role in it,” says Darren.
It turns out, Darren isn’t the only one who sees the value and fun in a program like this one – the workshop for Haircuts by Children are full however there is still a chance to get your hair cut, styled or coloured (wash out) at HOTA.
“It’s so ridiculous, yet so completely obvious,” says Darren. “Any adult who has spent time with kids understand the desire to cut their own and other people’s hair, so granting them the privilege to cut hair – which is a very powerful thing – is momentous, yet very simple.”
A mini-fest of fun is scheduled from Sept 28 to Oct 1. Make a note in your diary:
- Haircuts by Children: Sept 29 and 30, 10am-2pm, at The Terrace. Bookings available online or just show up.
- Children are Stinky: Sept 28 – Oct 1, 10am & 12.45pm, ages 3-10. Adults $22, concession $14, kids $14, Family $60 (2A, 2C).
- Kids’ Comedy Hour: September 28, 11.30am, at Arts Theatre, ages 5-10. Adults $22, concession $12, kids $12.
- Adult Box Workshops: Sept 26-29, 9am-5pm, free, in the Paradise Showroom.
- Kids’ Box Workshops: Sept 28-Oct 1, 10am-2pm, free, in The Basement. Ages 7+.
- Boxwars Battle: Sept 30, 12-2pm, free at the Outdoor Stage.