Theatre? Art? Who Cares?

Thanks to some snarky tweets and clever googling by one Darren O’Donnell, artistic director of theatre company Mammalian Diving Reflex, I find myself spending a Sunday at LIFT’s Haircuts by Children.

Children tend to make me tense, so masses of them running around with scissors only adds to my hesitation over attending an event I don’t really believe is art and definitely don’t think is theatre.

But rather than walking into a camp Lord of the Flies, I’m welcomed (by kids) into a buzzing well oiled machine of creativity. Yes there are kids with scissors, but they’re confident and concentrating. One of them is discussing ideas for a shorter fringe with her “client” another is wielding a camera, a third is showing someone where he can get his hair coloured. Still, I’m convinced the event is a children’s activity, an opportunity for them to be artistic but not art for grown-ups. I’m wrong.

On meeting Darren, author of Social Acupuncture- A Guide to Suicide, Performance and Utopia,   I expect an all-the-world’s-a-stage attitude. But I quickly learn that his kind of theatre demonstrates the performativity of real life without claiming to capture normalcy (though unwittingly it does). It takes aspects of our everyday world and turns them into a show. Haircuts happen every day but not by children. So this event, which has toured globally, becomes a show for adults put on by kids.


After being trained by stylists, the children become the artistic material in their own show. Their characters are hairdressers and as participants in their performance, we play the role we usually do when we go to the hairdresser, modified to fit the script. The joy of the narrative is the communication between the children and their dynamic with adults. Since the kids have control, the adults are no longer authority figures, this makes Haircuts by Children socially relevant, participatory theatre, completely immersive and highly interactive.

According to LIFT “Haircuts by Children is a whimsical performance that playfully engages with the enfranchisement of children, trust in the younger generation, and the thrills and chills of vanity.”

I’m assuming “The thrills and chills of vanity”, means that participants will inevitably be nervous or as Darren put it “experience the dramatic tension” and this is true, but the chief success of this production is the way it explores the relationship between adults and children. A bond O’Donnell believes is particularly fraught in the UK and he’s not wrong. Though admittedly it’s sometimes necessary, the bureaucracy that governs adult-child interaction in this country fuels a paranoia that prevents one learning from the other organically.

Haircuts by Children however is an example of postmodern consciousness realised. It questions traditional ways of interacting and proposes new ones. It demonstrates something radical but suggests something basic, that we listen to children and give them a little more credit. It’s a utopian proposal with the knowledge that no utopia will ever exist or as the company put it “ideal entertainment for the end of the world”

Mammalian Diving Reflex has got some interesting new shows in the works including ‘The Best Sex I’ve Ever Had‘- a staged storytelling of sexual experiences by people over 65- and ‘600,000 Years’ a look at the often exaggerated rate of child abduction.

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