Darren O'Donnell

[Theater Director/Writer]

“You never are who you are,
but you are who you are
with who you’re with.
Inhabitants of the ideal city:
Georgina from Patty Queen
Naomi at South Indian Dosa Mahal
Somebody’s kid whose parent is getting a pedicure

Darren O’Donnell didn’t start off working with children, but in the last few years his performances with children have become some of his best-known work, both in his elected home of Toronto and abroad. Haircuts by Children began it all: a performance piece that involves training children to be stylists, then having them take over a salon and give haircuts to people. The show traveled to London, New York, Dublin, L.A., Vancouver, Sydney, Terni, and other cities, always using local children.

In 2008 and 2009, his theater company, Mammalian Diving Reflex, was the artist-in-residence at the Parkdale Public School (Parkdale is a lower-income neighborhood in Toronto), and his work continued to move further away from writing, producing, and acting in plays, which is how he began his career, in the early 1990s, with Who Shot Jacques Lacan?

Before children, his work dealt with sex: at an all-night performance festival in Toronto, he debuted Slow Dance with Teacher, in which giddy participants slow danced with nice, neatly dressed teachers. He hosted make-out parties; he published a novel, Your Secrets Sleep with Me; and, in the past year, he began working with the elderly. He has always been preoccupied with race, politics, and what it means to live in a city.

O’Donnell is a single, forty-five-year-old straight man without children. His theater company has four part-time employees, spends much of its year touring, and can be counted on to produce some of the most exciting and revelatory theater in Canada—shows that live somewhere between the art of theater and life itself. He is a combination of producer, actor, writer, director, city planner, host, relational-aesthetics artist, louche uncle, neighborhood granny, and kid. He talks very quickly, in a staccato voice, and seems to care little about social decorum or potential embarrassment to himself.

In 2006, Coach House Books published his manifesto, Social Acupuncture, an emotional inquiry into theater’s oblivious, vain uselessness, and his own longtime complicity in it, and an idealistic search for something more relevant and revolutionary. The text was punctuated by his characteristic insecurity and self-flagellation, and has developed a cult following among theater and relational artists. His work has recently come to reliably resemble the “social acupuncture” of his dreams: art that, by pricking people, may “contribute to a healthy functioning social sphere.”

—Sheila Heti


THE BELIEVER: In Haircuts by Children, you get kids to take over a salon, and, after a bit of training, adults come and the kids cut their hair for free. It feels strange, like something one must have experienced before, but we haven’t. Do people who see the show recognize your political ideas around it—that children should have more rights, and that the project is about the question Can we trust children?

DARREN O’DONNELL: I think it’s clear. There are written materials. But a lot of people prefer to view it as confidence-building for the kids, or skills-building, like, “Oh! You’re making a bunch of future hairstylists.” We’re not so interested in confidence-building. I mean, it’s great if confidence builds, but there’s lots of ways to build confidence, and maybe that’s one of them, but that’s certainly not the main goal.

BLVR: What is?

DO: It’s to make this crazy encounter between the adults and these kids, and make the kids feel they’re in control, and to sort of provide another ontological possibility. Things can be very different if we allow for the participation of kids in a different way. The feeling of kids running around and having a good time at a family gathering—that vibe can be much more prevalent in the culture if we want it to be.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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