How does power in relationships work? This is a question that has always interested me. For my graduate thesis in Theatre Education, I looked at the work of Augusto Boal – the Brazilian theatre maker, political activist and social experimenter. From him, I learned to use "Forum Theatre" to help Ottawa children understand how to stop bullying. Later in London, I participated in workshops at "Cardboard Citizens" , a unique London-based theatre company using Boal techniques with and for people who are homeless.
What does the work of Augusto Boal, or Cardboard Citizens or an anti-bullying campaign have to do with disability or social exclusion? Plenty. At the heart of social exclusion and factors that marginalize some populations are issues of power. But often it is hard to identify and understand the mechanisms of power in our own society. Often we do not question unequal circumstances, so embedded are our assumptions of why some have power and others do not.
From Shakespeare, to Strindberg to Jacques Brel, theatremakers have always had a natural interest in the politics of power in relationships. It's the stuff of drama and conflict. But in Toronto, a new company of actors are going further to poke holes in our social assumptions. Darren O'Donnell, Artistic Director of the company "Mammalian Diving Reflex" calls it 'Social Acupuncture'.
Darren writes: In our Social Acupuncture work, we are exploring an aesthetic of civic engagement: the artistic use of the institutions of civil society - of community centres, schools, senior's centres, sports clubs, the media and public spaces. Civic engagement as an aesthetic uses the consensual participation of these institutions as material to create work that, seen from most angles, appears to be mostly not art, or even intervention, but that takes modest glances at simple power dynamics and, for a moment, provides a glimpse of other possibilities.
My life in London is made richer by my involvement as a trustee of the London International Theatre Festival, LIFT. Darren and the rest of Mammalian Diving Reflex came to LIFT last summer with a 'show' called "Haircuts by Children". A beauty salon in East London was taken over by 9-11 year olds who, after a week of training, offered free haircuts to anyone willing to trust a child with scissors in their hands.
Of course I went. Ronnie was the little girl who welcomed me to her salon station. "Would you like a haircut?" she asked politely. "Actually, I just had a cut last week", I admitted, "but I have a party this evening. Could you do a party hairdo for me?" Ronnie nodded firmly and seriously. "This season", she said, "it's all about big hair" and she gestured, holding her arms wide. "OK! Let's go for it, Ronnie!" After my hairdo was complete with backcombing and spray, Ronnie suggested that we try some temporary (spray-on) colour. I was game for that and here is a picture of the results.
Haircuts by Children was great fun, but it was also serious business and excellent social acupuncture. It was fascinating to watch these young children take on adult responsibility while their subjects swallowed fear and assumed a submissive role.
Mammalian Diving Reflex does a lot of work with children, but they also examine issues such as sex and seniors. The concept of social acupuncture has given me inspiration and ideas. Recently, I had a conversation with two distinguished women who are leaders in the UK movement to promote awareness of Autism. We decided to use our contacts in the luxury fashion industry to kickstart a photo campaign showing people with disabilities in aspirational roles with luxury goods. A person with down syndrome dressed in Dior, followed by an entourage of bellhops carrying shopping bags…..something over the top, but fun and fascinating.
Social acupuncture is a medicine that we all need. It balances power by flipping it. I want this for Nicholas, but I also want it for myself. I plan to keep watching the work of Darren O'Donnell and Mammalian Diving Reflex – they offer a cure for what ails us.