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Kids get empowered with Haircuts By Children

By Lindsay Gibb

My hairdresser is unlike any I’ve had before. Sure, she’s in grade six, but it’s not her age that sets her apart from regular stylists. No, Diem Vu is different because she’s probably the nicest and least pretentious hairdresser I’ve ever met.

How did I find this amazing stylist? She was brought to me by artist Darren O’Donnell and something he calls Haircuts By Children. Every weekend in the month of May, grade 5 and 6 students from Parkdale Public School were placed in a different salon in Toronto to give free haircuts to willing participants. Soon after I booked myself in for a haircut, I found that the majority of people I spoke to about the project had two questions: why were kids cutting hair, and was I really going to put my mop in the hands of a child? This skepticism from 20- and 30-somethings made me wonder what my mother would think. When I finally told her a few days before the event, her worried response was, simply, “that doesn’t sound like a good idea.”

As it turns out, it is a great idea; one thought up and executed by O’Donnell and his theatre group Mammalian Diving Reflex, which he runs in collaboration with partner Naomi Campbell. It first came to him while he was working-or avoiding work-at a youth conference. He ran into a kid who was carrying a pair of scissors and he tried to convince him to cut his hair. The young boy didn’t want to be his barber, which made O’Donnell think about people’s reluctance to do things that they’re not traditionally “supposed” to do. And so Haircuts by Children was born. As much as the project is a political statement on how adults should allow children to be more engaged in the political process, and not shut them out simply because they are young, it is equally an artistic experiment in putting people into situations they wouldn’t normally be in. O’Donnell is more interested in working with people’s day-to-day impulses than giving the people he works with a pre-determined way to create a performance piece. And so, Haircuts by Children is a performance piece that culminated at the Harbourfront Centre for the Milk Festival, where spectators could come by and watch the 10- to 12-year-olds mess with adults’ coifs. One thing that O’Donnell like’s about this project is that it is conceptual. “You don’t have to be here to know what happened.”

As much as one could easily imagine what the inside of a salon with kids manning the scissors would look like, being in the chair is still a surreal experience. As I leave the salon with a beautiful short bob that friends say looks like it came right out of the 1920s, O’Donnell excitedly tells me that there’s a kid inside shaving the head of a man who smells of booze. He doesn’t want to miss it, so he runs back in. Vu comes up to me with a package of fuzzy peaches and offers me one. I accept and thank her again for the lovely haircut. As much as a drunk getting his head shaved by a kid sounds like a good time, I can’t wait to show off my cute new ‘do.

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