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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Eat The Street: Is it theatre?

O'Donnell is part of his own documentary crew at Addis Abba

By Lindsay Schwietz 

A lot has been written about Darren O’Donnell. You can find him on the cover of Eye Weekly, a comprehensive article in Taste T.O., and even The Toronto Star. Just the mention of his name can incite debate about the value and purpose of his work, or the obsessive love of twenty-something women.

Can Darren O’Donnell and his company, Mammalian Diving Reflex’s newest work with children be considered theatre? Do his theories of Social Acupuncture and his attempt to break down our boundaries and force social encounters have a place in the Toronto theatre community?

Parkdale Public School vs. Queen Street West 2: Eat The Street is Mammalian Diving Reflex’s newest project, where a group of students from Parkdale reviewed eleven restaurants in the Queen Street West area. It all culminated in the awards ceremony at the Gladstone Hotel on May 11th. 

I had been to one of the dinners, at Addis Abba, an Ethiopian restaurant where we all shared platters of food and sat at a long table, mingling youth and adults. This involved being watched by the other diners in the restaurant, many sitting atop a higher platform peering down at us. Everyone of us at the table were "the players" - the flash of the camera every few seconds, the video in our faces asking us what we think, the audience witnessing an impromptu celebration of sorts. It was a collective experience, viewed by others, documented extensively and influenced by who was in the room.

Sitting in the back room of the Gladstone Hotel, it all seemed so anti-climactic. We are out of the public eye, in a room that looks a lot like any other small awards ceremony I’ve been to. Not what I had expected.

The Parkdale Pumas enter through the middle of the audience to the stage after a quiet thank you to all the sponsors by Artistic Producer Natalie De Vito, Darren O’Donnell and three of the students act as MC’s for the night. Darren talks about his lucky red socks before announcing the first award for Hottest Waiters is awarded to the Drake Hotel, who went on to win Best Overall Restaurant. They proceed to award Scariest Bathroom: Mitzi’s Sister because of the red light, Least Graffiti in the Washroom: Saigon Flower (causing the  little lady owner to look like she might cry with happiness onstage accepting it), and Coolest Chef: Matthew Matheson at Oddfellows because of his many tattoos. You can find full results on the Eat the Street Blog .

There were two dance breaks, by a brother and sister, doing traditional Indian dancing. There were images of the hottest waiters; video of the coolest chef showing off the many tattoos covering his body; O'Donnell attempting discussions onstage with the youth presenting the awards and them responding with awkward one-word answers. There was mention of some of the people in the room who were regulars to the dinners and supportive journalists. Some restaurants showed to accept their awards, some didn’t.

Darren O’Donnell’s past works with children, include the internationally touring Haircuts by Children, where youth were taught to cut hair, then gave out free haircuts to willing adults, and the Children’s Choice Awards, allowing children to experience art, theatre, dance, etc and give awards to their choice of categories. Both events share similarities to Eat The Street in their reliance on spectacle and media.

Jury members rate their culinary experience.

But the awards ceremony for Eat the Street was less about the spectacle and more about celebrating the people in the room, what is around them every day, their diversity and ultimately, their similarities. This was more community focused than a theatrical act and everyone present seemed somehow connected to the project.

Frankly, I was slightly disappointed. I wanted the drama, spectacle and grandeur. But I suppose that isn’t what Mammalian Diving Reflex’s Social Acupuncture wing of their company is about. According to their website, they “bridge gaps between people who may not ordinarily have any reason to form relationships. Simultaneous to its impact in the community, it functions as a laboratory of sorts for the performance work of the company, inspiring new techniques and approaches.”

This is the answer. The Eat the Street Awards Ceremony might have been more about a community coming together to share and less about theatre. But it still has theatrical elements and inspires future theatrical production. And it has taught me more about the community of Parkdale that I live in, the people around me, the children that run by me, the families that have recently immigrated here, the restaurants and ultimately about myself and how I fit into that.

Maybe if more theatre in Toronto had that impact on the audience – involved and taught the community – instead of rerunning the same past successful productions over and over again, theatre would hold a more important and impacting place in general society.

21 comments:

Darren O'Donnell said...

hey Lindsey,
thanks for checking it out.

I'm glad you liked the neighborhood vibe of the final show but i have to agree with you that some more spectacle would be nice. But the problem is a big but simple one: no time. Because the jury comes from a bunch of different classes we can't get any in-school time with them. Another problems is the size of the group - trying to whip up a performance with 30 seasoned pros would be a challenge, but 30 13-year-olds??? yikes!

i think for now it's going to have to remain a nice cozy earnest neighborhood experience that's meaningful to insiders only. I think for those who attended a number of dinners the meaning is much stronger. if you knew the kids and the restaurants a little better, it would be better. but i know that's asking a lot.

also - no, it's not theater. but it might be performance and it certainly is audience building. my hope is for Mammalian to be more than a theatre company, with lots of activities happening that feedback into our theatre stuff, but not all stuff needs to be identified as theater. nor should it be. and i also want to see how far we can push the work to see what else it becomes when/if it stops being theatre.

that said, we're currently developing two works that will be stage-based.

anyway, see you soon. I'm out of town. will be in touch when i get back.

Michael Wheeler said...

Congratulations to Lindsay on her first article for Praxis. When we make our fast approaching transfer to praxistheatre.com, we hope to have a lot more investigative arts journalism just like this.

Darren, to be fair, I asked Lindsay to look at Eat the Street in the context of theatre, even though it could easily not be. Mostly because this is a theatre blog and so I like to keep things focused.

Im interested in the distinction you make between performance and theatre, and how ETS is one and not the other. I think I agree, but I'd be curious to know how/why you draw that line.

Finally - my bad - was supposed to credit both images to Mammaian, which I did not:

All images courtesy of Mammalian

Darren O'Donnell said...

hey michael,

the line I'm drawing is just the standard one, nothing special, mostly referring to how the two canons have evolved (theater and performance). eat the street doesn't look like most of what is considered theatre, while it does look like a lot of stuff that has been filed under performance art or relational aesthetics or social practice (those three terms much more flexible and interchangeable than theatre). but we can only really talk about tendencies - theatre tends to have audience sitting and listening, performers doing things that are usually pretend or at least more or less repeatable night after night, there are lights, someone plays an audio cue now and again, etc etc. you know.... theatre.

Michael Wheeler said...

Theatre as repetition of the pretend sprinkled with tech.

I buy it.

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