MONTREAL, MARCH 23, 2011 – When Jody Wilson, a teacher at Westmount Park Elementary School first heard that Darren O’Donnell’s new project was entitled “Playgrounds on Fire,” she immediately took a step back.
After all, the last time she checked, fire and children simply do not mix. Yet, having worked with her students last year when he orchestrated an activity in which students operated a hair salon for an afternoon; Wilson knew that the visionary mind of O’Donnell was whipping up something unique.
O’Donnell is the Artistic Director of Toronto’s Mammalian Diving Reflex, a research-art atelier dedicated to investigating the social sphere, always on the lookout for contradictions to whip into aesthetically scintillating experiences, producing one-off events, theatre-based performance, theoretical texts and community happenings.
With the help of the students at Westmount Park, he was set to embark on his most exciting project yet.
Fortunately for the local fire department and the EMSB’s insurance broker, the title of O’Donnell’s project was not to be taken literally, but as a concept that the attraction that children feel towards fire and watching things burn is in direct contrast to adults who attempt to control and extinguish their curiosity.
Through Playgrounds on Fire, O’Donnell was set on empowering 75 students from Grades 5 and 6 not with matches, but with their voices, actions and thoughts.
“I work with kids a lot and I’ve noticed that adults spend a lot of time controlling kids and it seems to cause adults a great bit of anxiety when they don’t have control over the kids,” said O’Donnell. “Because it seems so crazy to be so afraid of that, I wanted to create a situation where they could do whatever they wanted and they were invited to scare adults, that it could be fun and that kids could be trusted to pick you up, carry you over, put you on the ground, have 20 of them running and jump over your head and that nothing’s going to happen.”
“It was all about the kids being in control of the adults,” said Wilson. “The roles were totally reversed.”
“They will run screaming en masse through the adults, they will pull out a mat and do a gymnastics routine, they will individually approach the adults, hold their hands and ask them the personal questions that children are always asking,” added O’Donnell before the performance. “Perhaps they will sing a song, ask the adults to lie on the ground while they ask for their trust and run amongst them, careful not to step on heads. The possibilities are infinite.”
The truth of the matter was that with the kids in charge, no one really knew what would happen. With the students from the National Theatre School of Canada lining up as volunteers, the fuse was already burning.
“One kid went up to an adult and simply asked him ‘Can I kick you in the shin?’ and another began to debate with a group of adults why children do not have the right to vote,” said Wilson. “They had the adults lay on the ground and then they ran in between them screaming, making the adults very uncomfortable.”
“It was awesome; we had to show them that they really can’t control us,” said Stella Palmquist, a student at Westmount Park. “We pulled the adults down and stood over them while whispering scary things and pointing at them. Some of them were laughing, but most looked like they didn’t know what to do. I think they were scared enough that they wanted to go away and didn’t want to be there.”
From noises to uncomfortable questions as well as the borderline torturous: encircling adults from above and dribbling saliva over their heads, a talent which is at its peak in elementary school, the children were ablaze with not one extinguisher nearby. “There weren’t any ground rules, “ O,Donnell said. “We brainstormed about what are some things that we can do physically, what are some things we can say which could scare them, what are some questions that we could ask. We followed whatever the kids wanted to do.”
“Honestly, we thought that this would be a disaster,” added Wilson. “We were amazed, the kids and O’Donnell pulled it off.”
While “Playgrounds On Fire” was not the usual class project, it was however, a triumphant success. “I think the performance was all about the children. When practicing, the adults and children were working together as equals,” added Palmquist. “The whole experience felt really good! We felt that after the performance, we could do anything.”