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Bellbird. Image: Sarah Walker

It feels like I am walking around in a thick fog. All I can see is white, as I gingerly move through a forest of dangling ribbons tied to bells that jangle with every step.

With no knowledge of this space, there is nothing to guide me. With no pathway to traverse, there is nothing telling me where I should move.  I can just step and guess – brushing my hands against the ribbons, stepping on other people’s toes – and listen to the jangling bells and children’s laughter. ‘Sorry!’ we say. ‘Sorry!’, awkwardly giggling as we bump against each other. But after a while, the sorrys disappear: we’re walking into each other so much that to keep apologising is senseless.

The work is Bellbird by Polyglot Theatre Company – a short twenty-minute installation performance tucked into ArtPlay, a little injection of joy. Before we enter, we are all – adults and children alike – asked to put on a blindfold, ingeniously made from a stuffed white pantyhose. It is comfortable to wear, but also creates a feeling of fogginess rather than darkness: we might be stepping into this space without vision, but not without light. And by blindfolding everyone, the space is democratised: the children are no longer being watched by their parents; the parents have no control over their children’s experience.

We’re all in this together, just stumbling through.


At this year’s Melbourne Fringe, I spend a night stumbling through the back streets of North Melbourne, chasing behind a dancer (Gareth Hart) as he twists his way between parked cars and down laneways, with two children – Jane and Venu – hushedly (or sometimes not so hushedly) speaking into a microphone.

‘I think I know how he’s just disappearing and stuff,’ Venu tells me, and his audience. ‘I’m pretty sure it’s because he’s a part of the Illuminati!’

‘Are many dancers members of the Illuminati?!’ I laugh.

The kids are, far and away, the most interesting and insightful critics working this festival.

We’re watching Infinitum for Field Theory’s Kids vs Art podcast. Field Theory are known for creating and presenting performance work in unusual spaces, and though this podcast, children are not only invited into ‘adult’ spaces, but are placed as a role of authority within that space. The kids take on this position of authority with gusto: they are, far and away, the most interesting and insightful critics working this festival.

Kids vs Art is, on its own, a delightful listening exercise, exposing the often unnecessary division between ‘theatre’ and ‘theatre for young audiences’. But there is also something more complex at play. By letting the children still fully be children, we remove the layer of self-censorship adult audiences often find themselves taking on when confronted with a work they don’t ‘get’. Instead, these children, who have proven themselves to be insightful, funny, and cuttingly critical, are able to read the work purely as it stands. The podcast reminds us not only to listen to children more – and that children are more intelligent and can take on more responsibility than we often assume ­– but it also reminds us to listen to ourselves more, too.

KidsvsArt HR promo

Kids vs Art. Image: Jason Maling

Kids vs Art shows many influences from the work of Canadian company Mammalian Diving Reflex, who regularly centre the autonomous voices and power of children within their work, particularly their piece Children’s Choice Awards, which passed down judgment on Melbourne Festival shows in 2008.  The company frequent Australian performing arts festivals, and this month they return with Haircuts By Children at the Melbourne Festival: the piece’s fifth time in Australia, but first time in Melbourne.

It’s confronting and it’s joyous, and it forces us to look at children more fully.

It is their most recognisable work: company artists work with local schools and hair salons to train the children not only in haircutting, but also in the business of running a salon. The children welcome customers at the door; the sweep the floors afterwards. And, no, there is no pretending in the work: these children are armed with scissors, clippers, hairspray, and glitter – and most participants invite them to use the full strength of their imagination.

Darren O’Donnell, MDR’s artistic director and the creator of Haircuts, describes MDR’s work as ‘social acupuncture’: art, he says, should feel somewhat awkward and uncomfortable in the moment, but should leave you feeling amazing.

Haircuts By Children. Image: John Lauener

Haircuts By Children. Image: John Lauener

And that is exactly what Haircuts inspires. While you’re in the piece (I had my hair cut at Launceston’s Junction Festival in 2011) you’re trying to navigate the space of being taken care of by children – while also being at their mercy. The children are excitable, crowding around different heads, grasping for scissors and hairspray, trying to figure out exactly the right angle to shave the shape of Australia into someone’s head. You have to navigate how much free will you’re prepared to relinquish to the hands of a child, as well as the conversation you have over the salon chair.

It’s confronting and it’s joyous, and it forces us to look at children more fully.


At the end of Bellbird, after we’ve taken our blindfolds off and explored the space again, the artists ask the adults to put their blindfolds back on, and the children to grab their adult’s hand. This, says the artist, is a chance for the adults to show their children how much they trust them – and for the children to show they can be trusted.

Attending alone, my arm is taken by a young boy I don’t know. It is, in a strange and beautiful way, more freeing than moving around the space alone. I no longer have to put my hands in front to feel my way – I’m not worried about my feet stepping on a child’s toes, or my hands brushing against a child’s face. The environment is controlled; the relationship is brief. But like both Kids vs Art and Haircuts by Children, it serves to remind us adults what good it does to place power in children’s hands, and listen to what they have to say.

Bellbird. Image: Justin Batchelor

Bellbird. Image: Justin Batchelor

Bellbird by Polyglot played at ArtPlay for the 2016 Melbourne Fringe, season closed.

Kids vs Art can be listened to on the Melbourne Fringe website or subscribed to via iTunes. Infinitum is discussed in episode 12.

Haircuts by Children by Mammalian Diving Reflex will be at the Melbourne Festival, October 15–23. Click here for more information and bookings.