Mammalian Diving Reflex

Mammalian Diving Reflex is a Toronto-based not-for-profit charity and performance company. We create community-based events that are free and open to the public in Toronto, in Canada, and around the world.

Our Impact Why We Exist

Mammalian Diving Reflex facilitates an equitable society by creating innovative, participatory artistic experiences in collaboration with artists, non-artists and civil institutions.

· We create and produce a variety of cultural products, including theatre and performance events, media and film, public and site-specific installations, theoretical texts and publications, and social engagement models.

· We work frequently with young people to facilitate their equitable participation in the cultural and public sphere, offering training, mentorship, and employment opportunities.

· We offer our services and expertise to cultural and educational institutions, arts festivals, local governments, foundations and corporate clients, in Toronto and around the world.

Our Story What We Do

History of Organization

Mammalian Diving Reflex was founded in 1993. Between 1993-2003 we primarily produced stage-based performances by Artistic Director, Darren O'Donnell. In 2003 the company began to diversify and generate work in a multitude of other forms, focusing on “social acupuncture:” playful, provocative, site and social-specific participatory performances with non-actors of all ages and demographics, designed to bring people together in new and unusual ways. Following the publication of Darren’s book, Social Acupuncture (2005), which established a theoretical foundation for this new direction, Mammalian was propelled onto the international stage with its touring hit, Haircuts by Children (2006), appearing on the radar of arts festivals and institutions across the world. In response to the company’s successful work with youth, and at the request of local teen Sanjay Ratnan, who wanted to continue working with the company, Mammalian received support from the Metcalf Foundation in 2011 to formalize Young Mammals, a long-term youth mentorship and succession plan for our teen partners based in Parkdale, Toronto. Over the course of 10 years, Young Mammals will prepare this generation of teens to take over the company.

Accolades and Accomplishments

Mammalian Diving Reflex has received numerous awards and support for its engaging collaborations with the community, children and youth. Most recently, the company was named a finalist for the inaugural Ellen Stewart International Award (2016), an award for social engagement with youth through theatre, and named the recipient of the Toronto Community Foundation's Vital Youth Award (2013), the inaugural Neighbourhood Arts Network TD Arts Diversity Award. Mammalian received the Toronto Community Foundation’s Vital Toronto Award in 2014. In 2012, The Mammalian Protocol for Collaborating with Children was awarded the Children’s Rights Supporter Award from the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, nominations for which were reviewed by a jury of young people. In 2010, Mammalian won Harbourfront Centre’s Fresh Ground New Works Award to premiere Monster Makers, the company’s first performance created for child audiences. After being shortlisted for three consecutive years, in 2009 Mammalian won the Toronto Arts Foundation’s Arts for Youth Award. In 2007 and 2008, Mammalian was the recipient of the Growing Active Kids award from the Toronto Community Foundation. Mammalian also received an award from the Toronto Community Foundation’s Simon Family Fund in 2008. Prior to Mammalian’s ‘social acupuncture’ work, Artistic Director, Darren O’Donnell won the Pauline McGibbon Award for directing (2000). He has been nominated for a number of Dora Awards for his writing, directing, and acting, winning (with Naomi Campbell) for their design of White Mice. His play [boxhead], which continues to tour, was nominated for a Chalmers Award, and O’Donnell received a Gabriel Award for excellence in broadcasting for his CBC radio piece Like a Fox. Mammalian has presented its collaborative work with adults, children and youth in more than 50 cities nationally and internationally with great success, and the company is regularly recognized at home and abroad by participants, peers, colleagues, institutions, fans and the press for their innovative, engaging and entertaining performances.

Our Programs How We Do It

Our artistic vision and all of the work that Mammalian creates involves collaboration with diverse communities including children, youth, adults, and seniors from various cultural and economic backgrounds. We create performances in Canada and abroad that engage the audience as active participants; induce encounters between strangers; blur the line between art and life; and utilize and prove the generosity of the social sphere. Our performances with children and youth include: Haircuts by Children, Ballroom Dancing, The Children’s Choice Awards, Eat the Street, Nightwalks with Teenagers, These Are the People In Your Neighbourhood, as well as numerous collaborations with the Torontonians. Each involve collaborating with youth to create unusual encounters between them and people of all ages, usually in atypical public spaces. Slow Dance With Teacher, Nuit Market, Diplomatic Immunities and Q&A involve collaborations with adults from various groups. For Nuit Market (2010) we worked with the Toronto Weston Flea Market, the Downsview Flea Market and the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee; All the Sex I’ve Ever Had engages adults over the age of 65 who are asked to share intimate details of their personal lives with each other and the public.

In 2011, with the support of the Metcalf Foundation, the company's youth wing, Young Mammals, was officially launched, to support our long-term artistic collaboration and mentorship with Toronto youth. The past four years have comprised of activities largely devoted to training and skills-building in art creation, production, and coordination. Now equipped with basic “arts worker” knowledge, the Young Mammals - some of whom have now been working with the company for 6 years, since they were just 12 years old - are putting their training to use by creating and producing new artistic projects, including Textures of Toronto (2015), Get Out of My Room (2014), Awks: Awkward Dance Party (2013-14), How To Hook Up (2013), Dare Night Lockdown (2012) and Producers of Parkdale (2012-13). The Young Mammals mandate is: To collaborate with Toronto’s young people to create artistic work for adults and youth, with a long-term vision toward youth capacity-building and strengthening of the youth-arts industry, while also acknowledging and rewarding youth for their contribution to the growth and success of the company by creating mentorship and employment opportunities for them.

Mammalian Diving Reflex’s performances devise artistic and social methods to bridge gaps between people who may not ordinarily have any reason to meet or form relationships. Seen from some angles, these collaborations may not appear to be art, but rather offer glances at simple power dynamics and, for a moment, a glimpse of other possibilities. Here are three examples.

Haircuts by Children

Haircuts by Children is a whimsical relational performance that playfully engages with the enfranchisement of children, forcing trust in the younger generation, while playing with the thrills and chills of vanity. Haircuts by Children engages students from public schools between the ages of eight and twelve as paid collaborators, who offer free haircuts in real hair salons to the public as a performance event. The performance challenges power hierarchies by creating a unique and intimate social experience between an adult stranger and a child, where the child holds the power in the form of sharp scissor blades. Haircuts by Children invites the consideration of children as creative and competent individuals whose aesthetic choices can be trusted. The idea that kids should be allowed to cut our hair evokes the same leap of faith, courage and understanding required to grant children deeper citizenship rights. For many it is actually less terrifying to contemplate allowing kids to vote.

Funding and Program Partners

Haircuts by Children was initially funded by the Laidlaw Foundation, and its presentation abroad has been supported by Touring and Operating funding received by Mammalian Diving Reflex from Canada Council For the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, the Toronto Arts Council and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. This program has been presented in collaboration with national and international theatre festivals, art festivals and galleries.

Program Impact

Haircuts by Children premiered in Toronto in 2006, and has since been performed in more than 30 cities worldwide. We collaborate with children who have limited access to arts programs, are new to the city, are from immigrant families, lower income families and Aboriginal communities. The alterntive learning environment, one based in creativity and social engagement, offered by Haircuts by Children, has shown benefit particularly to kids with learning or developmental disabilities, and those struggling with the learning methods or social structures within the conventional classroom setting. Principals and teachers have reported that many of these children have improved confidence and performance at school, as well as better relationships with class-mates, during and after participation. As a result, Haircuts by Children has also impacted teachers who have noted and recognized the value of arts programming in an educational setting, and who, as a result have pursued further arts programming and projects.

Toronto's Vital Signs® indicator(s) addressed by Program

Haircuts by Children addresses the following Vital Signs Indicators:

1) "Youth-led community organizing (ventures where youth draw on other youth, their communities and their own experience) has strong support in the city." Mammalian understands the value of youth in the community, and the key role they play in the cultural and economic growth neighborhood. 

2) "In an era of declining enrollment, Toronto schools need to be connected to the broader community."

Mammalian serves this connection and acts as bridge between the community and the school.

3) "In 2010, almost 4 in 10 (38.2%) of youth (age 12 -19) in the city of Toronto reported that they were inactive during leisure time." Mammalian programs like Haircuts by Children offers youth exciting activities that are both physically and intellectually engaging.

Participant Vignette

"On behalf of the School Councillors, we want to dearly thank both Mammalian Diving Reflex and LIFT [London International Festival of Theatre] for giving us the opportunity of a life-time. it was a pleasure of you to give us the responsibility to cut both adults and children's hair. Thank you very much, your project has given us the confidence to reach for our goals and to make progress in our lives."

AWKS: Awkward Dance Party Series

AWKS was a monthly dance-party series and arts production training program held between September 2013 and July 2014.  Led by the Torontonians, a teen collective and Mammalian Diving Reflex’s long-term youth partners based in Parkdale, AWKS was the logical extension of last year's project, How to Hook Up, in which we befriended young artistic creators from 5 priority neighborhoods. The series served to strengthen these relationships and spark new connections between youth in the arts, while also providing context for skill-building and mentorship. 

Funding and Program Partners

AWKS was a collaberative production of The Torontonians and The Mammalian Diving Reflex. Funding for AWKS was provided by The Toronto Community Foundation's: Vital Youth Fund, The Ontario Trillium Foundation, The Metcalf Foundation and The Hal Jackman Foundation.  

Program Impact

AWKS created over 50 paid youth opportunities, 10 youth leadership opportunities, 8 high quality events, a city-wide audience of over 30 young people, and over 20 performance opportunites for young people to showcase their talent. Throughout the program, the youth leaders’ built up a strong work ethic, level of professionalism, practical skills and a capacity for critical thinking. During post-program evaluation, 100% off the youth reported they felt more confidant, knowledgeable, and experienced in leading projects. Additionally, young artists gained the opportunity to refine their performance skills infront of a peer audience. As Lasasha Nesbeth, age 18, said, "I couldn't thank [Mammalian] enough for helping me develop my talents and getting to showcase them at the AWKS parties!"

Toronto's Vital Signs® indicator(s) addressed by Program

1) Close to 40% of boys and almost 30% of girls (5 -11 years old) in Ontario are overweight or obese...increasingly sedentary lifestyles and the impact of technology” are factors in this occurrences.

AWKS created an environment for young people to dance (which is truly the ultimate form of exercise) and recalibrated relationships to technology through instruction in video production. 

2) 58% of parents report that their children participate in sports and recreation activities outside school (up from 56% in 2008), but participation varies widely by gender and by family income”.

AWKS provided an alternative to traditional youth recreation activities, particularly for the artistically minded, and was free to the participants.

3) The youth unemployment rate in the city of Toronto averaged 20.75% in 2012 (up from an average 17.2% in 2011: A TD Economics report warns of the long-term “scarring” effects of this chronic un- and under-employment for the Province’s young workers and for the economy as a whole”.

AWKS provided short-term youth employment opportunities with lasting impact. 

Participant Vignette

“[With AWKS,] we were trying to accomplish something large; we stepped into unfamiliar territory, and then we kept taking steps towards our goal. The progression was nice to see - how we mature and how our attitudes [about work] changed during this process.” - Ngawang Luding, 18 years old

Promises To A Divided City

Promises to a Divided City was an immersive theatre production created in collaboration with the Theatre Centre in 2014, featuring over 30 youth from across the GTA. Promises addressed University of Toronto Professor David Hulchanski’s research on Toronto’s growing social and economic divides, and his grim hypothesis that the middle class will disappear by 2025. The yearlong production involved workshops with youth exploring Toronto’s urban dynamics and Hulchanski’s Three Cities Within Toronto thesis, story/script writing, as well as public speaking and presentation skills. The highlight of the show was a room that featured 30 youth performers from 10 different neighbourhoods (Jane and Finch, Lawrence Heights, Scarborough, and many others) sharing personal stories about growing up in the suburbs. Subsequently, each audience member was asked to make a “Promise” to go visit sites in either North York, Etobicoke, or Scarborough. 

Funding and Program Partners

Promises to a Divided City was a collaborative production between Mammalian Diving Reflex and The Theatre Centre, with additional support from the Toronto Arts Council.

Program Impact

By the end of the project youth expressed they better understood how urban socio-economic dynamics operate in the city, and that they had gained new meaningful connections with peers and adults from various neighborhoods. 

1) The City increased its funding for arts and culture in 2013 … The impetus for the new investment came from the young artists and activists who mounted the successful Beautiful City campaign, lobbying the City to charge a Toronto billboard tax and direct the proceeds to fund art in the public space.

Promises demonstrated the potential for art to inform conversation and determine social practice. 

2) Community and Faith Walks give TDSB teachers an intimate experience of their students neighbourhoods, and help them better reflect that lived experience in their teaching and learning practices.

Promises demonstrated the potential for immersion and the exchange of lived-expereience to increase understanding of our Divided City. 

3) The 2013 Where's Home report describes the significant drop in the number of low-income tenant households in Ontario after the late 1990s. This reduction was not due to economic improvement, but more likely to residents in marginal housing being pushed into informal, unconventional living arrangements (immigrant families doubling and tripling up in one apartment; young people staying on a friend’s couch, etc.). 

Promises gave voice to marginalized narratives, deepening our understanding of the manifold effects of a Divided City. 

Participant Vignette

Tenzin Chozin, 18 years old, said: “I feel like I understand the economy better, and how money flows.”

What You Can Do

Young Mammals

Activities a donation will support

Young Mammals is our local Toronto initiative dedicated to long term work with youth, including The Torontonians, our Parkdale-based youth collective, and our growing youth networks across the GTA. We work with young people to intervene into the city’s urban dynamics to level out the playing field for young people to be apart of Toronto’s bourgeoning creative industry. Over the course of four years, we’ve created over 100 paid artistic opportunities for youth, engaged young people from 10 different neighborhoods across the GTA (with more than half designated as Neighborhood Investment Areas); facilitated youth-led projects through intensive training and mentorship programs; and built a network of support and partners that include the Art Gallery of Ontario, Art Starts, Urban Arts, Arts for Children and Youth, The Theatre Centre, The Drake Hotel, and many others. We also hosted the first-ever Teens in Residency program at the Gladstone Hotel, where the Torontonians and youth friends were invited to use the space as a safe social place as much as the adult general public.

Donation impact

Young Mammals' mandate is to diversify Toronto's arts and culture industry by training the next generation of socially-focused young artists. A donation will help us maintain our work with the many youth who continue to show dedication to us and keep our gears going. 


Jenna Winter
Financial and Development Manager
Charitable Number: 865347405RR0001

Finance & Governance

Annual Operating Budget: 
$ 380,000


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