Artistic Mission

Mammalian Diving Reflex views innovative artistic interventions as a way to trigger generosity and equity across the universe. Founded by Artistic Director, Darren O’Donnell in 1993, Mammalian is a research-art atelier dedicated to investigating the social sphere, always on the lookout for contradictions to whip into aesthetically scintillating experiences. We are a culture production workshop that creates site and social-specific performances, theatre-based productions, gallery participatory gallery installations, videos, art objects and theoretical texts. Mammalian’s body of work is interconnected, varied and vibrant, reflecting our unique and growing body of knowledge and expertise on the use and function of culture. We create work that recognizes the social responsibility of art, fostering a dialogue between audience members, between the audience and the material, and between the performers and the audience. In all it’s forms, the company’s work dismantles barriers between individuals of all ages, cultural, economic and social backgrounds; we collaborate with non-artists, and offer both participatory opportunities for the audience as well as the traditional option of simply watching the proceedings as they unfold. It is our mission to bring people together in new and unusual ways, in Toronto, Canada, our home-base, and around the world, to create work that is engaging, challenging, and gets people talking, thinking and feeling.

Company History

Mammalian Diving Reflex was founded in Toronto in 1993, and between 1993-2003 primarily produced the stage-based performances of Artistic Director, Darren O’Donnell. In 2003, the company began to diversify its approach and generate work in a multitude of forms, focusing on creating “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. In 2006, Darren published his book, Social Acupuncture, which established a theoretical foundation for this new direction and solidified it as the company’s primary creative methodology. Propelled by the company’s subsequent touring hit, Haircuts by Children – a performance about trust, children’s rights, generosity and vanity, where ten-year-olds offer free haircuts to the public – Mammalian began to work with a wide array of new collaborators, including international art festivals, art galleries, city administrations, seniors homes, community centres, schools and other socially-related institutions of civil society. In 2011, Mammalian launched Young Mammals, the company’s youth training wing. The mandate of Young Mammals is to collaborate with Toronto’s young people to create artistic work for youth and adults, with a long-term vision toward youth capacity building, diversification and strengthening the city’s arts industries.

We are an efficiently tight team, supported by a myriad of additional artists, with a wide variety of expertise: urban planning, writing, directing, art history, education, photography, videography, industrial design, acting, playwrighting and qualitative and quantitative research. See the People page to learn more about us.

Mammalian Diving Reflex’s work has been seen around the world in more than eighty cities, including: Adelaide, Anyang, Austin, Banff, Basel, Bath, Bern, Birmingham, Bochum, Bologna, Brisbane, Brighton, Bristol, Brussels, Cagliari, Calgary, Cambridge (US), Chicago, Cork, Copenhagen, Darwin, Derry, Dublin, Duisburg, Edinburgh, Edmonton, Enschede, Essen, Fargo, Frankfurt, Gelsenkirchen, Ghent, Gladbeck, Glasgow, Gloucester, Greencastle, Greensboro, Gwangju, Haifa, Hamburg, Hamilton, Heidelberg, Helsinki, Hemsbach, Hong Kong, Inverness, Kitchener-Waterloo, Kelowna, Kuopio, Lahore, Launceston, Leeds, London, Los Angeles, Ludwigshafen, Manchester, Mannheim, Melbourne, Milan, Minneapolis, Montreal, Moscow, Mumbai, Newcastle Upon Tyne, New York, Norwich, Nyon, Oldenburg, Oslo, Ottawa, Perth, Philadelphia, Portland, Prague, Reading, Riga, Regina, Reykjavík, San Diego, Sinaloa, Skagaströnd, Singapore, Sydney, Taipei, Terni, Tifariti, Tokyo, Toronto, Trondheim, Vancouver, Victoria, Weinheim, Whitehorse, Winchester, Windsor, Yellow Springs and Youngstown.

Awards and Accolades

Mammalian Diving Reflex has received numerous awards and support for its engaging collaborations with the community, children and youth. Most recently, Mammalian was named a finalist for the inaugural Ellen Stewart International Award, for an individual theatre artist or company whose work promotes social change and community participation with a particular focus on the engagement of young people. In 2016, Mammalian was also named to San Francisco’s Yeruba Beuna Center’s Top 100, an annual list of the creative minds the Center feels are making the provocations that will shape the future of culture. The company was the recipient of the inaugural Neighbourhood Arts Network TD Arts Diversity Award (2013), and the Toronto Community Foundation’s Vital Toronto Award. In 2012, Mammalian (and particularly 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 their 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.

The Mammalian Diving Reflex

We get our name from a reflex found in mammals, which increases the chances of survival when we’re plunged into a cold watery environment by snapping the vocal cords shut over the trachea, locking air into the lungs and slowing the heart rate, thus consuming less oxygen. For us, this is a metaphor for surviving difficult times, not through a comprehensive rational plan, but by getting the mind out of the way and letting the body do its job. With our work, we’re always trying to overwhelm with ideas and sensation so that the participant is left with only the reflexive responses of the body to guide them. We trust we’ll get through this century in one piece, we just have to get out of the way and let our natural tendencies of generosity unlock and redistribute the world’s abundance.

Policies and Publications

Fostering diversity in the arts is a leading artistic and organizational priority for Mammalian, as is improving working opportunities and conditions for arts workers of all genders and sexual orientations. Though fostering moments of social discomfort can be part of our Social Acupuncture practice, Mammalian is committed to protecting the well-being of its collaborators, colleagues and employees. Visit the Publications page (“Documents”) to view these policies.

Mammalian regularly produces reports and writing about the company’s work. For more information about Darren O’Donnell’s books, reports and articles, visit the Publication page. To purchase a copy of Darren’s newest book, forthcoming in fall 2016, contact Coach House books or order on our “Objects” page.

Presentation history