SPYING a gaggle of kids in a restaurant propels some diners elsewhere. But during the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, the curious can choose to dine with Grade 5 and 6 students during Eat the Street, Jan. 25 to Feb. 4.
For the price of a meal, the public is invited to sit among 10 fledgling restaurant connoisseurs at establishments that include Chambar, Chill Winston and Nuba at the Waldorf to hear kids weigh in on the service, food and décor.
"It's always great, just the theatrics of the kids trying something that they've never tried before, like oysters," said Darren O'Donnell, show creator and artistic and research director of the Mammalian Diving Reflex. "A really nice thing that happened in Toronto is that we did it right before Easter and the restaurant was kind enough to make a special menu that included rabbit, so the kids could eat Peter Cottontail, which seemed incredibly insensitive, but still wonderfully hilarious."
Eat the Street will culminate with preadolescent adjudicators handing out restaurant awards at a free event at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre, Feb. 4.
Eat the Street is the nearly 20-year-old Toronto-based Mammalian Diving Reflex's third child-centred show.
On a whim, the "researchart atelier" produced Haircuts by Children, in Toronto in 2006, which sees newly trained children wield shears over adults' noggins and continues to tour the world.
Mammalian's second child-centred production, the Children's Choice Awards, saw an elementary school jury from Surrey rate 2009 PuSh festival shows.
"Small things come up that turn into big things," says O'Donnell, who is also a novelist and essayist. "We take all the kids around to see all the shows and often people get quite anxious about the little bit of noise that they might make, illustrating anxiety around a particular way of being in a theatre. When you work with kids in that way. you can start to question (the rules) in a general way."
Mammalian Diving Reflex has devised a protocol for collaborating with children that's based on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
"Including kids in a more equitable way means that things have to slow down, that we have to be kinder to each other, we have to be more tolerant of each other, we have to listen to each other more," says O'Donnell, who's focusing on social planning and working with communities, particularly young people, for the master's in urban planning he's pursuing.
O'Donnell says the generosity and tolerance that emerges during Eat the Street events leaves a great taste in his mouth.
"I find that an interesting observation, that when kids are there, adults are behaved better as examples and are more tolerant of 'less than professional' service," he said. "It just becomes a more tolerant and familial time than you would have ordinarily if you were out at night at a restaurant."