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Theatre and Animals: Can Animals Act?

Animals in performance and theatre will always be a precarious issue. Forgiving the various ways in which animals can come to appear and function in performance or entertainment, issues of ethics, politics, and philosophy will always dominate their seemingly innocent or progressive use. This is partly due to the difficulty of observing and understanding animals and their abilities in performance. In exploring the animal's ability to act, the essential and ever-permeating essence of Anthropocene influence remains central to the animal's participation. The impetus that places animals in theatre relies on the animal's likeness to man. This likeness observes that they are bestowed with the influence of representation and symbolism of human life (Castellucci, 2000). However comparable, this influence never matches their human counterpart due to the countless social, political, and cultural effects that degrade their status. Ideologies such as cartesian thinking and twentieth-century industrialism create distinct differences that separate man from animal. This divide translates across fields of conceptualism that raise issues of anthropomorphism and scientific discrimination in that the animal's superficial anatomy remains in constant contrast. Despite the commonalities man and animal share as sentient and mortal beings, it is "their habits, [...] time, [...] physical capacities" that differ from that of man (Berger, 1980, p. 13).

Theatre is all about humans coming face to face for interaction and exchanging their stories born from shared understanding. In this structure, acting is a critical tool in suspending disbelief and creating imaginative grounds for manifesting truth in and from fictional terrains. The success of theatrical illusion depends on the actor's awareness and deliberate use of their psychological and physical ability to portray reality convincingly. Acting, being entertainment of the stage, involves deliberate manipulation of articulation, corporeal motion, and so on to imitate and assume the various emotions that arise from the countless virtues and vices incident to human nature (Chinoy & Cole, 1970, p. 134). Without such awareness and control toward a decided and desired outcome and a lack of conscious deliberation, acting is not commonly attributed to animals. The anthropocentric knowledge of animals (and, at times, cartesian traditions of theatre and acting) suggests that animals are theoretically and technically unable to act and are exiled from this anthropological practice.

Image 1: A diagram of human microexpressions. Film and stage actors understand the use of facile muscular movements to convey emotion.

Human exceptionalism, which permeates through theatre, observes that animals have no place or ability to command issues of human nature and determines that animals cannot act. This attitude originates from the thought that theatre has no animal dynasties (Ridout, 2006). Theatre, built on ideas of human exceptionalism, produces matter and fiction from human consciousness. Animals on stage present complexities to this perfect, mechanical system of human production. Their seeming inability to claim a past, present, or future of their own evidences the abundance of humanism that is theatre. The juxtaposition that animals pose interferes with how humans receive and relate to them in art. Animals' symbolic power for human life in art is always tied to the degrading attitudes that result in their earthly demoted status, pointing to an interesting parallel of the binaries between animals and man and of art and life. The limits and possibilities that animals present mirror the definite boundaries of a selected art form and its representational value for all human life. The animal's behaviour and characteristics continue to be used as representational of man's life. They are instructed to be invisible cogs of human fantasy, similar to the structures of art. As such, they become overshadowed by the outcome of the human story. Animals, much like the structures of art, do not speak for themselves, and their presence on stage is an act of performance nearby, in which the very essence of their belonging is juxtaposing, unusual, and antithetical, but one that constantly remains on the confines of theatrical story-telling (Ridout, 2006). The complexities of the binary between man and animal continuously play into the construction of animals in theatre. Animals are doomed to remain contrasted to and subjugated by human exceptionalism.

Image 2: Universal Studios' '1987 Animal Actors Stage' poster.

In the moment of recollection of seeing a mouse on stage during a production of Harold Pinter's The Caretaker in London (2001), Nicolas Ridout brings to light the very intricate issue of whether non-human animals belong in performance spaces. Ridout, one of the leading academic voices and authors of performance theory, uncovers from his personal experience the very nuanced and subtle – yet unexceptional - rejection of animals on stage. The mouse, "untethered from framings as a pet within the dramatic fiction" (Ridout, 2006, p. 98), presents a conflict to him, which H. Peter Steeves – philosopher of ethics, animal life, and ontology - concludes are centred around the duality between the non-human animal on stage and the human actor. An opportunity arises at the contact point of animal and theatre to observe how the concerns of the exploitation of non-human animals correlate and directly point to the real exploitation of the human actor on stage (Steeves, 2006). In issues of ethics and aesthetics, animals, continuously and conspicuously, is in duality with man.

Animal histories being proximal to human histories, evidence that its presence serves a purpose based on its positionality to man (Chaudhuri, 2004). The conflict that the non-human animal poses within the context of theatre, feeds into the issues of the anthropocentric animal on stage. The likeness of the animal's plight and exploitation to that of humans in life, which is theatrically exploited, is marked as the moment of disappearance of the non-human animal in theatre (Castellucci, 2000). The parallel between the service of the animal as a metaphor for and symbol of human life is tied to the narrative structure of tragedy. It points to the dangers of the suspension of corporeal reality in favour of representing theatrical reality. Animals, as metaphor, lose their corporeal agency and disappear from perception. The theatrical exploitation of animals is likened to that of the human actor, in which the actor's service as an instrument of fictional representation of human life, he too disappears and takes the shape of something else in character (Steeves, 2006).

Image 3: Sunny the dog as 'Sandy', with Lilla Crawford in the title role, in 'Annie', directed by James Lapine.

The degrees of likeness and its proximity to human reality seemingly grant animals status within theatre. However, as far as the animal can engage in issues of the human condition, it is only ever parallel to, but not similar to, the actor and his character. Although conceptual limits are placed on an animal's ability to act, it is granted the ability to perform through its proximity. In being implicated in human practice, the work of anthropocentrism positions animals in dualism to man, in which "their similar/dissimilar lives allow animals to provoke some of the first questions and offer answers" (Berger, 1980, p. 16). The animal's ability to produce meaning in this format suggests a form of redress to animals through its participation in theatre. It assumes a position as a powerful symbol and metaphor for the human condition (Chaudhuri, 2004). All the while perpetuating anthropocentric ideologies that continue to distinguish it from man and place it in the confines of theatrical agency.

Acting is a service that relies on the unison of mind and body: a somatic connection between reasoning and emotion, expression, and corporality. The harmony of these elements is essential for the actor's ability to communicate and create a sense of the presence of actuality. In this context, animals present a conflict that challenges the claims of human superiority in the context of the natural and theatrical world. The limbo that animals present between the fictional and natural worlds offers an opportunity for reflection and is one that post-modernists take advantage of as they seek to deconstruct and destroy the anthropocentric attitudes between them. The animal's passive engagement in the theatrical world and its blatant representation of the natural world's untameable and imperfect power lies an opportunity for the ideology to be restructured. The animal's propensity for performance has come to be misunderstood and misused in the name of human exceptionalism but is something post-modernist practitioners attempt to rectify.

Image 4: Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin walks off the stage with dog Uggie after "The Artist" won Best Movie onstage at the 84th Annual Academy Awards in 2012.

Rachel Rosenthal's The Others is a prime example of work that aims to change the scope of practice for animals in theatre. From her work comes the 'non-human animal' that exists and functions within, and as part, of the drama in its most naturalist form - present to challenge the common and globally-shared representations surrounding them, in and outside the theatre. The use of nature is not to be confused with naturalism and demonstrates an interesting causation of the animal's presence in theatre. Most modern action employs the methods of naturalism. Acting involves a conscious engagement and discipline of the body and mind to convey actuality. The actor's technique of calling in the aid and assistance of their own experiences toward an emotional canvas for their character in the presence of animals is contrasted by the animal's imperfect natural aesthetic. The naturalistic genre emphasizes authenticity in representation and continuity between psychological involvement and corporeal expression to mimic life as accurately as possible within the fictional frame (Koper, 1995). The non-human animal is unintentionally natural and is theoretically closer to the real than the stage actor.

The actor utilizes naturalistic acting to convey his character and not to represent himself. The complexity of the actor's task, to extract influence from his corporeality, to become or convincingly represent a likeness to his character, is what the animal's presence juxtaposes through its liveness. For example, the natural use of animals in Rosenthal's work would demonstrate a disjuncture between animals and the fantasy of theatre if it were to be contrasted with the like of naturalism and method acting. Animals will always represent nature and truth, which uncomfortably unravels the threads of fantasy and counters the suspension of disbelief. Animals cannot exist as they are within the concepts of theatrical construction that serve solely to recreate and inspire human nature – they have no apparent purpose in this communication. Assumably a result of anthropocentric ideology, it is not the animal's inadequacy –the lack of discipline required for such skill – but more so a natural agency that transcends beyond the limits of fantastical human creation. The stage actor's naturalism is a fictional and feeble attempt to that of real nature on stage, manifest by animals.

Image 5: The inclusion of 100 sheep in Louis Andriessen’s 'De Materie', directed by Heiner Goebbels. Photograph: Stephanie Berger.

What is interpreted as the animal's inability to deliberately use its body and expression in accordance with conscious, emotional engagement toward a desired outcome of fiction is a failure of human exceptionalism. The force of nature that the non-human animal represents in its participation in theatre creates countless potential futures for the development of theatre and its influence in the world. The animal's superficial anatomy, which is used to debase animals and justify anthropological reasonings in theatrical practice, should instead highlight that acting as is understood is solely a product of human psychophysiology and is a limited practice in so far that it assumes rather than invites the natural world. That they cannot be permitted into such realms pose new opportunities for the engagement of reality in theatre and perhaps can change the structures and traditions of its practices. As such, animals must be set free from the metaphor, which belongs to the human domain and limits of human understanding. In its so-called inability to act, animals participate in the scopes of performance instead, demonstrating theatre's continuous and rigorous exclusion of nature (Ridout, 2006, p. 98), which will lose the opportunities that animals inspire in times of social, political, and cultural changes for the future.

Bibliographical Sources

Berger, J. (1980). Why Look At Animals? In J. Berger, Why Look At Animals? (pp. 12-37). London: Penguin Group.

Castellucci, R. (2000). The Animal Being on Stage. Performance Research: A Journal o fthe Performing Arts, 5(2), 23-28.

Chaudhuri, U. (2004). Animal Acts for Changing Times. American Theatre, 21(8), 36.

Chinoy, H. K., & Cole, T. (1970). An Essay on Acting. In H. K. Chinoy, & T. Cole, Actors on Acting: the Theories, Techniques, and Practices of the Great Actors of All Times as Told in Their Own Words (pp. 133-299). New York: Crown Publishers.

Koper, R. K. (1995). Acting Naturally: Mark Twain in the Culture of Performance. University of California Press.

Ridout, N. (2006). The animal on stage: Mouse in the House. In N. Ridout, Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems (pp. 96-100). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Steeves, H. P. (2006, December). Rachel Rosenthal is an Animal. Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, 39(4), 1-26.

Image Sources

Image 1: Production: Lie To Me. (2017, March 18). Reading Minds: Micro -Expressions. LinkedIn.

Image 2: Universal Studios. (1987). Animal Actors (1987).

Image 3: Lapine (Director). (2012, November 8). Sunny and Lilla Crawford in the title role, “Annie". New York Times.

Image 4: Getty Images. (2015, March 22). Jean Dujardin with dog Uggie (2012). The Telegraph.

Image 5: Berger. (2016, March 29). 100 sheep in Louis Andriessen’s “De Materie” (2016). The Guardian.


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Gina Darwin-Gitonga

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