This week, we’ve moved on to actual character work (as in, prepare a costume and dress up in class kind of character work – but more about that next week). The two weeks before that though, we were all about animals. Chickens, lizards, horses, cows, jungle cats, mosquitoes, sheep, moles – you name it, we’ve probably tried it. Now you’re probably wondering – what does this have to do with characters?
I was a bit sceptical at first as well. Not that I thought the work was a digression, it was just that I had trouble seeing beyond the fun and games that being animals proposed. In the first week, we worked with the idea of becoming 100% animal. That meant transposing everything from the way they walk, to their particular facial expressions, so that we can see the animal in every part of our body. As usual, Lispa was not interested in us decorating or giving personalities to the animals we’re doing yet. They urged us to observe live animals, or watch videos on the internet, to pick out detailed characteristics which we can then put into our portrayals. Like for example – where are the eyes on a sheep’s head, and how does it affect the way they look at things? What happens when a deer is startled by a loud noise? What are the particular rhythms of a lizard? The danger is that we fall into cliches, especially with the animals that we know best, like cats and dogs, so the more details we can put in, the more the animals will be able to come to life.
Once we’ve all had the opportunity to “try on” different animals then, of course, the teachers immediately gave us situations to improvise with. With Michael, we had “Mating and Dating”. The location was a bar, and was about (what else?) guys and girls trying to get with each other. Except as animals. So we had two roosters fighting over a chicken, three stags cowering in front of a lioness, and a snake flirting with a goat. Oh, and two crabs who were trying to feel up some tigers. Needless to say, it was pretty hilarious. With Amy a couple of days later however, we went into darker themes of fear and aggression, in the context of food chains and hierarchies in the animal kingdom. We explored various animals while Amy provoked us with questions: What is it like to be an animal that is always hunted? How does it affect its state? What about animals that are highest in the food chain? How do they hunt and kill their prey?
In her class, Amy talked a lot about state, by which she meant emotional state. She talked about how embodying different animals will provoke very different emotional states, depending on their physicality and status. For example, mice might induce feelings of nervousness and fear, but chickens may bring a sense of pride instead. As performers, we need to recognize what animals provoke the highest level of states in ourselves, because often, they will be the animals that resonate the most, and will be the ones that we play best. These animal types are, of course, foreshadowing of the character types that we will work with later in the term.
With Amy, we also had the first glimpse of what it could be like when we take an animal situation and transpose it to a more human level. Take a stock exchange, and the frenzy of the stock brokers during trading. We were told to re-create this scenario as a pack of wild cats, but somehow it wasn’t very successful. I don’t think many of us knew what we were doing. After we performed it, Amy paused, and then reversed it, telling one group to imagine instead that they were a pack of lions in a zoo, and they were being fed, but not enough. Instantly, the hierarchies, the aggression, the fighting, and the dissatisfactions at the end of an unfulfiling market day in a stock exchange became vividly clear. What was also clear was how we can take advantage of certain scenarios in the animal world, and transpose them to create simple, clear, dramatic situations in the human world.
In the second week of this work, we started to become more human in our representations, getting to the point of being half human, and half animal. We were still fairly animalistic in the way we moved, but we could gesture now, and we could talk. The improvisation scenarios that week became more complex, as our humanness gave us infinite more possibilities for interaction. There was the teenage wolf students with their rabbit substitute teacher; a panther wife who discovers that her goat husband has misplaced a winning lottery ticket; a wild boar wife who tells her chipmunk husband that she is pregnant; and a group of animals waiting for a train that never comes. Working with words for the first time as animals was difficult – most of us had trouble finding the animals’ particular voices, and further, how much an animal can say, and what words they would use. For example, one can imagine that the way a lizard talks would be very different than the way a sheep would talk.
Before we could even wrap our minds around all this talking, Steph put in a gear shift, and introduced the idea of changing animals. As in, starting with one animal, then circumstances provoke a change in emotional state, which then results in you changing into a different animal. We had several scenarios: a chicken coming out of the hairdressers feeling pretty good about herself, until she looked in a shop window, upon which she discovers how horrible she looks, and turns into a mouse in embarrassment; a goat who has had a bad day at work, then hears whistles from some attractive sheep on his way home, spurring him to turn into a giddy penguin; and a duck who was eager to tuck into an elaborate dinner, but then discovers that it is missing from the fridge, and turns into a wild cat in fury.
Too often during the course of these two animal weeks, I had the feeling that I was receiving a ton of information, but they were all going through me without being properly digested. Maybe this was due to the vastness of the topic of study. I had an idea of what I was being taught, yet it was difficult for me to see the whole picture, and I was unsure of the relationship between all this animal stuff and theater. So it really helped me to have Amy on Friday to finish off this unit, because she is very specific in her class assignments, and what she wants you to learn from them. She likes to give you little pearls of wisdom to wrap your thoughts around.
In her last animal class, she gave us the task of first, improvising in a group with two animals that have a relationship to each other, like cats and mice, wolves and deer, etc. Then, after we’ve played out this interaction, she sets about transforming it into a human situation in front of the class. My group did a scene with shepherd dogs herding sheep. She watched intently, then after a brief moment, said “Okay, now why don’t we try transposing this? What could this be? (looks around at the class) Mmm….I think I see a tragic theme here. Why don’t you do it again, this time as a group of elderly people with alzheimer’s. They’ve wandered off from the nursing home and gotten lost, and now the care workers have come to bring them back.” Just like that, she made something that was almost banal – dogs herding sheep – into a very poignant human interaction. She performed the same magic on all the groups, always pushing beyond the obvious. For example, turning an encounter between snakes and mice into a high school dance party, transforming the ecstasy of death into the ecstasy of teenage sexuality, or, creating a parallel between spiders catching flies, with dressmakers fitting bridesmaids into tight dresses.
Always, always when we played the animals, Amy reminded us not to do the “Disney-ified” version. Disney humanizes animals to make them act like us and talk like us, but for us it needs be the other way around – we should strive to be as faithful to the particular qualities of the animals as possible, even when we’re acting human. It is like when we were working with everyday objects. The more we can uncover the biological truth of animals, the more we will be able illuminate parallel truths in human interaction. Amy said “We work with animals, because animals have strong clear reactions to everything, and we humans don’t. We often do a lot of extraneous things when we relate to one another. Studying animals help us pare away the fluff, and magnify the essence of what is left”. The she added “Watch one of those nature channels, and find a way to transpose the most riveting things you see there into human situations. That’s when you get the beginnings of theater”.