Magic, transformation and drama at the Animal Lab

Posted by Cal Kreiner on Apr 25, 2018 3:05:00 PM

Student mid-pounce acting as an animal about to attack another

“And say goodbye to your human self for awhile…”

This is how every Animal Lab, taught by WMU theatre professor Elizabeth Terrel, begins for the theatre students. Lying on the ground, scattered around the Gilmore Theatre Complex’s atrium lobby, we release all the physical tension we’re carrying, disengage our senses, and simply become human skeletons for a brief moment. Then, under Elizabeth’s guidance, we roll into our animal fossils, slowly re-engage our senses in order of which sense is primary to our animal’s survival, then begin to wake back up, allowing our new animal bodies to serve our re-ordered, more perceptive, senses. In this moment the entire class of actors completely transforms into a unique animal kingdom, full of everything from lions and kangaroos to squirrels and spiders. It’s, perhaps, the closest thing you’ll ever see to a magical transformation.

The animals explore the atrium, climbing over rocks and trees, swimming in ponds and digging burrows, all of which are actually randomly scattered blocks and mats set up before class. We form families (not always how you’d expect, as in the case of a kangaroo who adopted a pair of gorillas), we play and fight, we even hunt and eat other animals. Of course, this is a theatre class, and so we do make some exceptions for certain animal behaviors; animals known for their speed often run on only two legs when they need to be especially fast. Hunting, fighting, and eating is always a series of well-practiced, agreed upon physical gestures and touches, signifying everything from a honey badger’s claws to the skull crushing bite of a jaguar. Even with these exceptions, the switch into animals is amazing and incredibly believable.

Students interact as cats approaching a gorilla

 

Accomplishing this transformation is the result of a seemingly simple process. At the beginning of the semester, we pick an animal to work with and do some basic research into its behaviors and skeleto-muscular system. After researching we begin to move into the animal. First focusing only on the skeletal structure, paying close attention to the spine, shoulders, and hips. Then we layer in the animal’s primary senses and then the different behaviors follow. That’s what we call "Full Animal". But it’s not the end of the process.

After spending several class periods in "Full Animal", we begin to move into "Partial Animal", which means slowly transforming back into people. This isn’t turning back into ourselves, but rather taking our unique animals and becoming the human versions of them. We still maintain the spine and physical limitations of the animal body, but we move it into a two-legged body. We still explore the world using animal senses, but the animal behavior begins to change into the human equivalents. As these animals become people, we begin to give them characteristics - names, jobs, family histories, and social habits. A bear becomes John, age 46, a single man who manages a Home Depot in the Upper Peninsula and enjoys watching HGTV. A leopard becomes Lana, a traveling journalist who also runs an international drug cartel. As these new “Animal People” begin to explore and interact with the world, the class begins to resemble the high stakes theatre of Ancient Greece or Shakespeare. This is why we do Animal Lab. 

 

Students as a gorilla and a polar bear face off in a physical fight

 

One of the first lessons of Animal Lab is that animals don’t make up stories. Going into "Full Animal" means leaving behind the thoughts and stories that rush around our brains during the day. Animals are fully engaged and present, responding to every stimulus from their guts and hearts, not judging or planning their actions. They are constantly aware and “in the moment,” taking in everything and responding almost immediately. And that’s exactly what acting is. In particular, that’s what acting in classical work is like. Shakespeare’s plays are nothing more than a bunch of animals surrounded by other, often more threatening animals, trying desperately to survive.

 

A human jaguar observes her kingdom

 

So often, we watch Shakespeare or other classical works and what we see is an empty shell, nothing more than a reflection of the written structure of the script. No tension, no depth, no risk. By approaching this work through the lens of an animal, as actors we are able to breath in new life to these characters. We can give characters depth and instinct, responding to the world of the play and the other characters with the same instinct and presence of animals. This makes the work instantly more engaging, and suddenly these complex, sometimes non-relatable characters become incredibly grounded and amazingly more human. With our first animals we explore this relationship between animals and characters through different scenarios like weddings (often inter-species, like when a lioness married her alligator girlfriend in a ceremony overseen by a stag), family dinners (John the bear brought a fox he’d hit with his truck as a dish to pass), and coronations (as the stag was crowned king he was met with mockery from a pair of hyenas and a honey badger, and then his crown was stolen by a raccoon who tried to sell it to a passing jaguar).

 

A human bear finds a good place to rest

 

With our second animals we pick monologues, usually from Shakespeare plays, and then using information about the character’s behavior, social habits, family life, etc. from the play, we begin to find animals through which we can embody the character. Puck from Midsummer Night’s Dream becomes a gibbon, for example, while Tamora from Titus Andronicusbecomes a python.

Even though the class is over after only a semester, animal work is usually taken by actors into everything they do from then on. It’s an easier way to create characters that have depth and humanity to them, and a useful tool for remaining present on stage. Animal work doesn’t just stop on the stage though. Once you’ve taken animal lab, some of the animal habits never leave you. Sometimes its simple habits like flexing your foot instead of flicking your tail, and sometimes it bleeds over into larger behaviors, like flirting with someone while being partially “in” snake or leopard. And often, looking at the human world through animal eyes makes everything and everyone a lot easier to understand.

 

Actors explore the human equivalent of a lioness, jaguar, Jeffery Cat, bear, and alligator

 

The impact of Animal Lab on acting and everyday life is impossible to overlook.  On a personal note, it has completely reshaped the way I do my work and the way I move through my life. There’s a reason it’s one of the most popular classes in the theatre department and why every year actors rush to register for it before the class reaches capacity. In this class you get the rare opportunity to leave the human world behind only to reenter it on a deeper, more animalistic level. From the outside, Animal Lab is the most intense and entertaining show around. Simply put, it’s magic.

 


 

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Topics: The Student Experience, Department of Theatre

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