Director’s Notebook: Staging Animality

ONE of the things I like to do when I choose plays is that I find an excuse to learn something that I want to substantially read more about. For telephone, I had the opportunity to study Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Books: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech, Thomas Augustus Watson’s Exploring Life: The Autobiography of Thomas A. Watson, Ariana Reines’ Mercury and Coeur de Lion, and Carl Jung’s Psychology of Dementia Praecox. 

I chose the next play I’m directing because it would give me a chance to spend time thinking about how to represent animals onstage (no spoilers here). And apparently there’s this whole field called Animal Studies (or Human Animal Studies), depending who you ask.

I’ve read a couple of chapters from books on the subject, but I’d be giving away too much for now if I told you what I’ve been reading. Instead, here’s the third thing I read:

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The author takes you through a few instances of “animal performance” as he analizes them and theorizes about their significance. The most important thing that this Szarycz guy raises is that animal knowledge remains inaccessible to us, no matter what we do. Moreover, humans remain by necessity the playwrights in the human-animal relationship play:

“We give animals a script and through that script they can say something to us.” (171)

Whether it’s the Moscow Dancing Bears performing acts that we’ve taught them in the way we’ve taught them, the stages we’ve built and under tents full of humans, or the Cetacean surfacing behaviour (breaching, porpoising, etc) that is performed out of their own instincts, in their environment, among their peers but that we try and catch whenever we can, we are still the ones who ascribe meaning to these activities (and even emotions.)

Szarycz writes about how we tend to see animal performances with one of two purposes: to entertain, or to inspire conservation. I don’t get the sense that the animals in this play have that specific purpose (though seeing those critters dancing surely would be fun). Partially because –spoiler alert– they’re already extinct.

Going into rehearsals and design meetings, this chapter releases me from feeling like there’s something I have to investigate or crack about the behavior or lives of these beasts. But it does give me pause about the spectacle of seeing them.



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