07 April 2009

Animals: Is the Stage Home to All Creatures?

In exploring the blogosphere this week, I was interested to find two very different views on a topic that I had never before considered in conjunction with theatre: the use of animals. Although many modern plays use various creatures as significant characters, I had never considered whether their use was appropriate or even necessary to the storyline, or in theatre in general. I have commented on the two posts with my own thoughts and questions, and have reposted the comments below, along with links to the original blogs.

Theatre of Cruelty: Animals on Stage?

Your post raises an interesting question: Where do we draw the line when using animals in live performances? Personally I feel that the answer is two-fold, dependent upon both the animal in question, and it's role in the performance. In the example cited in your post, the animal happens to be a lobster (see left). Due to their aquatic habitat, lobsters are not generally kept as pets, and on the rare occasion that they are they would seldom be called "cute" or "cuddly" or any other adjective that might be used to describe a more conventional pet. Because of this, it seems that people are less likely to get emotionally attached to the poor creature, and have little remorse dumping one into a pot of boiling water (although boiling a lobster is hardly the same as suspending one on a stage and seemingly torturing it before finally putting it out of its misery.) In contrast, few Americans can fathom eating a cat or a dog, another warm blooded mammal with whom they might be more likely to sympathize with were it being tortured on stage (it is important to note that in this case, scientists have concluded that lobsters do not feel pain, while a cat or dog, or even a rabbit, would.) It is also interesting to note that, while most Americans think nothing of sitting down to bacon for breakfast, chicken salad for lunch, or a steak for dinner, few would be willing to actually go out and kill a pig or chicken or cow to get their food. Despite a dependence on meat in our diets, few people are comfortable with personally taking a life, even that of an animal, in order to feed themselves.

The second aspect is the animal to be used in the performance. While some larger animals are easily trained (dogs, cats, and even horses), no training is fool proof, and there is always the risk that the animal may refuse to cooperate during a show. If and when this happens, the safety of both the actors and the audience must be taken into consideration. Obviously a lobster poses little threat, barring a seafood allergy, or the actor getting his finger pinched if he takes the rubber band of the crustacean's claws. As the animals get larger, the potential for danger gets greater. Even though horses are not generally dangerous, if one were to get spooked during a show it could trample an actor or even find it's way out into the audience where the potential for injury would be great. The potential for catastrophe grows greater still when the animal is innately dangerous. The tragic attack on Roy Horn of Siegfried and Roy (see right) is a perfect, somewhat recent example. The duo had performed 30,000 live shows with no major mishaps, and the tiger in question had been raised by them from kitten-hood, performing on stage for six and a half years. Despite all of this, a single distraction from an audience member, combined with a less than perfect handling of the distraction, lead to a reversion to natural instincts and nearly to death for Roy. This clearly highlights the point that wild animals are just that: wild. There will always be a risk associated with their use in performances, and their actions can never be fully anticipated. Thus, for me, the line should be drawn at using animals that pose the least threat possible to the actors and audience, and making sure that they are treated with respect, as the sentient beings that they are.

To answer the question of whether accepting human carnage while detesting animal cruelty, one must consider the factor of helplessness in animals. Humans have the ability to defend themselves in most situations. In cases of animal abuse, the animal is most certainly at a disadvantage (you'd think twice about kicking your house cat if it were replaced with a lion.) Most would react the same way to child abuse, as children are similarly helpless. Also, whether the situation is real or not is important to consider. In TV shows and movies, the death and destruction that humans bring on each other is pretend, and as such we don't react the same way as when, say, we see it on the news or in a documentary.

Is it wrong to use animals in plays?

This blog points out an interesting dilemma: What role to animals really play in theatre, and how appropriate and acceptable is their use? Whether cast in a leading role or simply as a supporting character, I feel that animals with thematic or emotional significance do have a place in theatre. I recently participated in a scene from the play Mary's Wedding. Most of this play focuses on the relationship between the two main characters, Mary and Charlie. However, a horse also enters as an important character, and plays a large part in the storyline. While the use of a real horse would add a great deal to the story, the safety of the animal, actors, and audience must be taken into consideration. Due to this, many companies opt to use a statue or dummy in place of a live animal. While this does solve the problem, I don't feel that it is the best solution, as I feel that it would tend to distract the audience and take them out of the moment. I feel that a better middle ground might be to replace the animal with a human actor, thus allowing more personal interaction, letting the character take cues from a director more easily than an animal would, and ultimately causing less disruption to the continuation of the story (though some might argue that it would be more distracting than the dummy or statue.) In some cases, such as Prymate the use of animals would be nearly impossible and potentially illegal or at the very least immoral and unethical. While highlighting the brutish characteristics of creatures such as gorillas can be used to create a controversial plot discussion, it does little to present any kind of interesting thematic argument.

Ultimately, the use of animals isn't necessarily "wrong" so much as it is not always the most effective way to present the characters and storyline. Certainly there are situations where animals are appropriate and even necessary, but if their use can be avoided, with the same or better effect, then why shouldn't it be?
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