- Theatre & Animals by Lourdes Orozco, and: Animal Acts: Performing Species Today ed. by Una Chaudhuri, Holly Hughes
Humans have been communicating about and for other animals for centuries. But only since the 1990s have humans regularly sought to communicate alongside or with these “others.” Most of the artists described and the scripts included in these two texts demonstrate crucial viewpoints with which we as theatre practitioners and audience members might engage as we carry out theatrical dialogues about how to ethically include or exclude nonhuman-animals on or from the stage, as well as in the performance of our cohabited lives.
In Theatre & Animals, Lourdes Orozco establishes a concise context for the complex intersections between performance studies and critical animal studies. She situates contemporary artists who perform with animals within the germinal philosophical framework of scholars who are, at least partly, formative to critical animal studies. These scholars range from Aristotle, Rene Descartes, and John Berger to Una Chaudhuri, Donna Haraway, and Pete Singer. Understanding theory, Orozco insists, helps theatre audiences and practitioners to better understand the latent relationship between philosophy and performing artists who employ animals in their work. By simply “framing performance studies’ engagement with the animal,” Orozco sets about “challenging established practices in which the animal’s presence and participation is taken as a given” (25). Within this framework, Orozco inlays a discussion of contemporary performances that incorporate nonhuman-animals either as live performers or as metaphors for human behavior. In recent years, other texts have begun to address the ways in which animals are used in performance; Theatre & Animals dialogues both compellingly and succinctly.
For example, Orozco clearly critiques performance artist Rachel Rosenthal’s assertion that animal performances represent either human dominance over other species or the common practice of anthropomorphizing animals “to embody and represent human foibles or defects” (qtd. in Orozco 25). In hopes that her reader might learn to view animal–human interactions differently, Orozco builds on Rosenthal’s assessment by expressing her own wish that performance might become a more “productive space to reflect on human and animal subjectivity” (26). Orozco’s wish reflects contemporary trends in animal training and behavior studies as these fields have begun to move away from dominance-based perspectives on training and behavior and toward communication and behavior-based perspectives, which tend to better incorporate animals as subjects in their own right.
Rosenthal’s canon is undoubtedly at the intersection of performance studies and critical animal studies and so is suitably highlighted in both Orozco’s text and in Una Chaudhuri and Holly Hughes’s Animal Acts. In fact, Rosenthal’s The Others is the only performance script in this edited volume that actually makes use of live animal performers (217–38). Chaudhuri asserts that this essential inclusion manages to invoke “many of the topics and questions and discourses that animate contemporary animal studies . . . without raising any of the ethical questions that surround trained animal performers” (6). With numerous domesticated animals and their handlers creating the surrounding stage picture, Rosenthal directly addresses the audience: “We see in them [the animals] who we once were. And we deny them, like immigrants who reject their language of origin. We dress them in people’s clothes and force them to imitate people’s ways so that, by this caricature, we may laugh at them and better measure the distance that, we hope, separates us from them” (235). As she speaks, the handlers, with their animals in tow, stand one-byone, which seems to indicate the “animals’” taking back of agency. Chaudhuri claims that Rosenthal’s performance escapes key ethical questions because the animals employed by her are domesticated— they are not trained performers. But a key ethical question remains: Trained or not, domestic or not, if animals are contained both onstage and backstage, then how do humans escape problems of privilege, power, domination, and ethics in any given performance situation?
Orozco describes the ways that many such performances grapple...