- Animal Acts: Performing Species Today ed. by Una Chaudhuri, Holly Hughes
The past several years have seen what might be called “the animal turn” in the humanities and social sciences, Una Chaudhuri notes in her introduction to Animal Acts: Performing Species Today (1). It has been over 30 years since the publication of such foundational texts as John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals?” (1980) and Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975), and critical animal studies is more relevant than ever. Developed concurrently with activist movements for animal welfare and the ethical treatment of animals, the interdisciplinary field of critical animal studies is significant because it examines interspecies relationality at a moment when awareness of ecological crisis is heightened. However, although critical animal studies has from its beginnings approached the figure of the animal through numerous disciplinary lenses — including philosophy, anthropology, literature, and cultural studies — only in the past decade has it come to include the work of theatre and performance scholars. Chaudhuri, in particular, has been a key contributor to this area of research, publishing numerous articles on the subject and guest-editing TDR’s special issue on “Animals and Performance” in 2007. Through their selection of performances and scholarly commentary, Chaudhuri and fellow Animal Acts editor Holly Hughes demonstrate that theatre and performance studies offers a unique contribution to the current “animal turn.” The collection draws readers’ attention to the multiple resonances of the verb “to act” as it includes performance texts that by turns act on behalf of animals, represent animals mimetically, and enact possible futures for interspecies relationships. Animal Acts shows that interspecies performances hold the power to change not only the way we see and interact with non-human animals, but also the way we understand ourselves.
It should be emphasized that Animal Acts is not a collection of essays about the intersection of performance studies and animal studies. Rather, it is a collection of performance texts by solo performers — including Rachel Rosenthal, Deke Weaver, and Jess Dobkin — with accompanying commentary by scholars such as Jill Dolan, Ann Pellegrini, and Cary Wolfe. One of the most successful aspects of this collection is the way it highlights embodied performance: [End Page 180] prioritizing performance texts by offering scholarly commentary in a supplementary position. The book includes a link to the University of Michigan Press’s website where readers can find video excerpts of many of the performances. This supplement gives a taste of the diversity of live events represented in the collection and reminds readers that the published texts are a documentation of embodied performances. Furthermore, the scholarly commentaries, which range from personal reflection to historical contextualization and performance analysis, follow the performance texts as opposed to introducing them. This foregrounding of the performance text valorizes the contributions that performance artists offer, rather than allowing discursive intervention to be attributed solely to the work of scholars. One such pairing is that of Holly Hughes’s The Dog and Pony Show (bring your own pony) (2010) with commentary by Donna Haraway. Haraway has made her own important contributions to the field of animal studies, yet here she provides a more personal reflection, taking up Hughes’s phrase “Dogs made us” (29) to explore her own relationship to animals and, more specifically, the experience she shares with Hughes of running with her dogs at agility trials. In relating her experience, Haraway offers the helpful phrase “becoming-with” (32) to describe the cofashioning of self that the dog and human partnership performs. Haraway’s commentary on Hughes’s performance provides one of the most successful of the performer-scholar pairings in the book because of the way it similarly performs with Hughes’s performance text, offering scholarly commentary alongside personal reflection.
Animal Acts is not a book about interspecies performance of the sort involving animals performing alongside human performance (as in the circus). In fact, with only one exception, none of the performances have animal performers. As Chaudhuri writes, “animal presence...