- Animal Acts: Performing Species Today ed. by Una Chaudhuri and Holly Hughes
In Animal Acts: Performing Species Today, editors Una Chaudhuri and Holly Hughes have pooled their substantial academic, artistic, and editing experience to gather eleven performance texts that engage with the proliferating interdisciplinary field of animal studies. Ten of the performances were presented between 2004-2013. Rachel Rosenthal’s The Others (1984) ends the collection as an invaluable counterpoint. Developed prior to the millennial “animal turn” in critical theory, it is the only piece to utilize the presence of live animals on stage. This fact points to the extent to which theatrical animals and animality are, in fact, produced via the discourse and semiotics of the stage. Major figures from animal studies provide [End Page 147] response essays, including Donna Haraway, Nigel Rothfels, and Cary Wolfe. The essays offer important context in the form of performance histories, key cultural references, analysis, and personal ruminations.
Recently, the fields of performance and animal studies have been in direct dialogue. Chaudhuri’s introductory essay in Animal Acts is useful for readers both new to and familiar with major themes in animal studies, such as humans’ increased awareness of our position as animals and the ways that other animals push us to consider “continuities and connections between species” even as we register “their ultimate unknowability” (2 and 8). Chaudhuri establishes a schema for interspecies performance, which she defines as work that is “trying hard to talk about actual animals . . . even when . . . we cannot help but also see them as symbols . . . for human dramas” (5). It is difficult for theatrical animals to escape the captivity of mimetic representation and metaphor. Some of the volume’s performances address species endangerment and the ethics of captivity, but only Rosenthal’s could be said to participate in Critical Animal Studies, which requires decentering human subjectivity and is explicitly dedicated to animal liberation as a social justice cause.
Animals often reorient audiences to somatic epistemologies. Ironically, the performers within the collection show great facility with language. Hughes’ usual cheeky and frank writing style comes through in The Dog and Pony Show (bring your own pony). She recalls childhood animal desires, skewers bad fashion at dog agility trials and feminist events, and describes her household with her lover, Esther Newton. Their many dogs (and cat) create a crowded interspecies familyish existence (“Do we even want to be a family? We don’t know”) (16). In addition to disclosing the graphic details of breeding a purebred standard poodle, Hughes muses on the mysteries of canine/human coevolution.
Many of the performances employ a performative lecture style. Jess Dobkin, Kestutis Nakas, and Deke Weaver evoke a loner unicorn, threatening bee colony, unreliable primate taxonomy, and epic elephant ontology by invoking a would-be press conference, keynote lecture, and talk show, respectively. Alongside animal masks, puppets, and moving image, the artists signal the playfully pedantic with PowerPoint slides, overhead projectors, pointers, and chalkboards. These pedagogical frames seem connected to the fact that many of the author/performers teach college.
Theatre historian Kim Marra contributes the performative lecture, Horseback Views: A Queer Hippological Performance, in which she offers precise analysis of elite thoroughbred equestrianism interlaced with memories of a tomboy childhood and fraught mother/daughter relationship. Marra is far more circumspect than Hughes about “the mechanics if not the romance” of breeding ideal specimens (118). Marra evocatively conveys her lifelong somatic knowledge of equine bodies while historicizing the strong connection between some women and horses. The balance of detailed information and honest reflection is wry and compelling. It is interesting [End Page 148] to note that the competing equestrian’s interspecies communion depends on a third animal—the cow, whose skin created the leather saddle and girth that Marra encourages the audience to feel and smell.
Queer subject positions and possibilities weave through much of the collection. Marra highlights the presence of her wife, Meredith, as crucial to cultivating meaningful interspecies relationships in her adult life. The canine characters in Stay! (by...