In the depths of the Old Arboretum, lies a variety of wild animals including Bengal tigers, wolves, pandas and many more. Twice a week, these animals meet in the meadow to lie out in the sun, protect their young and fight, often to the death — figuratively speaking.
David Lee-Painter teaches a unique theatre class called Animals. This class teaches students what it is like to fully embody an animal’s emotions and physical traits.
At the start of each class, the students lie in the meadow for five minutes, falling asleep as humans, and slowly adding in animal characteristics until they awaken as wild animals. For the next few minutes, they establish a territory and a starting point.
“You are now all in the same environment,” Lee-Painter said, and with those words, the adventures begin.
The class allows the students to live in the imaginary circumstances they haven’t experienced since childhood, Lee-Painter said.
“Being an actor, you have to live in imaginary circumstance and have a rich imaginary life that feels real to you,” Lee-Painter said.
By living these four hours a week as an animal, the students learn to embody a character and are encouraged to choose a predatory animal — one that will help them develop as actors and as people.
Carlin Mitchell, a senior at the University of Idaho, was a Bengal tiger during one of the Animals classes. He said he chose to be a Bengal tiger because he connected with the fact they are a solitary animal, fearless and command a large territory, which are a lot of the characteristics he said are opposite to himself during everyday life.
While out in the meadow, the animals have young to protect. They are not just fending for themselves, but taking care of something they have handmade or sewn that represents their babies.
“My baby consists of socks with stuffing in it and buttons for eyes,” Mitchell said. “The point is that it’s something you literally made. So there’s this emotional connection with it. It’s definitely a game changer. You really find yourself thinking like an animal and wanting to protect and provide for your baby.”
Another part of the exercise is the animal’s experience death. The animals, while traveling around on all four legs, also fight amongst each other.
“We are very much wrestling,” Mitchell said. “Try to imagine two people on all fours springing at each other and literally scraping around until one has established a dominant position and won. It’s scary.”
He said the experience of death is one of the most traumatic experiences for some animals in the class because, as animals, they are so invested in the character that you are literally living the character’s life and following pure animalistic impulses.
“Death is not something we typically experience,” Mitchell said. “It’s actually trying to live through an experience of what it is like to die. That is a very emotional process for some actors. We spend so much time in day to day life hiding emotions and hiding how we feel even from ourselves, it’s an opportunity to keep us in that moment just so we totally experience it.”
The class, as of this year, is offered as an undergraduate class, not just for BFA Theatre students.
“It’s not an acting class, it’s a being human class,” Mitchell said. “At the end of the day, it’s about what you learned about being human and, if you’re an actor, translating that to what does that mean to me being an actor.”
Alexia Neal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org