Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Animal Exercise

I would like to dedicate this post to my beloved dog.

The animal exercise was first introduced by Lee Strasberg as part of the actor's training. It is taught today to acting students as an essential tool toward a deeper physical characterization of a role. 
The exercise consists in the exact reproduction of an animal's behavior: the actor imitates the sounds of the animal, moves exactly like the animal, and reproduces its general attitude. What Lee Strasberg suggested, though, is not to begin right away with a pure imitation. The actor should, instead, start by carefully observing its behavior to the tiniest details, asking questions like, "In what does this animal differ from me?" or "What makes it pull its ears back in certain contexts?".

Little by little, after weeks of practice, the actor gradually stands the animal up. At this point, the animal element is adapted to the human being, retaining its strength but becoming much more subtle. 

The animal is chosen according to the characteristics of the role to be played. 
Good actors often use animals to build their characters: Marlon Brando disclosed all his brutal manners in A Streetcar Named Desire by moving like an ape; Jim Carrey walked pulling and pushing his neck like a pigeon to portray his egocentric and eccentric mode de faire in Ace Ventura. Shall we mention Batman? Tarzan? Mowgli? Or Catwoman?

Personally, I came to realize years ago - so, even before becoming acquainted with the animal exercise - that living with a pet for countless years implied a very close, daily, and effortless observation of an animal's behavior. When you live with a pet, you become familiar with its different ways of barking or meowing; each way has a different meaning. Wagging the tail has meaning, but not always the same meaning: my dog does it when he's happy, or when he's asking for something, kind of like buttering us up because he knows he shouldn't ask us for that. The way he looks at me varies with the context. He bit me once, and a second later he looked at me in a way that could only mean, "I'm so sorry, I don't know what came over me". 

I believe that the animal exercise will be much, much easier if the first approach involves your own, dear pet. The process of observation and study is much less intentional when it comes to your pet. You will realize how easy it is to imitate him and, at the same time, you will feel perfectly comfortable, natural, and subtle when adapting its behavior to a common "human" context. 

I also believe that a similar study of animals - maybe, but not necessarily carried on in a different way - could also benefit a writer's work on fictional characters. 



  1. Hi Jay,
    I absolutely love your dog's picture! :) He seems happy here. This animal exercise is not only useful for actors but writers as well. A lot of writers have personified animals in their books; the best example, and one of my favorite books, "Animal Farm" by George Orwell; Yann Martel's, "The Life of Pi" is another good example, and my ultimate favorite, Aesop's Fables which teach moral education to children. I, too, got inspired to write a creative non-fiction story based on Ernest Hemingway's cats in his Key West house. So I concur with this exercise. Thank you for sharing it with us. I really enjoyed it.

    1. Dearest Claudia,
      Yes, that was a much missed happy moment.
      Think about the pathetic fallacy, when we give nature human traits, and even the opposite, when we apply animal traits to humans: to be a weasel, or a shark...
      You're right, this exercise is useful for writers just as it is for actors!

  2. Let's not forget Beauty and the Beast.
    Yes, this comment is fairly insubstantial, but that's the first thing that came into my head when I read the post. :) Good thoughts.

  3. You're right, and The Sword in the Stone, where Merlin turns Wart into a fish, then a squirrel, and then a bird to teach him life.
    Your comment was perfect.
    Thank you for joining my blog, Lostariel.

  4. Brilliant! Animal work was the best. We used to trundle down to London Zoo frequently and spend the day observing and copying the various animals. I do a mean Peacock by the way LOL.

  5. Hi Peacock,
    I haven't been to the zoo yet. I watched plenty of documentaries, but I'll go to the zoo soon. It's up in Bronx. People say I'd make a good deer, but I'd rather be something less...pure!

  6. Hi Jay! This also makes me think of how we might come to resemble our pets, living with them. I have never given any thought to imitating our animals as part of actor's training. I've taken a few acting courses where that exercise was never on offer. I think that it can open one up to all the possibilities whether they are studying acting or not. Thank you for making me think about this in another light! Very interesting post!

  7. Hi Kelly,
    Can you believe it? For years I went around wagging my fictional tail and hopping like my dog whenever I was overjoyed! I used to think "Oh, how good it would be if, as an actor, I could just be as expressive as my doggy!" And one day I find out it's part of the actor's training!
    I'm happy my post helped you think about this.
    Maybe it can be useful for writers too, what do you think ;)
    Thanks for your kind comment, Kelly!

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    1. Thank you Kallis,
      I will certainly visit!