Show For A Sheep
Updated: Aug 7
The first of a sequence of projects I’m calling ’12 Shows’ has been done.
It is not, as originally advertised, ‘Show For A Cow’, because I could not find a cow. You may be able to find a subtle hint as to what I could find in the title of this blog.
Yes, I am aware that this may be when I cross the delicate line between ‘theatrical experimenter’ and ‘pretentious fool’.
I am an admirer of Peter Brook’s work. One feature of his career that is much-written about is travelling across the world with his theatre company, performing to different groups who had never encountered theatre before, trying to find something universal.
Some of this work has been wisely critiqued on the grounds that some of its audiences (especially those as the company moved across Africa) did in fact have theatrical traditions, while Brook’s narrative depicts them as ignorant of such things.
The core idea, however, remains appealing. Much of theatre is in conversation with itself.
However, I would struggle to find someone who has never seen theatre or a theatre-adjacent product (i.e. TV, films, YouTube) before.
Likewise, the enthralling idea is the quest for universality, or at least a basic core. A bumpkinish part of my mind understands that animals have a degree of sentience; at the very least, “what would a performance created for a cow look like?” is an interesting question.
Why not a dog or cat? It might be, in future. But their relationship with humans is often close, while I would struggle to interact with them in a way not informed by my prior experience of doing so.
Why not a woodlouse? A key part of theatre is the performer being perceived by the audience. I have only ever been performed by a woodlouse for one reason: that it fears I am trying to kill it, or it is delighted that I have left it food, shelter, or some similar thing. While I am slightly interested in that as a concept (suddenly, the actor becomes a godlike figure of benevolence and destruction), I find it less likely to bring any unexpected results.
I have, of course, attempted this with both a cat and a woodlouse.
Why not a tree? Because I cannot understand a tree’s perception, or even operate on timescales likely to be ‘perceived’ by it. I have not attempted this project with a tree.
Why a cow (ideally)? It is the largest animal I am likely to find. While a wild animal is likely to look at the planet’s dominant predator and decide to flee or freeze, domesticated animals might at least exist within a continuum of shared experience.
Above all, while a sheep will suffice, a cow has the enormous advantage of being enormous. A sheep understands that it might run away, but little more; a cow knows that it might crush a human dumb enough to get in its way. This creates an element of, not equality, but mutual caution, rather than a captive and cautious audience.
But I could find a sheep.
Find a sheep (or a flock thereof). Then try to hold their attention for as long as possible. Do not drive them away, and if they decide they find chewing the grass more interesting, the performance ends.
Find what works.
This is, I appreciate, slightly odd. But I think I have something.
First, presence still exists. The notion of a performer standing and being functions as a means to hold attention, at least for a little while. Eye contact has a function too.
Second, the performance must be slower. A faster performance seems uninteresting; whether it is threatening, or simply alien to the sheep, I do not know. It might be that when I performed quickly, I lost presence.
Third, language inevitably plays little part. Large, slow gestures of the arm and leg seemed of interest, provided they varied reasonably soon, as did some stamping (but not too much). The rule of ‘start small, develop idea’ seems to hold.
Fourth, I was surprised that my sheep impersonation seemed to genuinely attract interest. Perhaps it is the appeal of the parrot’s imitation, or the slightly bewildering sound of a tourist mangling a basic greeting into a declaration of… whatever I communicated.
Finally, time was briefer. I would say that none of my performance-experiments so far have lasted more than five minutes. Ultimately, eating is required; understanding my antics is not.
I would like to try less abstract, more literal performance. Were I to express distress, would a sheep be moved? If I mime running away, or eating grass, does that make sense? I know from previous experience that miming the core interaction of farmer and flock, putting food into the feeder, does attract interest, but is that cheating? I feel like it’s cheating.
Above all: what about a performance enthrals a sheep, and how might I use that in my own practice?
Of course, this might simply be my preconceptions being imposed onto a bewildered flock of sheep (some of the above, not all, does match my hypothesis). But I do intend to return to the exercise, and invite others to find other audiences to sincerely try this out on.