The Animal Exercise for Actor’s Character Development

The Animal Exercise for Actor's Character Development_550
Photo Credit: Barney Livingston via cc

Why observing animals can help actors build characters

Lee Strasberg introduced the animal exercise into an actor’s training and preparation for a role. It is still taught today in most drama schools and really helps you to build a deeper physical characterisation of any role.
Marlon Brando famously observed apes for his role as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, Lee J Cobb who played Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman watched elephants so he could create ‘the weight of the world on his shoulders’, Julia Roberts watched dogs in a dog shelter who had been victims of abuse for her role as abused wife Laura in Sleeping With The Enemy, even Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura watched pigeons for the role.

Have you ever looked at someone and thought they were quite bird-like, or maybe someone who is so hyper all, the time that they are like an excited golden retriever puppy?

I have a pet dog, Peggy, she is a terrier and is a constant delight. Spending day in day out with her I find myself observing and interpreting her behaviour – When she is happy, how can I tell? When she is grumpy, how does she show it? What does she do when she is feeling maternal? What does she do when she is territorial?
Introduce yourself to the animal exercises of Strasberg today by observing your pet, if you have one. It is a really easy and gentle way into this wonderful technique. It is very easy to imitate your pet’s behaviour as you know them so well, and because you have probably a good idea of their ‘personality’ it will be easy to adapt the pet’s behaviour to a common human context.

How to try ‘the animal acting exercise’

The actual ‘animal exercise’ goes something like this.
Choose an animal to study, or if you are working on a specific character then explore that character’s motivators and personality traits – try and find an animal whose traits most closely match that character’s. You next need to observe that animal – so get somewhere where you can watch that animal. The best place is of course, the zoo as you can spend hour after hour watching. If you can’t get to a zoo then head to YouTube it is full of nature videos where you can really examine the creature in its natural habitat.
Don’t begin with imitation, spend a long time just observing. Be as specific as possible in your obesrvation of the animal. What is the creature’s posture? How does it move? When does it move and why does it move? Explore even the tiniest details.
Start to imitate the animals physical behaviour, be as specific as possible.
  • How is your animal shaped? Think about the curve in its back. How does that effect the way it moves?
  • Does your animal have fins, hooves, paws, or hands?
  • Does your animal have a tail?
  • Does your animal have fur, feathers, scales? Is its skin smooth, bumpy, hot or cold? Think about how its skin feels.
  • What is the shape of your animals ears? How about its nose? Does it have a snout? What about its mouth? Do the shape of its nose and mouth making eating and drinking easier or more difficult? Where are its eyes located? Do they face front or are they farther on the sides of its face?
Study as patiently as you can and mirror the animal and try to transfer the animal’s thoughts to your own thoughts.
  • What are you (the animal) thinking as you move from one place to another?
  • Why did you (the animal) just stop still and look intently into the distance?
  • What are you (the animal) thinking?
Once you are feeling comfortable gradually humanise the animal and stand it up. Retain the strength of your behaviour but make it more subtle and gradually bring it down to a human behaviour. Keep the physical and phychological aspects of the creature but transform them to the human character.
Again ask yourself the same questions:
  • What are you (the character) thinking as you move from one place to another?
  • Why did you (the character) just stop still and look intently into the distance?
  • What are you (the character) thinking?
This exercise will help you to open up different layers of the character and get more of an insight into deep down what makes them tick. The exercise will open you up as a performer and stretch your boundaries and inhibitions.
Exploring different behaviours, physicalities and characterisations is what acting is all about – so have some fun exploring and creating characters from the animal world.
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