Are we not animals?

by Jane

This article was originally published in the March 2012 issue of The Adelaide Review.

David Heinrich and Cameron Goodall. Photo Jonathan VDK.

Far away from the traditional proscenium arch of the Adelaide Festival Theatre, the 2012 Adelaide Festival is presenting a unique collaboration between independent theatre company The Border Project and the Adelaide Zoo. The partnership between the artists and the zookeepers has lead to I am not an Animal: an intimate but large-scale, site-specific theatre work in which the animals themselves take centre stage.

The project began over two years ago when Zoos SA CEO Chris West and Adelaide Festival Artistic Director Paul Grabowsky found themselves seated together at a lunch, and shared what West calls an “overlap in interest and concern in humanity”. After that lunch the conversation continued and a partnership developed between the zoo and festival, which then approached The Border Project about creating a work to be presented in the zoo.

There is enough open space at the zoo that a piece of work could play there with no reflection on its surrounds but The Border Project knew they weren’t interested in creating work, which wasn’t an interaction between performers, animals and an audience. In the words of production co-director Daniel Koerner: “There is no jazz band in the rotunda.”

Instead, I am not an Animal will take audience members on an audio tour of the zoo, asking people to focus and contemplate on aspects of the animals and the environment of the zoo in a new light. So far, the gamble seems to be paying off: I am not an Animalwas the first show at this year’s festival to sell out.

Over the squawks of birdcalls from the zoo’s aviaries and the excited chatter of school children, Sam Haren, the director of The Border Project and co-director of I am not an Animal, tries to answer the obvious question: are we animals?

“With a lot of the animals I guess we’re trying to relate things they activate in us,” he answers. “When we look at the animals – how they activate feelings or thoughts about how those things relate to humans – are they our own animal instincts, or [is it] the way that we project a particular [human] quality onto an animal?”

Looking at the connections between animal and human behaviours, Haren and Koerner have been inspired by the time they’ve spent simply walking around the zoo. In particular, Haren speaks about observing the behaviour of a pair of otters: one blind and one with sight.

“They’re often connected and they look after each other,” he describes fondly. “You see that and you think of it as a very human idea, and it’s incredible to see these animals exhibiting a behaviour that we see as human.”

Placing an installation theatre work in a zoo isn’t just a matter of wandering around and picking what takes your fancy, however. The Border Project worked in close collaboration with the zookeepers, ensuring the welfare of the animals is always at the forefront.

Zoo curator Peter Whitehead enthuses about the project and the interesting collaboration he has found himself a part of, describing the process with self-deprecating humour. “The Border Project walk around the zoo, and they get all excited, and they come to the old grump here who then tells them what is real, what is possible, what is a nice concept but we’ll have to change it.”

After the initial meeting, Whitehead says he needed the company to know the zoo would be “accommodating to a degree”. For them, the welfare of the animals always had to come first. What this led to, however, is a true collaboration between the parties, serving the zoo environment, the animals and the art.

Haren and Koerner aren’t simply content for their contribution to the collaboration to start and end with an artistic product. Inspired and informed by the behavioural enrichment programs the zookeepers run for the animals,
I am not an Animal has seen The Border Project invest in new enrichment toys, which will stay with the zoo benefiting the animals long after this project is over.

“These items are going to go across the whole zoo,” Koerner says of the company’s contribution. “It’s been a win-win situation where we’ve been able to give something back to the zoo and the animals, which they’re really appreciative of.”

Whitehead has also observed his zookeepers take on a sense of ownership in the project and the dynamism it is bringing to the zoo.

“We’ve probably brought out some of the artistic talents in the keepers,” he says, “because we’ve come up with some ideas as well that they’ve taken away, and we have built a bond with Sam and Dan.”

While the show aims to make its audience see their relationship to animals in a new light, placing a new and dynamic theatre work in the zoo environment is also causing the people who work there to reflect on a not-to-pleasant past.  Respect of the animals has been at the forefront through the whole creative process for I am not an Animal, but the standards reached by the zoo today weren’t always in place.

For the production, The Border Project removed plant life that had grown up over the small, concrete display area, which once held polar bears. West says part of watching the creation of the show is “confronting how recently we were keeping large, intelligent animals in pretty confined spaces”.

“That’s part of the evolution and change in responsibility for all zoos,” he says.

“If you can’t look after [the animals] properly, if you can’t provide them with quality of life that is close to, or better than in some ways, what they would get in the wild… then you can’t do it. So showing the polar bear exhibit in all its horror is a good thing, because we’re saying we won’t do that. We really wouldn’t.”

For Haren and Koerner, however, this reflection is just one tiny section of the “menagerie” of ideas in the piece. “I don’t think the audience could expect to rock up with it being about conservation, or about cruelty to animals, or about how animals are funny, or about how the flamingos are very old,” Koerner says. “I think really in the end it’s not about the animals; it’s about humans in the end and what we are.”