Wild Choreography: Animal Instincts

Performing in musical theater is all about creating a character. But when that character barks, oinks or walks on all fours, a performer can feel, well, caged. Here’s how to create a creature character without falling into a tailspin.

Piggin’ Your Approach

Want to make your animal spring to life? Start with some research: How does the character move, sound and behave? Jenna Coker, who played Gub-Gub the Pig in the national tour of Doctor Dolittle, began her fact-finding quest on Google. A search for “pig noises” yielded a barnyard’s worth of information on sounds and meanings of hog snorts.

For Coker—whose role included dancing, acting and even flying with a life-size pig puppet attached to her hands and feet—learning the sounds her pig would make was an essential first step. “You think ‘pig’ and you think ‘snort,’” Coker says. “Well, there are different types of snorts. Quite a few attitudes are relayed through sounds.”

Next, Coker spent time observing actual pigs. Since she’s based in New York City—not exactly a hog haven—she searched for farms in other areas. She found one in Missouri, and since she would be traveling nearby she called to ask if she could spend a day watching their piglets. “The stereotype is that pigs are sloppy, eat a lot and move slowly,” Coker says. “Not true. They’re fast like the wind, and incredibly smart. I put all of that into my performance.”

A farm, a zoo or even a park can be the perfect place to conduct your research. “I found myself watching dogs on the street during all of my lunch breaks,” says Coker’s Dolittle castmate Michael McGurk, who played Jip the Dog.

If your animal is of a more exotic variety, try videos and DVDs. The Broadway cast of Disney’s Tarzan spent several days watching ape documentaries from National Geographic and The Discovery Channel, paying close attention to how the animals moved and interacted. They listened to ape sounds and observed how they handle babies.

Walk Like an Ape

The next step is turning what you see into how you behave. From studying dogs, McGurk found that canines are always moving, even if that movement is just a small wag of the tail or twitch of the ear. Even when Jip was at rest—just sitting or lying onstage—McGurk kept him “alive” by subtly tugging on the strings attached to the puppet’s head and tail.

The Tarzan cast worked with choreographer Meryl Tankard to practice specific ape actions that they could use in their performances, including learning to walk with their backs hunched and their weight dropped into their hands, on the knuckles. (In fact, part of the Tarzan audition included walking with weight on the knuckles.) The cast also developed a language to describe different ape movements, to speed up and improve communication in rehearsal. For example:

“Charge!” Hunched like gorillas, the dancers would run, thrusting their weight forward entirely into their arms—on the knuckles—then collect their legs underneath their chests before throwing their arms outward to begin another stride.
“Stalk” Slowly and deliberately hunting down prey.
“Tag” Being playful—a small group of gorillas slapping, rolling, circling and chasing each other.
“What about me?” The chest-beating action a gorilla does to get attention.
A “stalk” could be followed by a “charge,” or a gorilla left out of “tag” could show his displeasure with a “what about me?”

Creature Comforts? Not Really

Animal roles can be tough on the body, so take care of yourself. Despite working on a stage with a padded floor, the Tarzan cast members found their knuckles getting calloused and discolored and their muscles sore after weeks of ape-walking and rope-climbing. “It’s tough on the knees and quads,” ensemble member John Elliott Oyzon says, “and you put a lot of weight on the knuckles.”

Manipulating a giant costume can be taxing, too. In Dolittle, Coker’s pig puppet and flying apparatus added 50 pounds to her petite frame. The metal plates that connected the Gub-Gub puppet to her shoes dug deep into her feet. She had to walk with her back hunched and her body in plié. “I spent so much time with the chiropractor,” she says. “It was insane.”

If a specific movement is unbearably painful, Coker recommends practicing with a mirror and trying to figure out another way to do it so you don’t get hurt. And if your aches become chronic, get checked out right away—you might be injured. “Take care of your body,” says Coker. “Otherwise you could develop lifelong problems.”

When using cables and harnesses for flying, remember that tension can cause injuries. Chester Gregory II, who plays the gorilla Terk in Tarzan, says it took him nearly two months to grow accustomed to swinging, singing and dancing on a cable. “In the beginning it was painful,” he says. “I wasn’t used to it and I was holding all the tension in.” Many hours of practice gave Gregory the confidence he needed to make his performance seem easy. “Gorillas are agile in the air,” he says. “When I’m in the air, I try to make it seamless.” 

Tim O’Shei is a freelance writer in Buffalo, NY. 

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