What are “Animal Exercises”?
An actor can study how an animal or animals move and, then, use some of those movements when preparing to capture the physicality of their character
(By Tonya Tannenbaum)
In essence, “animal exercises” or “animal work” is a training technique that involves actors studying the movements and characteristics of animals, observed outside of the acting class, such as on a farm, in a zoo, or in nature. Once back in class, the actor attempts to emulate the movements and behaviors of the animals they studied.
Animal exercises is, perhaps, most associated with Russian acting teacher, Maria Ouspenskaya. Ouspenskaya was an early pupil of Konstantin Stanislavski and the “Stanislavski System”, at the Moscow Art Theater in Russia. She emigrated to the United States to form the American Lab Theater with Richard Boleslavsky.
At the Theater, Ouspenskaya sought to enhance the actor’s power of observation and concentration. She wanted to break them out of the traditional ways of movement, which is learned over the course of one’s lifetime. She wanted them to be able to use their bodies in ways they never imagined, enhancing the range of characters they could successfully portray, in the process.
So, as part of their studies, students were asked to observe animals, like squirrels, pigs, tigers and elephants, on their own time. They would mimic how the animals moved, how they behaved, how they walked, how they ate their meals, how they slept and how they interacted with other animals and humans. In the process, the actors could practice using new centers of gravity, new responses to stimuli, new behaviors, and new tempos and rhythms of movement.
The actors could then incorporate these lessons of observation and movement into the characters they played. For example, a character without a physical disability must develop new ways of using their body when portraying a character who has an obvious physical disability. They must be able to develop the tempo, movement, center of gravity and motion style of a character who has a physical impediment that the actor does not possess. An actor can study how an animal or animals move and, then, use some of those movements when preparing to capture the physicality of their character.