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Animal Performance Studies

Laura Budriesi

Filosofia, zooantropologia, teoria della performance, etnoscenologia, studi teatrali

Unlearning Anthropocentrism in Performance Studies. Towards an interspecies ethics of knowledge

Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca

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1In this paper, I aim to outline some of the disciplinary context for the concern with performance & animals from the perspective of Anglophone theatre & performance studies. The narrative I suggest on this makes three movements. To begin, I note two historical disciplinary moments concerned with the inclusion of nonhuman animals in Performance Studies: the first during the 1970s, where we note how, through a focus on the work of Richard Schechner, Performance Studies has an ambivalent history in terms of its willingness to include nonhuman animals within the “broad-spectrum” of performance. Next, leaping ahead to the 2000s, we see how although there is an extensive “animal turn” within theatre and performance studies, it is clear that the growth of interest in performance & animals as a topic is not “enough” to address the anthropocentrism of the field. In the second movement, then, I follow Una Chaudhuri’s initial articulation of a new field of “interspecies performance” as one defined by ethics (amongst its definitive “articles of faith”) rather than by the animal as “subject matter” alone. In particular, I note how this includes the need to rethink the ethics of knowledge itself in relation to animal performance. In the final movement, I attempt to expand on this ethical knowledge praxis. As we’ll see, animal rights scholars have argued that we need new ethical models that do not rely on principles of resemblance or a logic of analogy: where nonhuman animals are afforded rights only to the extent that they can be asserted to be ‘just like us’. Likewise, I suggest that animal performance studies needs to practice an ethics of knowledge beyond the logic of analogy in relation to nonhuman animals. As I indicate, this means thinking from our entanglement in nonhuman life rather than from an assumption of separation and exception; it means practicing an ethics of knowledge built on the principle of differential continuity (or a continuum of difference): the shared, yet heterogeneous nature of human and nonhuman animal worlds.

1. The animal on the broad spectrum: a missed encounter with ethology?

2I will begin with the ambiguous status of nonhuman animal performance in the context of the “broad-spectrum” model – proposed by Richard Schechner and foundational to Performance Studies particularly in the US. Here, we see how, for Schechner, to allow the animal onto the spectrum whole-heartedly is to risk anthropomorphism. To briefly summarise, Performance Studies as a distinct field emerged as such partly based on the broad-spectrum definition of performance – particularly as developed by Schechner. According to this model: «Performance must be construed as a “broad spectrum” or “continuum” of human actions ranging from ritual, play, sports, popular entertainments, the performing arts (theater, dance, music), and everyday life performances to the enactment of social, professional, gender, race, and class roles, and on to healing (from shamanism to surgery), the media, and the internet.» (Schechner 2002, 1-2). This humanist definition of performance is consolidated and reiterated in the subsequent editions of his introductory textbook. In this way, Schechner conceives Performance Studies as a discipline that expands on the narrow, Eurocentric concept of performance hitherto espoused by the dominant model of Theatre Studies. The concept of performance is “broad” in one sense (and indeed too broad for some) in seeking to expand the study of performance beyond the context of the performing arts in the Western tradition and into the performative nature of identity. But from an Animal Studies perspective it is not broad enough, since it anthropocentrically focuses on «what people do in the activity of their doing it’ and on what that doing does to those humans involved in it and in relation to its context» (ibid.). Whilst the emergence of Performance Studies surely brought theatre and performance into an exciting dialogue with anthropology, sociology, rhetoric and other fields, we can say now – retrospectively – that there was a missed encounter with ethology. The expansion of performance to include the study of how socio-cultural norms are both resisted and reiterated through embodied behaviours sadly did not go far to investigate animal behavior or how performativity might relate to other species.

3But, as I’ve noted elsewhere (Cull 2015), the status of animals on the broad spectrum is more ambiguous for Schechner than the definition of performance as a “continuum” of human actions suggests. In his earlier book, Performance Theory (Schechner 1977/2003), this focus on “people” and “human actions” is by no means determined; on the contrary, Schechner gestures towards a radical inclusion of animal actions in the broad-spectrum, in a manner that might yet be understood as pointing toward one potential future for Animal Performance Studies. In Performance Theory, that is, he makes the then (and perhaps still) radical step of including the activities of primates – specifically wild chimpanzees – within his “broad-spectrum” account of performance. For instance, in the very opening of the text, he announces that «performance is an inclusive term. Theater is only one node on a continuum that reaches from the ritualizations of animals (including humans) through performance in everyday life» (Schechner 1977/2003, xvii). Later in the book, Schechner also says that he detects «no break between animal and human behaviour» and just as he asserts a continuum model of performance, he also thinks in terms of a «continuum of expanding consciousness» (ivi, 208). In other words, there can be no discrete identity for the human (which excludes all nonhumans) based on the possession of consciousness; rather consciousness is possessed to varying extents by all animals, making the difference between them a matter of degree rather than kind. Schechner also concludes that ‘so-called «“aesthetics” is not the monopoly of humans» (ivi, 98).

4In particular, Schechner insists that we can see the great apes – chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans – as engaging in performance without falling into what he calls «the error of anthropomorphism» (ivi, 96). To make his case, he draws on the example of a wild “chimp performance” described by the UK primatologist, Jane Goodall: a male chimpanzee in Tanzania (“Mike”) – repeatedly rehearsing an action (hitting two cans together, hooting whilst charging) before performing it for the alpha-male (“Goliath”). According to Goodall, the chimp began “hitting the two cans” together and hooting increasingly loudly as he started to charge towards the audience of other males who flee to relocate elsewhere. This action is repeated by Mike a number of times, before culminating in an approach to the then alpha-male of the group (“Goliath”), whom Mike would go on to replace not long after (ivi, 237). As Schechner acknowledges, this event could easily be interpreted by some as nothing more than an instinctual challenge to the chimps social hierarchy, an action ultimately motivated by evolutionary impulses to achieve the alpha-male status and the privileges, sexual and otherwise, assigned to it. However Schechner argues that what is significant about Mike’s performance is that his challenge to Goliath «came not as a direct attack or life-and-death fight but wrapped in ritual, played out as a theatrical event. Just as “making fun” can be an indirect attack on the authorities [in human performance], so Mike’s charge, driving the kerosene cans ahead of him, was a rehearsed, yet still indirect attack on Goliath’s dominant rank» (ivi, 238). Schechner proposes that «both “fun” and “rehearsal” seem to be part of the performance sequences of the great apes […] The apes may not rehearse [in a conventional human sense], but they do practice and improve their performances through repetition» (ibid.).

5Of further interest here is that, just as he acknowledges that chimps are not pre-human, Schechner also insists that

Chimp performance is not a prototype of human performance, but a parallel. As such it is even more interesting than as a prototype. A prototype tells us nothing more than that human performance has antecedents; a parallel means that another species, developing its own track, is engaged in deliberate, conscious, chosen activity that can best be described as «performing» (ivi, 97-98).

6But here is where the ambiguity in Schechner’s relation to animal performance lies: the notion of the “parallel track” seems to give space to the difference of nonhuman animal performance at the same time as acknowledging its continuity and connection to human performance. And yet, the principle of resemblance returns when Schechner rigidly imposes his (anthropocentric) definition of performance as deliberate, conscious, chosen activity. In other words, Schechner’s argument operates according to a logic of analogy wherein great apes – and only great apes – can be included in the broad-spectrum on the grounds that they possess the characteristics that Schechner (pre)determines to be essential to performance: the capacity for self-conscious behavior, reflexivity, and intention. In the end, an exclusionary definition of performance is re-introduced based on a human-centred notion of self-consciousness, when Schechner ultimately concludes that:

«Performance probably belongs only to a few primates, including humans […]. Humans do consciously, by choice, lower animals do automatically; the displaying peacock is not “self-conscious” in the way an adolescent male human is on Saturday night» (ivi, 98).

7I would argue that going down the line of trying to prove that animals do in fact share specific cognitive capabilities with humans is limited because it fails to prompt a rethinking of the category of performance. It leaves a human-centred definition of performance – as “deliberate, conscious, chosen activity” - intact and applies that concept only to those animals that are perceived to be most like “us”. What matters is that we acknowledge the anthropocentric power dynamics at work in concepts of performances which measure animals according to human standards.

Schechner is not the only example of how notions of performance have been used to reinforce human exceptionalism. Researchers in both Performance Studies and Animal Studies have used concepts of performance (alongside language and consciousness) to shore up the distinctive and superior status of the human. Since the origins of Performance Studies and up to today, there are commentators who define performance in strictly human terms. “True” performance is particularly associated with notions of self-consciousness, reflexivity and intention such that it is often assumed that «one must intend to perform in order to be considered a performer in the strictest sense» (Scott 2009, 49). For example, Schechner’s collaborator, Victor Turner famously defined the human as homo performans, going on to clarify that performance is essential to the nature of the human «not in the sense […] that a circus animal may be a performing animal, but in the sense that man is a self-performing animal […] in performing he reveals himself to himself» (Turner 1986, 81). Correlatively, John Simons argues that whereas «animals do not perform being animals […]. It is performance that defines and enables us, to some extent and on some occasions, to escape the seemingly overwhelming deterministic influences of history. […] A human, then, is an animal that can perform» (Simons 2002, 9).

2. The “animal turn” in Theatre & Performance Studies (is not enough)

8But let us jump forward from Schechner’s work in the 1970s to the 2000s, and the emergence of the “the animal turn” in which we see a growth of interest in performance & animals as a topic. As Una Chaudhuri noted in 2014, the last twenty years has seen «a spate of conferences, scholarly monographs, critical anthologies, book series, college courses, new journals, and special issues of journals variously registered the animal turn in the humanities and social sciences» (Chaudhuri 2014, 1). She goes on to suggest that «this academic burgeoning reflects a rapidly dawning “animal consciousness” in the culture at large, recorded in countless recent works of fiction, art, film, and popular culture» (ibid.). Within the cross-disciplinary development of Animal Studies, the last two decades have also seen an “animal turn” specifically within theatre and performance research. Researchers (Read 2000, 2008; Ridout 2006; Tait 2012; Orozco 2013; Chaudhuri, Hughes 2014; Parker-Starbuck, Orozco 2015; Chaudhuri 2016; Carlson 2018) have explored aspects of both the long history and contemporary resurgence of the use of live animals in theatre and performance contexts and the use of performance as a means to examine the relationship between humans and animals.

9And yet, from an ethical perspective, or from the point of view of seeking to dismantle the historic anthropocentrism of theatre and performance studies, it is not a cause for celebration in itself that performance scholars and makers are increasingly interested in nonhuman animals as subject matter. Some of this work reinforces the sense of separation between humans and nonhuman animals, notions of human exceptionalism and so forth. Neither ethics nor epistemology – nor the ethics of knowledge – has necessarily been a primary concern of “the animal turn” in performance in the past. However, I want to propose (and indeed, hope) that we are in the midst of an ethical turn within the animal turn: that the shift towards “Animal Performance Studies” and “Interspecies Performance” is becoming a specifically ethical turn. For instance, themed journal volumes (Allen, Preece 2013) demonstrate the widespread concern with how performance can pursue an “ecocentric ethics” and “ecological equality for the more-than-human-world”: a shared sense of urgency across the field of the need to decentre the human from/in theatre and performance, in a context where performance is considered as an ethical praxis of thought. (Chaudhuri 1994; Lavery, Finburgh 2015). In this way, just as there has been a shift in understandings of the human/nonhuman relationship in terms of the wider cultural theory, there has also been a shift in performance theory and practice: away from older hierarchical and anthropocentric models towards new, horizontal models; from framings of the nonhuman animal as “the [distant, distinct] Other” to those built on notions of interconnectedness and becoming (Woynarski 2015).

10At the same time, we might locate a parallel shift in performance practices: a greater attention to the ethics and politics of animal performance: artists making work for nonhuman animal audience (such as Krõõt Juurak and Alex Bailey) or using the arts to give humans the chance to experience what is framed as “the animal’s point of view” (such as the Metaperceptual Helmets of artists duo Cleary Connolly or the puppetry work of Brunskill and Grimes). Within the domain of European and North American experimental theatre and performance for instance (if not in mainstream entertainment), there has been a change in approaches to the animal in performance – shifting from the use of live animals in theatre and performance (either as metaphor or as a short cut to a certain kind of ‘reality effect’), towards the use of performance as a potential way of coming to know animal lives. Rather than using animals for aesthetic purposes – for example, insofar as «a performance’s liveness is also accentuated by the risk of animals’ unpredictability» (Allain, Harvie 2013, 129) – more recent interspecies practice seems more interested in the idea of using performance as ways of knowing differently and, indeed, unlearning existing assumptions about them.

3. Animal Performance Studies & Interspecies Performance

11The emerging field of interspecies performance – including the pioneering work of Una Chaudhuri and Ric Knowles in particular – could be seen as one instance of this “ethical turn”. As Chaudhuri has discussed, the notion of interspecies performance can be understood in a range of ways. Most commonly perhaps, interspecies performance might be assumed to refer to events and practices «that involve actual animals doing things alongside human performers’: the act of bringing real, living, nonhuman animals onstage» (Chaudhuri 2014, 6). In this respect, she continues, «the circus is the classic site of that kind of interspecies performance» but it also has its established traditions across the performing arts, raising «questions about the ethics of training, captivity, and the commercial use of animals» (ibid.). However Chaudhuri wants to give the term an ethical and epistemological focus: to suggest that there is a new and distinctive category of animal act being performed now best defined by its values rather than by whether it literally includes live animals. For Chaudhuri (2014), “interspecies performance” may not involve live animals but is a practice that subscribes to what she outlines as three core qualities or “articles of faith”: 1) a concern with actual animals; 2) a commitment to acting on behalf of actual animals or creating change in the live of real animals; and 3) contributing to a sense of “epistemological crisis” (positively construed) with respect to nonhuman knowledge of nonhuman animals.

12For his part, in 2013, Ric Knowles edited a special issue of «Theatre Journal» on «the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of interspecies performance» (Knowles 2013, iv): an issue which he productively described as an extension of the critical interculturalist project to include the consideration of the relations between «species — animal, plant, insect, and other» (ivi, i). In his editorial, Knowles engaged a Deleuzian vocabulary to draw parallels with the ethico-political agenda of intercultural performance, arguing that there was now

an urgent need to reconsider interspecies performance as a horizontalist and rhizomatic project in which no one partner in the exchange and negotiation dominates – a consideration that has significant implications for the question of who the “target audience” is for interspecies performance, who initiates and dictates the terms of the event, and, crucially, who or what benefits from it (ibid.).

Critically, Knowles closes his editorial with some questions, asking:

Who is the audience for interspecies performance (is it always or necessarily human?), and how does the researcher take into account interspecies performance that does not involve humans, does not involve human agency, or that bypasses human brokerage? If we are serious about the reciprocity of the interspecies, we must be willing to address, as actors and as audiences, the potential absence or inconsequence of human participation (Knowles 2013, v).

And indeed, as we’ll see, there has been an increasing interest in the idea of both animals as performers and as audiences in recent years. However, Knowles’ principle concern here seems to be to push us towards the (more radical?) idea of interspecies performance in the absence of humans altogether and to the question of how nonhumans perform for themselves and each other. Of course, given the inextricable entanglement and interdependency of human and nonhuman lives, there is surely no “purely” nonhuman (or human) performance in this sense. Playful wild cetaceans like beluga whales, for instance, performs for themselves and for each other in ways that are shaped by the context of human-made phenomena like ocean noise. And yet, perhaps we can still take up the invitation to reflect upon forms of interspecies performance that occur with minimal degrees of human influence. As Thomas White (2004) has discussed in the context of a wider consideration of interspecies ethics, a key concern here is how we avoid anthropocentrism in our collective investigation of the relationship between animals and performance. For instance, the tendency to refer to how animals “perform” (in scare quotes), exposes an anxiety around the application of the term to nonhuman animals if we cannot evidence that an animal exhibits given abilities (theatrical, performative, aesthetic, cognitive and so forth) in the same way and in all the ways that a human does. (At its most simplistic: a cat cannot pretend to be Richard III, therefore cats cannot perform). The way that humans perform, in other words, is applied as the standard for performance, and – at times – in order to argue that animals do not perform at all.

13Yet do we really know what human performance is, anyway? Vibrant ongoing debate in the field of Performance Studies suggests that no consensus exists as to the criteria for performance as a “complex ability”. From another point of view, humans might seem to be very poor performers: unable to camouflage ourselves into our environment without the benefit of prostheses or makeup; limited in our visual and auditory perceptual range and capacity for limbic attunement to the bodies of others; effective imitators of each others voices but less skilled than the birds in the vocal impersonation of car alarms and mobile phones. As this field develops, Vinciane Despret’s (2016) influential work warns us to be mindful of failing to ask the right (and polite) questions about the relationship between animals and performance. The question is not: «can animals perform?» which seems to imply the silent and acknowledged act of measuring the extent to which animals perform “like us”. Rather, the question is one that entails within it the leap of faith or the benefit of the doubt in asking: how do animals perform? As well as being more polite in Despret’s sense, this has the reciprocal benefit of refusing any presumed consensus or reinforcing dominant assumptions around human performance – as if there were a given or agreed account of this that animal performance could be “like”.

14One way in which I have tried to articulate the key gesture of “Animal Performance Studies” is as a mode of inclusion beyond analogy. Here, a reciprocally transformative interspecies encounter is contrasted with the problem of inclusion by analogy or resemblance: wherein a concept, category or domain (whether “performance,” “empathy,” “knowledge,” or the domain of equality or rights itself) is ostensibly extended to include nonhuman animals but only by a gesture of appropriation of the other into the same, rather than the transformation of the category itself through the encounter with the other. For example, critics have already argued that it is not enough to merely quantitatively increase the domain of contemporary morality in order to include a greater number of individuals--as animal rights advocate Peter Singer’s (1981) “expanding circle” model seems to propose. Rather, we need new ethical models that do not rely on principles of resemblance: where nonhuman animals are afforded rights only to the extent that they can be asserted to be “just like us”. There is a double-bind to this scenario: one in which humans are torn between the welfare benefits likely associated with the extension of legal rights to nonhumans, but at the same time skeptical of their underlying logic which reinforces rather than challenges the presumed moral superiority of humans. This is a double-bind that requires us to think difference and continuity, heterogeneity and commonality together, rather than as mutually exclusive.

15My own interest lies in the expansion or mutation of concepts – whether of theatre, performance, philosophy or language – in order to include nonhuman animals. This is not a matter of an appropriative inclusion or mere application of extant humanist ideas of performance to nonhuman animals. That is, we seem to miss the transformative potential of animal encounters if we merely value animal behavior to the extent that it succeeds in meeting human standards for performance (whether defined in terms of dominant aesthetic values or broad-spectrum accounts of performance as “self-conscious behaviour”). Contra this anthropocentric approach, what we need is something like a “species neutral” approach to performance wherein our definitions of performance remain sufficiently flexible or open not to predetermine that «only humans would ever be able to demonstrate that trait or ability». (White 2004). We need the scope to be able to value what may be species-specific performance skills, but also to be attentive to where human and nonhuman performance might overlap.

4. A new ethics of knowledge: Unlearning anthropocentrism in Performance Studies

16To conclude, my sense is that there is an “ethical turn” underway within the “animal turn” – but I am not sure yet that we are practicing the new ethics of knowledge we need. Animal Performance Studies is already informed by posthuman, dehumanist philosophies that emphasise the shared yet heterogeneous nature of human and nonhuman animal worlds, but in dominant Western paradigms at least we are not yet doing enough to change how we think about thought and knowledge itself or, more critically, how we perform thought alongside animals. How do we think from our entanglement in nonhuman life rather than from an assumption of separation and exception? How can we put a dehumanist ethics of knowledge into practice? How do we practice an ethics of knowledge in relation to nonhuman animals, built on the principle of differential continuity or kinship in difference? To address these questions we need to change how we study (our concepts and practices of knowledge) not just what we study. As Cary Wolfe has long since argued for animal studies as a whole: «To put it bluntly, just because we study nonhuman animals does not mean that we are not continuing to be humanist—and therefore, by definition, anthropocentric» (Wolfe 2009, 568). Following Wolfe, Performance Studies needs to question «the humanist schema of the knowing subject […] the picture of the human as constituted […] by critical introspection and self-reflection that is, after all, a hallmark of humanism» (ivi, 569-570).

17In contrast, I suggest that we might get to a new ethics of knowledge through forms of unlearning. We need to unlearn anthropocentrism as structuring knowledge within Theatre and Performance Studies. Specifically, we can think in terms of undoing or letting go of at least three things: firstly, letting go of old ideas about ourselves – such as the idea of the researcher as a master of human reason); secondly, unlearning “idiotic assumptions” about nonhuman animals that have been ingrained (for many of us) through anthropocentric culture (Despret 2016); thirdly, abandoning exclusionary concepts of performance, for example, as “deliberate, conscious, chosen activity”. In terms of this last point, we need to get rid of those more reductive definitions of performance in favour of those that affirm a more expanded view of what counts as “conscious behaviour”, “pretence”, “intention” and so forth. With regards the first of these, this could involve exploring the idea that there are different levels of consciousness exhibited by different animals including humans. But it could also go further by acknowledging the possibility that animals might be differently conscious from each other (and indeed, from themselves) in a qualitative sense (without feeling the need to structure such differences into a hierarchy). Correlatively, it could be that what is required is to abandon altogether our need to approach animals with a predetermined definition of performance already in hand, in favour of allowing performance to remain open to perpetual mutation and reconceptualization in the face of our encounters with animals.

18Unlearning (or other practices of openness) may then lead the way to transformational interspecies encounters: practices of inclusion beyond analogy, and the qualitative expansion or mutation of performance and knowledge through encounters with nonhuman animals. This invites us to consider Animal Performance Studies not just as one more academic sub-field, but as a lived, embodied process of coming into contact with the ways in which animals communicate and perform beyond reductive, anthropocentric definitions.

19This radical inclusivity might also demand that we genuinely follow through on an expanded definition of performance in terms of both the types of behavior, activities and events that we study in the field of Animal Performance Studies and how we study them. That is, to expand the concept of performance to include animals need not just, or not only, mean analysing animal behavior, activities and events (in the wild or elsewhere, with or without interactions with humans) “as” performance. Rather, or additionally, the particular value of performance might lie in its capacity to produce new research methods to those already established in Animal Studies. The emphasis here would be on performance as a lived, embodied process of coming into contact with the ways in which animals are differently conscious from themselves and one another, regardless of whether or not it culminates in the production of “performances” for a human audience. This is “animal performance as research”, then, where practitioners’ insights into the animals they work with or alongside might produce a counter-knowledge to the dominant scientific accounts of animal life (recalling Chaudhuri’s suggestion above). Or better, perhaps, such uses of performance may not be geared toward the production of knowledge about animals at all, so much as an embodied proximity to animals’ own ways of thinking and performing that remains resistant to any attempted paraphrase into discourse. «It is when we don’t understand and have to leave behind our certainties that we can gain the greatest insights» (Bowie 2007, 11). Such a move need not be seen as a mere retreat to notions of ineffability and mystery so much as a rethinking of performance as a felt «knowledge of “unknowing”» (Mullarkey 2009, 211) in relation to animal life as that which perpetually resists conceptualizations of it.


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Lector and Head of DAS Graduate School at Academy of Theatre and Dance, Amsterdam University of the Arts in the Netherlands. Her research projects include Performance Philosophy & Animals: Towards a Radical Equality which asks how performance can contribute to more ethical ways of knowing non-human animals in the entangled contexts of climate crisis and social inequality. She has published widely on animality and performance (Cull Ó Maoilearca 2021, 2019, 2015, 2012) and commented extensively on the work of Fevered Sleep, Every house has a door, and of Tatsumi Hijikata. Her forthcoming publications include Interspecies Performance (2023), co-edited with Florence Fitzgerald-Allsopp for Performance Research books.


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