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Theatre Family

Animals on Stage

The art of portraying cats, dogs, lions and horses.


Published: 29 Jan 2020

Pen 2

Updated: 23 Mar 2020

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From puppets to human actors, theatremakers continue exploring new ways to bring animals to life on stage

“Never work with animals or children,” goes the old Hollywood adage attributed to comedian W.C. Fields. 

But while young human actors may adorably upstage you, working with animal ones involve different ethical concerns about their treatment. From rabbits used for lewd mime in a 2001 production called After Sun in Spain, to traumatised goldfish on the set of a 2014 revival of Richard III in London, the use of live creatures on stage have increasingly prompted walk-outs and protests.

Little wonder then that contemporary creators are thinking harder than ever about how animals are represented in theatre. Granted, alternative ways of representing animals in theatre have always existed – be it the clever uses of masks and face-painting designs in Asian traditional forms like Chinese opera, puppetry, or good old-fashioned anthropomorphism. One playwriting department, at the Virginia Commonwealth University, suggests on its website the lo-tech solution of using stuffed critters or soft toys.

But, when the plot really calls for them to feature front and centre, how can directors make artificial animals come alive in innovative ways?

We take a look at some recent members of this spectacular menagerie in theatre productions for adults and young audiences:

1. Cats

Mention cats on stage, and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s classic musical based on TS Eliot’s poems springs instantly to mind. But the singing felines in Cats—despite their renewed visibility in both a recent revival here and a new, critically-panned film adaptation—are not the only anthropomorphised tabbies and toms treading the boards.

Cats take centrestage in Ninagawa Company's staging of Kafka on the Shore.

In Kafka on the Shore, by Ninagawa Company (Japan), which played at the Esplanade Theatre in 2015, novelist Haruki Murakami’s unforgettable cat characters were brought to life by actors in whimsical full-body suits designed by Ayako Maeda, whose other credits include costumes for opera productions such as Madama Butterfly at the New National Theatre in Tokyo in 2019. In a review for The New York Times, Charles Isherwood wrote:

The talking cats…are among the more engaging aspects of the show, with the performers persuasively mimicking the slinking of a Siamese or the playful rubbing of a young tomcat.

Actors Yukio Tsukamoto, Katrine Mutsukiko Doi Vincent and Mame Yamada do such a good job of padding about on all fours, that they seem freakishly life-like, albeit in giant cat form. In an early scene, an old man appears to be having a conversation with a toddler on a bicycle with an unnaturally deep voice, until one realises that it is Tsukamoto as black cat Otsuka who is actually speaking. Otsuka then goes onto conduct a lengthy conversation with the old man (Katsumi Kiba), licking its paws and cleaning itself, all while perched on the park bench as a dark hulking presence – a surreal sight.

2. Lions

Oh, sure, Simba will always reign supreme as Disney’s The Lion King, in the stage adaptation replete with the pageantry of faux-animals coming down the aisles. But memorable lions in recent theatre history also includes Aslan in Adrian Noble and Adrian Mitchell’s version of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe: the 2001 revival at Sadler’s Wells theatre in London featured actor Patrice Naiambana with golden dreadlocks, booming voice and power yoga moves.

Then again, who says a lion has to be majestically depicted, as a fearsome shag of fur? 

In Fatimah and Her Magic Socks, an Esplanade production adapted from the children’s book of the same name by Zizi Azah Bte Abdul Majid, a lion named Mr Minismen is imaginatively wrought from a motley assortment of foot coverings. Aaron Yap’s lion costume design for the 2017 children’s theatre production, directed by Daniel Jenkins, is a simple cape sewn with striped and polka-dotted socks, which required nothing but acting and the imagination to keep young spectators in stitches.

A lion stitched together from socks in 2017's staging of Fatimah and Her Magic Socks.

Interestingly, the book was itself derived from a theatrical production How Did the Cat Get So Fat, first staged by Teater Ekamatra in 2006. In the original, the lion is a 20-cent coin-operated children’s ride.

“Imaginary or real, children do derive more comfort with animals, and thus the lion became an extension of Fatimah’s imagination,” says Sofia Begum, producer of Fatimah and Her Magic Socks. Taking that, the production team worked with costume designers—Yap in 2016, and Liliana Solk for its 2020 restaging—to create a creature that “bore the bravery of the lion, but still was imaginative, and true to a child’s approach to animals”.

Mr Minismen then evolved into a “soft-toy-esque creature” that helped Fatimah be comfortable in her own skin.

While there had been “haters” who refused to believe that the lion was a lion, Sofia says most children adored Mr Minismen. She notes that they were very impressed by the magic of disappearing and appearing socks – even if some did cry from the shock of his first appearance disguised as a mountain of dirty laundry which then moved. Then the songs come on, and all is right again.

3. Dogs

Dogs often serve as metaphors in plays: from Broadway adaptations of the film Dog Day Afternoon; to playwright Olivia Olsen’s 2019 debut Stray Dogs in London, about and named after the group of artists and writers who refused to toe Stalin’s party line. 

In Citizen Dog by Singapore’s The Finger Players, however, what starts out as a metaphor for a hang-dog existence or the down-trodden underdog quickly becomes a literal canine – and a foul-mouthed one at that. The play, which premiered in June 2018 at the Victoria Theatre, centred on a group of residents about to be evicted after their land-lease expires, features a large puppet of a white dog, operated by performers Darren Guo, Ann Lek and Trey Ho to realistic effect. Recalls director Oliver Chong,

The challenges were to design a puppet that looked like it was made of paper but robust enough to take the heavy handling of three puppeteers… and with the dexterity and flexibility of a real dog.

“I wanted strong contrast between an unlikely-looking dog, and the movements and behaviour of a real dog,” he adds, “That’s in line with the concept of the play, the interplay between reality and dream; the real and hyper-real.”

He finally found what he was looking for in a cardboard dog sculpture by Melbourne-based architect Jack Chen of Tsai Design. With permission to use the sculpture’s construction templates, Chong designed joints and moveable mechanisms. The final Citizen Dog puppet was made out of 3mm plywood and paper, took 28 days to build, and cost close to a thousand dollars. Despite making it as strong as they could, the puppet required emergency repairs several times throughout the intense two-month rehearsal period.

Made from plywood and paper, the dog puppet in Citizen Dog took 28 days to build.

“It was very strenuous for the three puppeteers to crouch—moving swiftly, quietly and with precision—for 90 minutes on a rigged platform,” recalls Chong. “They couldn’t stand or walk properly after every rehearsal and show.” The hard work paid off: audiences often forgot the visible human operators were there – “the best compliment to a puppeteer,” says the director.

The Finger Player’s next production—Citizen X (2020) at Drama Centre Black Box—is the last of a trilogy which started with Citizen Pig (2013) and continued with Citizen Dog. No animals are involved in Citizen X, says Chong.

4. Horses

It takes three puppeteers to operate a horse puppet in War Horse.

Arguably the play that made puppetry cool again for scores of Western theatre-goers, War Horse was a sensation when it opened at the National Theatre in London in 2007, going on to entertain millions of people.

Reviewing the show for The Telegraph, Charles Spencer confessed that his heart sank when he learnt that the horses starring in it would be puppets – “…often an embarrassment, involving a lot of effort and fuss for negligible returns” – but that this was not the case with War Horse. Based on the 1982 book by Michael Morpurgo, it is the first-person testimony of Joey, purchased by the army to serve in World War I, except—yep, you guessed it—Joey is a horse.

Made from cane frames and stretched fabric (silk patches applied to gauze, to suggest animal skin patterns), weighing nearly 30kg each, the life-sized puppet horses created by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company requires three puppeteers working inside them. Levers and bicycle brake cables in front make the horses’ ears move; looser cables at the back make the horses’ knees bend or simulate trotting, cantering or galloping.

There are two levers at the back of each horse: one to move the tail side to side, the other to move it up and down.

Puppeteers do sit-ups, push-ups and aerobic exercises to train their upper-bodies, in order to bear the combined weight of horse puppet and its rider. To alleviate the performers’ swollen tendons, the company asked physiotherapists to help them tweak the way the puppets were manipulated by hand. And there were ‘vets’ backstage during the West End run, in case any of the puppets broke.

“On the first day of every workshop, there would be a new Joey puppet with new joints or parts,” said War Horse’s adaptor Nick Stafford, in a 2014 interview with The Guardian to mark the play’s 10th anniversary. “I'd always go say hello to him. It was like seeing your lead actor after a break: ‘Oh, been on a diet have you? Had Botox?’ He was very easy to talk to.”

Contributed by:

Clara Chow

Clara Chow is the author of two books, Dream Storeys and Modern Myths. Her spirit animal is the sloth.