Part 2: Nuts And Bolts Techniques

Chapter 12: Animal Exercises

Marlon Brando studied a gorilla as part of his preparation for playing Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. He observed and imitated the gorilla’s behavior and then incorporated parts of it into his performance. He watched how the animal stood, how he stared, how he moved, how he roared.

If you watch how Brando moves in that movie, and hear the sounds he makes, you can probably see the gorilla in his performance. If you’re not looking for it however, I don’t think it’s obvious.

But listen to the brute force of his bellowing “Stella!” Watch how his limbs seem heavy, lumbering and alive in a way that sometimes only animals seem alive.

Brando worked for a time at the Actors Studio where its founder, Lee Strasberg, would often have his actors crawling around on the floor as ducks, pigs, elephants, anything they could think up that they felt could help them with a role.

Just as you can’t tell that Brando was using a gorilla for Streetcar, or that Robert DeNiro was using a crab in Taxi Driver, so no one is likely to know if you are using an animal for your life.

Try this exercise. You may experience some pretty amazing results.

Playing That Animal
You play an animal in much the same way that you play a character. You ask yourself many of the same questions and try to act the answers out with your body. Pick an animal and see if you can answer the following:
• If your body is your animal’s body, how does it feel?
• Where is the animal more relaxed than you are?
• Where is it heavy?
• How does it move its mouth? Its ears? Its cheeks?
• How does it lie down, sit, crawl, walk, or roll over?
• What's it like to have a tail? Exaggerate this.
• How does it feel to have hair as long as your animal’s? How long is it?
• Are its eyelids heavier or lighter than yours?
• What kind of sounds does your animal make? Dare to be outrageous here. Really trumpet that elephant, or let that lion roar. Really jabber that monkey. And when you hoot as that owl, can you feel its eyes, open and staring?

Playing an animal has liberated an amazing percentage of my clients. As one lawyer said to me, "It's strange, I feel self-conscious playing myself, but not when I’m playing a panther."

Ethan Hawke Uses an Animal
Ethan Hawke says that one of the most important and effective techniques he uses is playing an animated cartoon animal. Yes, an animal from a cartoon. “When I get a role,” he says, “I think what animal the character would be, because animals have character.”

After he’s decided what animal his character might be, he asks the same questions you’d ask in the non cartoon Animal exercise: Does the animal move quickly or slowly? What kind of sounds does it make?

I don’t know what animal he was playing in Training Day, but he sure is brilliant in that movie.

Hawke’s even said, “It’s the most useful acting tool I know.”

Elsa's Cat and Her Tail
Elsa, a twenty-six-year-old graphic designer, complained to me one day about the pain in her lower back. My cat (Chamomile) happened to be in the room with us and I noticed her rolling around on the floor in a particularly free and relaxed fashion.

Elsa always enjoyed watching Chamomile. She also had a cat, and loved cats, and something in me told me to ask Elsa to play the cat.

Elsa was game, and got down on the floor and tried to imitate how Chamomile was moving and breathing. I asked her to try and duplicate Chamomile’s relaxation. It's hard to be much more relaxed than a cat.

Elsa began moving her nose the way a cat moves its nose, and her hands and arms, the way a cat moves its paws and legs. Most important, Elsa began moving her tail. Well, first, she pretended that she had a tail. Then she swished it around. She was even having fun.

If you’re having fun, I’ve found that you’re probably doing something right, and you’ll usually get results.

Sure enough, as Elsa continued to move her tail from side to side and up and down, her lower back began to relax and the pain began to disappear.

I suggested she continue the exercise after she left me, walking to her car, or shopping at the mall. I suggested she could do it subtly, not that she get down on all fours and roll around on her back. She had only to remember how she had felt on my floor, as the cat, and to swing her hips, if only a little, as if there might be a tail at the end of her coccyx.

Elsa began to do this everywhere she went, and the best part is that the pain in her lower back disappeared.

Why? Well, as I mentioned in the chapter on Relaxation, our bodies usually react more quickly to being given an image than to being given a verbal command.

Images are the language of the body and our right brain. Words are the language of the mind and left brain. Images often translate themselves, almost immediately, into spontaneous, even unconscious behavior.

Enough analysis. Try imagining you have a tail and if you think you may want your back to relax see if it does.

Slowing Down
Some people who come and work with me feel they rush too much. That is not surprising, considering that most of them live in the city and drive a car, which for starters goes faster than their own biorhythms. Then there's fast food, jet planes, instant net communication, you know the list.

Many people who come to me feel they go so fast they can’t enjoy their lives. Often they find they can slow down by Playing an Animal.

Playing an elephant is guaranteed to slow you down. Rhinoceroses come in a close second, along with sloths and turtles, but it’s elephants that are hard to forget.

Robert's Gorilla
Robert, a thirty-two-year-old coffee machine salesman, was used to being intimidated by the people he did business with on the phone. Yelling was apparently one of the ways they did business, and when they yelled at him, Robert would begin to shake inside, back down, and, as he said, "react." He would forget the position he had meant to take with them. and what he had wanted to accomplish in the call. He said he wished he knew how to stand his ground, instead.

In one workshop, Robert chose to work on playing a gorilla. Who knows why this animal gave him extra courage and a powerful sense of being, but it did. Standing as the gorilla, Robert found it easy to stand his ground. He sensed the gorilla would not be intimidated by anybody's yelling and might even occasionally roar back. Easily and effortlessly.

Robert and his gorilla man the phones together these days. They know where they stand. They do not back down.

Your Own Menagerie
• What animal do you think would be fun for you to play?
• A puppy for playfulness?
• A swan for grace? Or a gazelle?
• A tiger or a puma for power and strength?
• An eagle to help you gain perspective on your life, to help you see an overview, to help you see the big picture?
• A butterfly?

At one workshop I gave at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, everyone was playing an animal outside on a deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean, when I saw a butterfly passing by. A white and delicate, fluttering butterfly.

I tried to imagine how the butterfly would feel the wind. I imagined how intensely it would smell the flowers. I tried to imagine how intoxicated it might be from their smell. I felt a whole new appreciation for the nature around me, imagining I was a butterfly.

What could you learn from playing an animal, maybe a snake, or an orangutan?

Choose an animal and have a good time.

Party Animals
In the following story I’m using the technique of Substitution (see Section on Substitution) but I’ve put this story here because an animal is being substituted for something else.

Vicky, an assistant costumer, had been going out with Joe for about six months, but she got nervous when she had to meet his friends. They were a little older than her, and many of them intimidated her because they were movie directors and producers.

One couple, in particular, made her uncomfortable. She told me about them, and it turned out that she knew some of their problems. They had both been playing around. Now they were in therapy together, to try and "work things out."

I pointed out that they were, like Vicky, human, imperfect, and in their own way, even wounded. For some reason, if Vicky imagined them as wounded deer (she felt a great affinity with deer),
she felt at ease with them.

Many of us are less afraid of animals than we are of people. Of course, most of us don't live in the jungle, and we haven't been maimed by an elephant, or chased by a tiger. When we do see animals, they tend not to be threatening. They're cute little pets, or if they're wild, they're in cages, so we know we're safe.

Feeling safe is what it's all about. It's from that safe place that we dare to be our true selves, as funny or as smart or as anything else as we can be.

Who are you afraid of? What animal could you turn that person into, so that you could be less scared? A rabbit? Your favorite puppy? A giraffe? This adjustment probably works best if the person you’re changing is tall. Find out what works for you.

My Car, The Horse
In the following story I’m again using the technique of Substitution, but I’ve put this story here because it’s an animal that I’m substituting for something else.

I get tense, sometimes, driving my car. I mean I like my car, but I learned to drive late in life, and there was even some sort of dictum in my family that women shouldn't drive. Not lady like enough, too aggressive, something like that. Yes, this could cramp a person’s style, but that was in New York City, many years ago, and you really didn’t need to drive a car there to get around.

The point is, I live in Los Angeles now, and if you live in L.A., you really have to drive a car. A lot of the people I know live at least a half-hour away from me. Meetings can be an hour away. So I drive.

I know that lots of people have to drive. But most people don't seem to get tense when they drive. Usually, I do.

So what do I do? I pretend my car is a horse. Horses relax me. Cars do not. Horses are breathing, living, alive, and exciting. To me. Cars are metal, cold, and it seems pretty clear, potentially lethal.
So when I’m driving my white car, I imagine I’m riding a white horse, and my whole body relaxes, I find myself smiling, I sit up straight, pull my stomach in, and I start having fun. Driving becomes fun. I feel the same exhilaration I feel when I’m riding a horse.

Good old Sense Memory saves the day. Maybe I’ll imagine seeing a white mane, hearing a whinny, or smelling some special smell. Maybe I’ll feel the animal’s haunches under me, and imagine that it’s the horse that’s making me bounce up and down. Somehow, if I feel the movement of a horse, instead of the movements of a car, I feel safe.