What accounts for the astonishing proliferation of “performing cats” on the Internet? The current consensus, according to Bryan Lufkin in Gizmodo, is that cats don’t seems to be performing. Whereas dogs are like shabby vaudeville front-cloth comedians, constantly looking at the audience and begging for approval, cats are the Naturalistic, fourth-wall ideal actor in furry form. Dogs are Seth Rogen, cats are Heath Ledger. Cats simply behave: they don’t seem aware of whether this behavior is “twice-behaved” or not.
Minou Arjomand’s Animal Friendship: A Docudrama presents three of the Internet’s most popular cat videos live onstage. The subtitle, “a docudrama,” provokes us to consider the relation of documentary theatre, and by extension, the theatre itself, to reality. it is, of course, an impossible piece. Watching cats on the Internet is pleasurable specifically because the minute-long YouTube clip reframes “natural” behavior as performance: Maru playing with a box becomes a spectacular circus act. But the animal onstage becomes a theatrical problem. As Nicholas Ridout writes: “the impropriety of the animal on the theatre stage is experienced very precisely as a sense of the animal being in the wrong place” (2006: 98). It is in the wrong place because it cannot have intended to be part of the dramatic fiction, and thus troubles the “psychological illusionism” of the stage. For Ridout, these moments point back to the economic conditions of the actor’s labor, for the animal does not participate in these conditions. More accurately, it has different economic conditions – a treat upon completion of a trick – an economic model that in some ways seems far preferable to profit-share.
Despite their troubling nature, this hasn’t stopped theatre makers from putting animals onstage. Horses, cats, dogs, and other nonhuman animals have appeared in the theatre of Romeo Castellucci. In 2010, French theatre company Footsbarn presented Sorry!, which featured, intriguingly, a “Dressage of Cats” by Marie Werdyn. When I quizzed producer Leanne Cosby at the Barbican (who co-produced the London presentation of the piece) about this aspect of the performance she was rather more circumspect: “the cats just walked across the stage … Some nights they did, some nights they didn’t.” The Belvoir Theatre’s stunning adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, played within a plexiglass box, featured a live duck that flapped its wings at inopportune moments, interrupting monologues by splashing water over the actors.
However, Animal Friendship, by re-presenting celebrated instances of cat performance, goes beyond these examples of the animal onstage. It raises issues of acting in documentary theatre: if these cat videos are taken to be documentaries akin to nature programs, would different cat-actors be performing in the staged piece? And if cat-actors are acting in Animal Friendship, what do we value in their performance? Is it simply that they go through the motions of riding a Roomba or jumping in a box, or that they create the psychological illusion of this act taking place for the first time and its associated emotions; joy, terror, pleasure? This impossible piece, then, makes us question what it is we desire and value from the actor in the theatre. Is it that they simply represent “reality”? Or that they betray some excess, some remainder of intention and will-to-please – what we might call “theatricality”?