I’ve written a little about this handle in my Game of the Scene entry here, but Animal Kingdom offers a multi-layered approach to Physicality and relationships that warrants its own featured consideration. I’ve frequently seen players whose standard mode of operation is to just stand and talk really open up and own the stage when playing this animalistic game.
This scene is often framed as a party but there’s no reason you couldn’t apply the conceit to a broader array of scenarios. Prior to the scene each player obtains a different animal from the audience. This is generally done with all players present as there is a value in everyone knowing each other’s suggestion. Players construct a scene in which they utilize the physical, verbal and motivational qualities of their assigned creatures as the basis of their unique characterizations and relationships.
Player A, who has been assigned a “sloth,” and Player B, who has the suggestion of a “hummingbird,” begin the birthday party scene. Player B is preparing the space while Player A stands in the corner.
Player A: (frenetically) “The room is starting to come together. Have you hung up the ‘Happy Birthday’ sign yet, Nick?”
Player A flutters over to Player B who is fumbling with the sign in the corner of the room.
Player B: (painfully slowly) “I keep getting my fingers stuck on the tape. I need some help.”
Player A: (irritated) “I can hang it up. I can do it.”
Player A grabs the banner and has zipped away before Player B can even protest.
Player B: (painfully slowly) “Oh, okay. Thank you, Rina. Your brother is going to love this party!”
Player A has finished hanging the banner by the time Player B has finished their sentence.
Player A: “Let me get you some punch. It’s very very sweet. Just the way I like it!
Player B: (painfully slowly) “You’ve done so much. I can get my own.”
Player B arduously makes their way over to the punch bowl one excruciatingly slow step after another while Player A sets up the rest of the room…
Mine the animals for every possible ounce of inspiration! While characters should ideally still read as “human,” the various animals should be readily recognizable through their actions and energies.
Traps and Tips
1.) Seek animal variety. I’m intrigued about the possibility of exploring this scene as one class of animal, such as four different kinds of big cats (lion, tiger, snow leopard, cheetah…) but generally the game benefits enormously from animal diversity. I find it helpful to build this into the structure of the ask-for, so perhaps the first player gets a mammal, the second a bird, the third an insect, and the fourth something from the sea or ocean. It’s certainly fun to incorporate less expected critters but if no-one has any sense of the animal’s behavior then you’re probably not setting the corresponding player up for success. It can also be effective to get one apparent spoiler in the mix, such as a fictional or mythical beast, as this will often set up the team for a strong surprise or final entrance.
2.) Mirror your approach. If you consider a scale from one to ten with one being completely human and ten being completely animalistic, this game tends to thrive in the mid range. If the application of the animal essence is so subtle that the audience struggles to recall the source of inspiration, you’re probably under-delivering on the charge; if characters are essentially animals without the ability to speak or communicate then it’s unlikely you’ll be able to craft a scene of any nuance. It’s a helpful anthropomorphic approach to consider “if this animal were a person then how would they move, talk or behave?” Similarly, if one player is working at a four on the scale noted above, and then their scene partner enters as a nine or ten (perhaps they are a dolphin and flop around on the floor making clicking sounds) the scene typically gets irrevocably wonky. Although, I will note, that under the right circumstances this might be a rather wonderful button or climax! Usually, however, the scene benefits from everyone attacking their animals to a similar degree.
3.) Prioritize the relationships. This game tends to garner a lot of pleasure so players will instinctively want to rush the stage to get in on the scene. Try to resist this temptation in favor of pacing your entrances and generously sharing the stage. Much of the reward of the dynamic comes from clearly seeing the animals in various combinations. Our sloth and hummingbird seemed to have a friendly relationship even if Player A was annoyed by B’s inactivity. What happens if a more predatory animal enters the mix? Or a potential mate or rival? A loose Entrances and Exits approach works well, namely assuming that the scene will typically have two characters on stage at a time. (If you’re not familiar with this game, you can read about it here.) Smaller scenic units also give the audience a better chance to really process how you’re utilizing the animal energies. And when you pace your entrances you can also strategically hold onto particularly interesting or explosive combinations.
4.) Set each other up. Essence work can put you into your head a little if you’re not careful which doesn’t create the most ideal improv conditions. Once you feel you have a good handle on your own character point of view and function make sure you’re also actively looking for ways to help your teammates shine. (Note that this requires that everyone actually remembers the various animals informing the scene work!) Yes, Player B as the sloth can probably find their own games for the duration of the scene, but it’s even sweeter when others pitch thoughtful offers and obstacles that allow the “slothiness” to emerge. Well placed endowments and activities can greatly enhance the charm and playfulness of the scene and when improvisers are able to look beyond their own character deal the story can truly crackle.
To return briefly to my arbitrary anthropomorphic scale above, applying varying degrees of essences to a character can prove surprisingly useful and resilient. When played with characters at a level of five or six, you’ll likely craft a physically robust short-form game with an array of uniquely peculiar personalities. A one or two would subtly infuse a character with intriguing behaviors suited to a more dramatic or realistic enterprise. Pushing the scale to a nine or ten opens the door to dance-like explorations with little or no language. Such an approach could inspire a non-realistic fever dream, epic ballet (serious or whimsical) or serve as a developmental exercise to encourage heady players to boldly communicate nonverbally.
Connected Concept: Physicality