Several adults are prowling through a field on all fours, growling and scuffling. If cops, patrolling a quiet residential neighborhood near Lake Calhoun, were to approach, “I just say the magic words: ‘Acting class,’” says James Napoleon Stone.
On a chilly October night, police take no notice as three students — Chelsea, Kevin, and Tyler — flop down in the field. “Everybody sleep!” commands Stone. “Begin the process of connecting with your animal.”
The students, all in about their mid- to late 20s, are dressed as if they’re going on a hike, except that they’re barefoot. Tyler wears a T-shirt identifying himself as a Tough Mudder finisher. Chelsea and Kevin carry little stuffed animals about the size of Beanie Babies.
“They make the babies by hand,” explains Stone. “Each one includes something precious to them.”
Stone walks among the recumbent students. "Remember," he says, "it starts at the base of your neck. When will your paws grow? When will your tail grow?"
Kevin is a maned wolf, Tyler is a Siberian tiger, and Chelsea is a South American black jaguar. (Stone encourages specificity of breed.) The students decide for themselves what animals they're going to be, but they have to choose predatory animals. The reason for that, says Stone, is to ensure the animals eventually interact. "If you're a gazelle, you're just going to spend the whole time running away from everyone."
Slowly waking up, the animals lazily stretch and head off into the surrounding woods. In mere minutes, they've disappeared. Stone walks after them. There are soon yelps and yips. In the darkness, it's unclear who is making what sound. It legitimately sounds like a zoo.
Stone has been teaching an animal acting class for the past several years, as part of the Lee Strasberg method he learned from his University of Idaho professor David Lee-Painter.
The goal of his lessons, taught under the auspices of his company, Theatre Coup d’Etat, is to get students comfortable with physically inhabiting a character. If you can do a cougar, you can do Stanley Kowalski. “Animals don’t have time for ego or bullshit,” explains Stone.
There's also an element of self-actualization to the lessons. Part of the class is imagining yourself being stalked by an Other: a bigger, meaner version of your own animal that embodies, as Stone puts it, "your fears, your anxieties. The critic."
Near the end of an eight-week session, there's a planned climax where each animal attacks and kills its Other. The pantomime can be incredibly liberating, says Stone. One of his past students who had survived a traumatic experience felt that making "the kill" was a watershed experience that freed them to take new risks as an actor.
This night, with "the kill" still a week away, Stone is helping the students to sense their Others. He stalks through the woods, telling the actors that their Others are drawing closer. Occasionally, he'll toss a stick into the woods to create a sudden sound.
For their parts, the actors are mostly silent. Chelsea and Kevin are finding hiding places for their babies, which they'll later have to protect from their fellow students. Tyler has forgotten his baby at home. So he compensates by envisioning a scenario where he's lost a generation of cubs to a predator, and in response has become fiercely territorial.
Since the actors are facing their Others in just a week, Stone is psyching them up for it.
"It's constantly stalking the edges of your vision," he says, referring to each animal's imaginary doppelganger. "It knows your fear. It is your fear. Next week, you will find it — and you will kill it."
As animals, the actors have two goals they must accomplish. They have to drink, which requires coming out of the woods and into the middle of the field to cup a hand into a Rubbermaid bin containing water. They also have to eat, and their only source of “food” is one another. While eating and drinking, they need to keep their babies safe.
Kevin draws first blood. When Chelsea, playing a jaguar, goes back to the edge of the woods after coming into the open for a drink, Kevin (the maned wolf) is waiting for her. He pounces, the two roll together on the ground for a moment, and then, as suddenly as it has begun, the fight is over. Kevin walks away, while Chelsea stays sprawled on the ground.
“Killing each other, that’s an honor system,” Stone explains. “If you get bit in the jugular, you go down.” After a few minutes, Stone whispers to Chelsea and she gets up again, creeping back into the underbrush.
The class continues, with a few more scuffles along the way. Tyler eventually emerges from his hiding spot, and then seems to dominate the others; he is a more experienced student, having enrolled in multiple sessions previously. He doesn't bust out with his roar, though, which Chelsea refers to as "truly terrifying. The first time he did it, I totally broke character."
Eventually, Stone tells the students to drop back to sleep. “Leave everything here,” he says to the slumbering actors, referring to their psychological burdens. “Leave it with your animal. Thank your animal for taking this on.”
The actors rise, themselves again, and hug. Stone dumps the remaining water from the Rubbermaid tub onto the grass, and everyone heads back to Stone’s apartment for a debriefing.
Over cans of Hamm's, the actors recount the strategies they'd followed out in the field. "You shacked up in the briar patch," says Stone to Kevin, who agreed he'd found a patch of especially thorny brush to base his wolf in for the night. Kevin replies that in the isolation of his sheltered patch, he had "a breakthrough" with his Other.
Chelsea adds that her Other was growing closer, too. "I can see it now," she sad, "and it really freaks me out. I can't see it moving, but somehow it's always in a different spot." She acknowledges that might seem "weird."
"Look," says Stone, "we've just got done rolling around in briars and acting like animals. Shit's already weird."
The extreme nature of animal acting is precisely the appeal of the class. Chelsea is returning to stagework after a hiatus of some years. The class' "absurd setting is unexpectedly powerful" in preparing her to take on more conventional characters.
"Performing is terrifying," says Stone. "We just get better at being terrified."
After some discussion of the "kills" that are to come ("It's gonna be brutal"), the conversation subsides. "Any other thoughts?" asks Stone.
There's a long pause. "I really have to pee," says Chelsea.
"That corner!" says Tyler, pointing. "The plant!"
Everyone laughs, and animal acting class is dismissed for the night.