There is something about chickens. In performance, you can change character mid-sentence, hunker over with neck bobbing, and cluck softly. Lift one foot to scratch the dirt, tilt your head, cluck again. Audiences love it. They stare in amazement at the transformation. They laugh at a chicken.
I first realized this at a conference years ago, when I was telling the folk tale of trickster Anansi and the chicken that tries to count. Mid-way through the chicken’s counting, a woman leapt from her seat and fled the room because – she told me later- she was laughing so hard she had started to pee her pants. It was the moment I realized: this chicken is good. So I kept it up.
I am often asked how I learned to imitate chickens. The fact is that I was locked in a chicken coop in Norway when I was 17. For the half hour before the mischievous grandmother came back to free me, I followed chickens around in the straw. I watched them closely and mimicked their gait, their movements and sounds. I got good at it. That impish granny would be long gone by now; I doubt she knew she was giving me a tool I’d use in my work year after year, for decades.
I keep telling the story of Anansi and the chicken. The story shifts shape, but the chicken remains. They say to pay attention to the characters that you play over and over. In this case, I am repeatedly being a chicken who lacks confidence but inadvertently conquers the trickster with her dignity and innocence.
So I think about what it means to “be chicken.” I think about my fears and how they have shaped my work. I think about theatre directors who wanted me to move up in the performing world to large venues in major centres. I wonder if I have let myself down. Although I’m touring around the world, I have mostly stayed with shows in schools, libraries, and festivals. I wrestle with regrets, wish for more courage. I drive on. This summer, I am in one remote rural town after another in humble, underfunded Nova Scotia.
In every town, I have no way of knowing who will come to the show, how old they will be, or how they will respond. (At one show, there was one; at some there are 80.) Whatever material I choose, I have to be flexible. I have to find a way to involve the child who is jumping up and down in front of me…and the little one toddling over towards the toy table… and the pre-teen who is about to decide this is too young for him. I have to let go of plans and expectations. In their place, I need to be spontaneous and bold. In every moment, I have to have faith – an innocence of sorts; a belief that yes, I can do this.
As it turns out, being “chicken” has led me, paradoxically, to being bold. These shows are not a big ego boost, but they are honest work that trains me to respond better on stage and in life. They bring me from the isolation of fear to the fullness of connection. For the hour of my show, I belong to these people, to this tiny community where the librarian has brought me home-made fish cakes for lunch; where the kids want to tell me their stories; where elders of the town come out to listen; where a man on the library computer is distracted by my story and says afterwards, “I didn’t expect to laugh so much today.”
At one show, as the chicken struggles with her numbers, a woman in the audience is wiping tears of laughter from her eyes, and the young man in front of her is silently shaking with mirth. Then, from a back row, a shy child steps forward: he wants to be the chicken. This is new. He approaches with caution. Seeing his hesitation, I suggest he could be the baby chick and I’ll be the hen. He nods, and follows me to centre stage, hands tucked like wings. He looks up to me with eyes that say, “I am you. I will go where you go and do what you do.” Everyone from the community leans in, watching this child with all the love and support one could ever wish for.
And chickens—real chickens? For a week of this tour I am hosted in the Annapolis Valley by Angela and Caleb, who happen to raise chickens and ducks. After every tiring day of driving and performing, I go up the hill to their barn and I hang out with the chicks, the rooster, the hen, and their buddies the muscovy ducks. We cluck back and forth, they cock their heads to consider me. After 15 minutes with them, I feel calm and rested. It’s as good as a nap.