Isabella Rossellini wants to build empathy for animals with solo show ‘Darwin’s Smile’

[ad_1]

Isabella Rossellini in her latest animal-themed solo show, “Darwin’s Smile,” which plays Sunday-Wednesday, Oct. 2-5, at the Great American Music Hall. Photo: Virginie Lançon

Isabella Rossellini might still be best known as the face of Lancôme or for her performances in “Blue Velvet,” “Death Becomes Her” and other films, but the 70-year-old has devoted much of her more recent career to other passions: farming and studying animal behavior.

She first started sharing those interests more broadly in 2008, with “Green Porno,” a wittily offbeat series about the reproductive habits of animals; eventually transitioning to the stage with “Link Link Circus,” which played at the Chapel in 2019. That show had a bold thesis, that humans aren’t as special a species as we think we are, and Rossellini methodically yet zanyly tackled counterarguments, giving the food chain a healthy shake-up.

Her latest animal-themed solo show, “Darwin’s Smile,” which runs Sunday-Wednesday, Oct. 2-5, at the Great American Music Hall, also makes a bold claim: that those who study animals need more empathy. The Chronicle spoke to Rossellini about her long-term interest in the rest of the animal kingdom.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What are all the animals you have on your Long Island farm? I know I’ve seen sheep on your Instagram.

A: We have about 150 chickens, we have sheep, and we have ducks and bees. All my animals are heritage breed, and the definition of heritage breed is animals that are still capable of reproducing or having normal behavior. Sometimes when you do intense industrial farming, you select things in the animal that incapacitate them to either feed or reproduce naturally. Chickens grow very, very fat, and they cannot support their bodies. We have also selected chickens that don’t brood; the modern breed, sometimes they don’t know how to raise their babies.

Q: Do your farm animals inspire your shows at all?

A: I see the farm as a lab of ideas. And having my chickens — in fact, in my show, I imitate my chickens.

I was very curious about the science of animal behavior. I always dreamed that there was a way to be able to do the job that Jane Goodall had. I didn’t do it because I was beautiful, and so I became a model and an actress. But then as I aged and there was less work, I went back to university and I took a master’s degree in animal behavior and conservation. At the same time, I sold my apartment in New York and started this farm. So the two things are quite linked.

In Isabella Rossellini’s earlier animal-themed solo shows, she presented the idea that humans aren’t as special a species as we think we are. Photo: Virginie Lançon

Q: Your new show is about empathy. How’d you get that idea?

A: The Musée d’Orsay in Paris had an exhibit about how Darwin’s theory of evolution impacted art. They asked me to create a 45-minute conference show about this subject, so I did. A French producer came to see it and liked it and asked me to develop it into a full monologue.

The idea of ​​the monologue comes from one book that Darwin wrote that is called “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” With smiles, frowning faces, when you turn your nose because you are disgusted by something, he wondered why these expressions are understood all over the world, but some other expressions are not; some other gestures are not.

I’m Italian. I gesticulate a lot when I talk, and I can have an entire conversation with gesturing. So I do this demonstration onstage: “In Italian, this is a dialogue between two people; if you’re American, you can only detect maybe a smile.” But why is a smile understood all over the world, and the others not?

Darwin wondered if the smile was shaped by evolution, just like bones and beaks and legs. It was difficult for him to study expression because they are very fleeting. But it was the beginning of photography, and in this book that Darwin wrote, there are the first photos ever of expressions of human beings captured, fixed in the photograph so they can be studied. Darwin worked with neurologists and actors to be able to study not only the muscles involved, but also why certain expressions are understood everywhere.

Q: What extra level of empathy do actors need to do their jobs?

A: I don’t think that actors are more empathic than other people. It’s almost like an athlete or a ballerina that trains his body to dance in a certain way. We train empathy because empathy is the core of acting. Acting is also reacting. It’s very important for an actor to be listening — when they say there is chemistry between two people, it’s when they can listen to one another, and then the dialogue that is written by a third person flows out naturally.

“I don’t know how to solve the empathy problem in science, but that’s why I presented it in the theater,” says Isabella Rossellini about her new solo show, “Darwin’s Smile.” Photo: Virginie Lançon

Q: One of your arguments in the show is that one needs a certain degree of empathy to study animals, correct?

A: It seems to me that (scientists) are a little bit rigid. To give you an example, sometimes they would film a chimpanzee in a cage, and they would just take 30 seconds and would analyze every gesture that the chimpanzee gave; and also how the other chimpanzee answered with every gesture, trying to decode.

As an actor I say, “I love you, and I want to be with you all my life,” but I can make you understand the opposite if I act. So if you just analyze the words, you don’t get the message.

Onstage, I would say this sentence three or four different ways to show you that actors can change with expression of emotion. So it isn’t so much the word but the subtlety of other messages that come through.

Sometimes a scientist, in order to search for objectivity, they become very remote from the animal, so that they are not reading into them. But if my sheep are really loving me and there is an exchange, then my affection for them can skew my science.

I don’t know how to solve the empathy problem in science, but that’s why I presented it in the theater.

“Darwin’s Smile”: Written and performed by Isabella Rossellini. Directed by Muriel Mayette Holtz. 8:30 pm Sunday-Wednesday, Oct. 2-5. $60-$80. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St., SF 415-885-0750. https://gamh.com



  • Lily Janiak
    Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: ljaniak@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @LilyJaniak

[ad_2]

Source link

Leave a Comment