Call Answered: Michael Harren: "The Animal Show" at Dixon Place
Who doesn't love a good cat or dog video? I love animals...well, not all animals. I hate rats and mice, but other than that, I love animals. When I read about Michael Harren's residency at Tamerlaine Animal Sanctuary, where he created his show The Animal Show, I knew this is an interview I needed to do.
The Animal Show, blends humor with candor to convey the importance of keeping all animals safe from harm. Through stories, music, and video from his residency at Tamerlaine Farm Animal Sanctuary and activism on the road, The Animal Show is a thoughtful exploration of humans’ relationships with non-human animals.
The Animal Show returns to Dixon Place (161A Chrystie Street) on November 8 & 9 at 7:30pm. Click here for tickets!
1. Who or what inspired you to become a composer and performer? I wanted to be a performer for as long as I can remember. As a kid in the '70s I used to put on little performances for my family, playing songs I learned by ear on this florescent orange horrible sounding chord organ I got for Christmas. My mom always encouraged me to pursue my musical dreams, but it took me many years to develop the courage to start creating and performing my own work. There are so many messages we get in our culture that being an artist isn’t a "real job" or should just be a hobby. It was especially hard for me to get over that, but I am so glad I did!
2. When did you become an animal activist? I went vegan in November of 2010 when I realized that eating and otherwise exploiting animals didn’t fit with my desire to live a non-violent life. I learned so much about what we humans do to animals, I realized that being vegan wasn’t enough and I needed to hit the streets if I wanted to be able to live with myself.
3. This November you return to Dixon Place with The Animal Show, a multi-media experience of your time living and volunteering at the Tamerlaine Animal Sanctuary. First, what made you want to go live/volunteer at Tamerlaine? How long after you were there did you go, "Hey, this experience could be turned into a show? It actually worked in the reverse of that. I had the idea to do the residency because I wanted to create an experience that I could potentially turn into a show about animals. I had just wrapped up the album and book based on my previous show, Tentative Armor, and in the midst of my wondering "what next" I visited Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, and had the idea of doing a residency at a sanctuary. Soon after I met Tamerlaine co-founder Peter Nussbaum on my vegan running team, and the rest is history!
4. What are you most looking forward to about this return engagement? What do you hope audiences come away with from seeing this show? I’ve been wanting to add a video component to the show since I first conceived of the idea, but I just didn’t have the skills to get it together. Finally (after hours of YouTube study), I have some new pieces in the show that feature video, most of which I shot myself at a Los Angeles Animal Save vigil and a dairy farm I visited while on tour this summer. I’ve expanded the ensemble to a full string quartet, which really makes a huge difference in the sound of the show.
I hope people come away from the show with a different understanding about how we all relate to animals. The biggest thing I realized during my time at Tamerlaine was that every animal is an individual who wants to live. It’s such a simple concept, but even as a long time vegan activist, I didn’t internalize that understanding like I do now. Really, though, I’d like for everyone who sees the show to instantaneously go vegan, but I’ll settle for the "animals as individuals” thing. For now.
5. What did you learn about yourself from your time at Tamerlaine Animal Sanctuary? I’m way more resilient than I thought. Part of the "fun" of this project was that I pretty much hate the outdoors, and I knew by putting myself in a situation that made me very uncomfortable, I would have some interesting experiences to write about. It turns out that I liked doing the outdoor work way more than I thought I would. Even tasks like deep cleaning a chicken coop can become a meditative practice during which I have time to think. I don’t get a lot of that time in my regular life. I toured this summer and wound up in some pretty…rustic settings. One of the sanctuaries where I volunteered had me in a tent, with no electricity or plumbing nearby, I literally had to poop in a bucket and cover it with peat moss each time. One morning as I unzipped my tent I had a strange realiziation - "holy shit. I’m enjoying this." I never knew I was outdoorsy…sometimes.
6. Which animals were your favorite to be with? Which ones were you most afraid of? I love chickens way more than I thought I would. In fact, when I realized Tamerlaine Farm would be the best place for my project, I hesitated because most of the animals they had there at the time were chickens. I mean, what would I write about dumb 'ol chickens?? To my surprise, the stories about chickens are the heart of the show, especially one chicken I had the opportunity to rescue. Chickens are so social and cuddly. YES, cuddly! If you sit down in a yard of chickens, they will gather around you, hop in your lap, nuzzle under your arm. They are lovely and loving beings. I adore them now. Roosters, are a little bit scary though when they get all territorial, and I am especially terrified of a pig at the farm named Clara. There’s a story about her in the show.
7. Did you encounter any moments similar to the show When Animals Attack and if so, what happened and how did you handle yourself? I don’t want to tell too much because this particular story is in the show, but let’s just say that even though I don't want to eat animals, that doesn’t mean that animals don’t want to eat me.
8. Which animal do you consider to be your spirit animal? Oh I don’t know, maybe a cat? A sloth? Yeah, that’s it. A sloth.
9. There are so many songs out about the welfare of animals. Off the top of my head, Olivia Newton-John has "The Dolphin Song" and "Pony Ride", two songs about the preservation of dolphins and horses. If you were to write a song about saving one kind of animal, which animal would you write about and what would you name the song? That would be a tough one, and forgive me for getting all vegan-y but the song would have to be about encouraging a consciousness of compassion for all animals. It would be called "We Are Us" and I think you just gave me an idea for a song to add to the show. I wonder if I can write it in just a week?!
10. My last question, is going to deviate from this specific show because I just love this artist so much that you play with. When not creating your own work, you tour with the one and only Sandra Bernhard as her pianist. What have you learned from working with Sandra and what is one hilarious story you can share about your time on the road with her? Working with Sandra transformed me as an artist tremendously. When I first started working with her I had these beliefs about myself as a pianist, and really as a human, that I had to let go of FAST if I wanted the gig. I was really intimidated when I first started playing with her because I came from more of a classical/theatre background where music was rehearsed and perfected, and I was expected to show up at sound check, ready to go and just do it. Working like that really loosened me up as a musician, and it has changed dramatically how I show up in my own work. I’m not so married to things being perfect, or a big deal, it’s performing and fun and we all, audience and performer, are supposed to have a good time and connect.
I think my favorite moment ever with her was not only getting to play "Me and Mrs. Jones" with her in Provincetown, but the moment she changed her iconic line to "..me and my vegan piano player. You know how we people get along so well…"
More on Michael:
Brooklyn-based composer and performer Michael Harren combines elements of classical composition with experimental electronics and storytelling to create hypnotic, bold, and intimate work. He is an artist-in-residence at Tamerlaine Farm Animal Sanctuary where he created The Animal Show. Michael Harren tours as a pianist with Sandra Bernhard and serves as the musical director for Cabaret for a Cause. Michael has performed at Dixon Place, (le) poisson rouge, Joe’s Pub, Judson Memorial Church, The Laurie Beechman Theater and numerous venues around the country.