Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Clever Fools: Why the Parrot is our Mascot

By Chas LiBretto

A great deal has been written about Alex, the African grey Parrot who died a few years ago. Before Alex, it was believed that a large primate brain was required to handle difficult problems related to language and understanding, and that parrots were not intelligent, and could only use language through mindless mimicry.

Alex’s trainer, animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg claimed that at the time of his death, Alex was smarter than a dolphin or a great ape, had the intelligence of a five year old human, and the emotional level of a two-year old. Of course, these claims were immediately disputed by many scientists the world over. However, it is this very dispute that got us thinking.

Part of the charm of parrots is wondering if there’s anything actually happening in that “bird brain,” or if the phrase they’d endlessly parroting is just some moronic bit of nonsense the humans around the house had uttered. Really, what the parrot speaks says more about the owner than the parrot. And as actors, that sort of reminds us of us.

We actors do a lot to prepare for the telling of truths on the stage, but one of the most important elements of preparation is the time spent repeating the same phrase over and over and over again until it’s imprinted in our memory. Sometimes the phrase remains the same to us, sometimes it loses all meaning entirely and feels like nonsense, and sometimes, we find new significance behind it, and new reasons to say it out loud. When this happens, it’s magical.

Actors, along with all clowns and tricksters, have been speaking pointed-bits of nonsense since people wore animal skins and began telling stories by the fire. We repeat stories and say strange things to people that make them stop and wonder just what it is we meant by that. Sometimes, it takes the form of speaking “truth to power.” Shakespeare’s clowns, from Feste to Falstaff, do this, as do characters of folklore like Reynard the Fox (whose targets were usually the aristocracy and the clergy), or Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp (whose targets were usually police officers and Immigration officials).

So, we like the parrot. He doesn’t tend to play the trickster role too often in mythology, but he ought to. He’s bright, and garish and looks vaguely clown-ish, and he says funny things that make us think about ourselves in different ways. In the “Bestiary” of the Middle Ages, the “idea” of the parrot was used to represent the human condition, and there are some ancient Buddhist stories that describe some rather heroic parrots. But really, what we like about parrots is that they’re ambiguous. Because even after all that research, we don’t know for sure if Alex was as intelligent as a young human, or just really good at being a parrot.

We make you the following promises: Psittacus Productions will always operate on the crossroads of popular entertainment, mixing Shakespeare with comic-books, Goethe with social networking, and clowning, under the backdrop of some of the darkest days in this country’s history. We will always surprise our audience, in new and provocative ways, in unexpected places. This summer you’ll be able to see Psittacus Productions at a multi-million dollar concert hall, a comic-book convention, and an up and coming fringe festival in Hollywood. Because, as Michael Chabon reminds us in his book Maps and Legends, tricksters, be they parrots or actors, “go where the action is.”