It is an axiom of activism that one person can make a difference. The person who made the difference for activist, composer, and performer Michael Harren's latest project, The Animal Show, was a chicken named Casey, whom he met while volunteering at the Tamerlaine Farm Animal Sanctuary in Montague, New Jersey. At the time of their first meeting, Casey was recovering from an illness in the farm's convalescence quarters, which Harren had the task of cleaning.
"I had never had any kind of interaction with a chicken before," he explains, as we discuss veganism, animal rights, and his new show in his impressively tidy Brooklyn apartment.
"So, I put my hand into her coop, not knowing what to expect. She came over and rested her head in my hand and closed her eyes, and I thought 'Oh my god, this animal is showing me affection right now! This chicken is a thinking, feeling, affectionate being'."
Though Harren had been vegan for several years at that point, his reasons for not eating animals were mostly philosophical, stemming in part from an adherence to the ethics of nonviolence. But after visiting the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary in Willow, New York in 2014 and participating in their Thanksliving celebration, a Thanksgiving-themed event in which the sanctuary's turkeys are the guests of honor, he began to see animals as individuals with personalities and desires.
"When I went vegan, I had made the connection between the meat on the grocery store shelves and the animal from whose body it had come, but what was missing for me was the realization that the animals themselves were individuals who wanted to live and who enjoyed living," he says. "In terms of how I relate to animals, that experience was a real turning point for me." It was on the car-ride back to Brooklyn after Thanksliving that Harren conceived The Animal Show, a 75-minute show that combines original electro-acoustic compositions with his personal stories about some of the animals he has met and gotten to know.
Harren, a Texas native with a salt-and-pepper beard and self-effacing sense of humor, informs me that he wrote The Animal Show over the course of about a year, during which time he was an artist-in-residence at the Tamerlaine Farm Animal Sanctuary. Many of the stories he tells in the show involve the friendships he made and interactions he had with the residents of Tamerlaine, including Casey and her friends.
"Once you take a moment to get to know these animals, what you realize is that they are not so different from us. They form friendships, they have mood swings, they mourn, they play, they laugh, they enjoy living, just like we do. Who are we to take that away from them?"
The Animal Show is playing at Dixon Place in New York City on October 27th, 28th, and 29th at 7:30 p.m.. For tickets, please visit DixonPlace.org.