Conflicts of Interest: Unedited Footage of a Chimp
By By Baynard Woods
Feb 17, 2015 | 7:02 PM
Cricket Arrison became an actor so that she could work with chimps. At least that's the story she tells when I stop by to visit her in the studio she and AB Video Solutions, the video production crew she works with, shares up above Post Typography in Charles Village.
Now, with her new play, "Make Yourself at Home" at Annex Theater through Feb. 22, she gets to, except that you, as the sole audience member—she will perform for one person at a time—are the chimp and she is a research assistant who is trying to return you to the wild.
"It's about this insane true story about this chimp who was raised in the 1970s when chimp language experiments were all the rage," she says. "And she was raised by this human researcher and his wife in their house as if she was a human baby, like they adopted her when she was 2 days old and they were just like 'we're going to see what happens if we raise her like a human,' and like a whole bunch of crazy shit happened, it turns out.
"She wound up living there for 12 years and made all these strides towards becoming human, but she's also this adolescent chimp who is so strong and by the time she was 12 was destroying their house and biting people so they were like 'Oh God what do we do with her?' They didn't want to send her to a zoo or give her up for medical research, so they were like 'uh we'll, um, ship her to Africa,' and they put her on plane with a grad student who was an assistant in a lab and the grad student was like 'oh, we're going to go to the Gambia and we're gonna go to this nature preserve and we're going to stay for three weeks and I'm going to get her accustomed to life in the wild and then I'm going to come home.'
"Obviously that didn't work because this chimp had only slept in a feather bed and was only attracted to humans and she'd read Playgirl magazine and was a total princess and spent two hours every day combing her hair. So this grad student just wound up staying there, just living in a cage in the jungle for 10 years.
"I heard that story and every part of it was so insane to me. It was crazy the way they raised [Lucy, the chimp] and didn't have any way of dealing with it. It was crazy how human she became. She would serve guests tea when they came over and she drank straight gin and she vacuumed like a housewife and jerked off to Playgirl."
The play developed out a series of Arrison's own failures to deal with a primate obsession. As she studied gorillas and chimps, she was convinced that she was going to write a play where she could wear a gorilla suit and be hilarious. She tried about 20 different plays that all ended up falling apart, because she came to see it wasn't a funny play that she was going to write.
"This is a screwed-up story," she says. "The chimp spoke ASL and said every day 'I want to go home' and this grad student got so obsessed with the task at hand that she didn't do what needed to be done. It's about how all of us can get really blinded by what we're supposed to be doing that we don't do what we should be doing."
Arrison says this is kind of play, which she will perform 98 times over the course of four days in an insane marathon of repetition, is new to her, because her work is usually both goofy and highly performative. But it turned out to be a nice change of pace because two days after her play closes, she is traveling to L.A. with Ben O'Brien , Alan Resnick , Robby Rackleff , and (erstwhile CP cartoonist) Dina Kelberman with whom she worked on the darkly comic existentialist doppelganger infomercial "Unedited Footage of a Bear," which aired on Adult Swim, to pitch a comedy show to networks. "It's actually nice [to work on a sad play]. If I tried to write a really funny play, it would be awful, but now I'm like, I can't wait to get back to something funny."
Arrison, who worked first in politics in Washington, D.C. and then in journalism as a producer on the Marc Steiner show, says she never even considered writing a comedy show for television. "I just knew I wanted to work with these people," she says.
As it turned out, the elements of video production brought together Arrison's interests in performance—she has a small on-screen role in the "Unedited Footage of a Bear"—production, and visual art.
But for now, she's gearing up to spend several days reliving one 10-minute exchange nearly one hundred times. She will be the same person each time, the grad student stuck in the purgatory of her Gambian cage, as a series of chimps come in one after another, forcing her to relive her attempt to make them wild.