True Stories: Outside, looking in: How does it feel to be a llama?

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The Independent Online
His eyelids are long and flutter seductively. He shuffles from side to side and then advances, very slowly, towards my outstretched hand. The music from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly wails plaintively inside my head as I move to touch his cheek. I miss. Damn] I poke his nose instead. Oh God] He snorts and runs away. Clint Eastwood he was not. I had just had my first encounter with Ginger, a 17-year-old llama at London Zoo.

What was I doing in a llama paddock at nine o'clock in the morning? Animal study. What's that? It's what most actors have to do at drama school whether they like it or not, and you can usually guarantee they do not. I'm training to become an actress at The Poor School, London. Ask me if I like doing animal study and I will tell you that it's been an unusual experience.

Most actors, at some stage, have done animal study and will delight in recounting tales of defecating penguins collapsing in the middle of a performance, marmosets hanging from lighting bars, and actors trying to portray kangaroos being hit by boomerangs because they thought it would be more interesting than the task set, which is to get the very essence of an animal across to an audience.

'You must make us believe that your animal is in the room with us,' explains Marcelle, our movement teacher. 'Animal study is not about doing a caricature of an animal. It's about recreating the feeling your animal conjures up within you. If you choose a tiger for example, you must make the audience believe they are in its presence. You should be able to recreate that sense of danger.'

Week after week we traipsed to the zoo, whatever the weather, in search of our animal. 'You will know when you've found it,' Marcelle had told us. 'You will have a feeling about it.'

It took me exactly seven weeks and two days to find my llama. Three elephants, two rhinos and a green acoushi later there it was, where it had always been, next to the sign marked 'llama.

The studies commenced. It wasn't going to be easy. How does one recreate the long, glove-puppet head, the squinty side-set eyes and willowy legs? How do you stand on three legs to scratch yourself when you've only got two? And is it possible to walk with delicate little hooves when your feet are covered in blisters from trudging about the zoo.

To make matters worse, I couldn't see a thing from the public walkway. Hoards of tourists kept barging in front of me with their ice-creams and cameras, and long crocodiles of school children ran past laughing when I caught myself ruminating. There had to be an easier way.

Thanks to Gerald, the llama keeper at London Zoo, there was an easier way. He was very matter-of-fact when I telephoned him to ask if I could spend some time alone with the beast of burden in question.

'Yes, that will be fine. You do know that they are in with the camels don't you?'

I became wary. 'The llamas are quite tame but camels can bite. They can also spit and have been known to kick.' He volunteered to keep the camels inside for my visit. I was relieved I hadn't chosen a camel.

The scene is the llama paddock at London Zoo. It's nine o'clock in the morning. The sand is whisked around my feet by a gentle breeze. The sun feels desert-hot, and the tropical birds shriek loudly overhead as they rise and dive through the air.

I settle myself down on a large tree stump in the middle of the paddock to observe Ginger for the morning. His eyelids are long and flutter seductively. He shuffles from side to side and then, with a straining motion, relieves himself on the dry sand beneath him.

Who says acting is romantic?