Isabella Rossellini’s ‘Link Link Circus’ opens human minds to animal intelligence

By Bliss Bowen

Isabella Rossellini, her rescue dog Pan and puppeteer Schuyler Beeman are the stars of “Link Link Circus,” a research-based theatrical show that the actress and model created to change people’s perceptions of the emotional and intellectual capabilities of animals. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Famous artists swinging their celebrity weight to support animal welfare and environmental causes is nothing new. But Isabella Rossellini’s lifelong empathy for animals took her elsewhere: back to school, where she earned a master’s degree in animal behavior and conservation. Not only that, the sultry actress who mesmerized Kyle MacLachlan in “Blue Velvet” began creating quirky short films about animals — specifically, their sex lives — that proved so popular on YouTube that the Sundance Channel commissioned an 18-episode series, 2008’s provocatively titled “Green Porno.” A stage show followed. “Link Link Circus,” Rossellini’s new production considering animal intelligence, rolls into The Broad Stage on Jan. 25, 26 and 27.

Like its predecessor, “Link Link Circus” demystifies scientific jargon and discoveries with a childlike sense of wonder via hand puppets, home movies, short films and animations developed from Rossellini’s “naïve” drawings. Where “Green Porno” cleverly discussed pregnant seahorse fathers and dolphin fin sex as Rossellini batted bubbles like a mermaid, “Link Link Circus” finds her assuming the personas of philosophers and scientists such as Aristotle, Descartes and B.F. Skinner to ponder its core question: Do animals think and feel?

“I’m partisan to Charles Darwin, who said really, we are linked to animals. So even when it comes to cognition, which is the term scientists prefer to ‘intelligence,’ it’s a difference of degree but not of kind,” Rossellini explains. “We are linked with animals, so there is a lot in common. That’s why my show is called ‘Link Link.’ I explore that by trying to translate recent studies and papers that support this idea with making it comical, making it entertaining. But everything I say is scientifically sound.”

Scientists, she jokes, “have this habit to make everything very boring!” Helping her avoid that fate onstage is Pan, a costumed pound pooch trained for the show when Rossellini’s dog Pinocchio proved too audience friendly. (“He would leap off the stage and go say hello.”) Pan earns her kibble portraying six various animals amidst a curiosity shop’s worth of toys and oddities. Behind the show’s humor lies a serious educational component, though Rossellini says she is more interested in expressing wonder than in transforming theatres into classrooms.

“I am so amazed about what I learned that I would like to share. If you see something extraordinary you want to call your family and say, ‘Guess what I’ve seen today!’ You know? It’s not that I feel like I have to lecture or teach the world. I just would like to share the astoundment and the surprise that I feel, and I hope they will feel too.”

Asked what surprised her most in her studies about cognitive continuity between humans and other mammals, Rossellini responds without hesitation: “How much we are similar.

“We don’t know that we will get all the answers ever, but there is very strong evidence that animals feel and think — more than we thought, more than we expected. I give an example with the animation of pigeons able to distinguish paintings of Cezanne and Picasso. … It was an experiment that was done to see if animals are able to generalize, and if they are able to generalize, then they have a concept. And they did! [Laughs] What to make of it? Pigeons! Can you imagine a dog or an elephant? Amazing, isn’t it?”

Isabella Rossellini, her rescue dog Pan and puppeteer Schuyler Beeman rehearse for “Link Link Circus”
Photos by Jody Shapiro

Pursuing Curiosity

Intriguing on its own merits, “Link Link Circus” piques additional interest because it is the brainchild of a woman whose biography reads like, well, Hollywood fantasy.

Born in Rome in 1952 to Oscar-winning screen legend Ingrid Bergman and Italian neorealist director/screenwriter Roberto Rossellini, Rossellini worked after college in New York as a translator and reporter, and began modeling at age 28. She famously served as Lancôme’s spokesmodel for 14 years before being notoriously dumped for the crime of being 43. She also earned acclaim acting in films such as “Death Becomes Her,” “Immortal Beloved” and “Big Night.” She wrote the script for a short film tribute to her father, 2005’s “My Dad is 100 Years Old,” and has authored a handful of books, including last year’s “My Chickens and I,” an illustrated paean to the more than three dozen heritage breeds she raises on her organic Long Island farm.

Reams of verbiage have been spilled about her famous lineage and relationships (marriage to Martin Scorsese, engagements to David Lynch and Gary Oldman), but focus on those associations is reductive. To be sure, she scored a winning ticket in the genetic lottery, so beauty has inevitably been a subtext in her varied endeavors. But Rossellini is an accomplished individual. She’s the mother of two grown children (daughter Elettra Wiedemann and son Roberto Rossellini). She laughs at herself a lot. Her life derives substance from her intelligence, creativity and unconventional choices (returning to school, raising chickens, volunteering with the Guide Dog Foundation). Those are the qualities that make her interesting as an artist, and as a woman renowned as one of the world’s great beauties.

Françoise Lehmann, now general manager of Lancôme International, evidently agreed, as she invited Rossellini to return to the cosmetic company as global brand ambassador.

“My parents were also very known and successful at what they did, but they always filled their curiosity. And when they were fulfilling their curiosity, they were very joyful,” Rossellini observes. “They were more joyful in pursuing their curiosity than in pursuing success. I saw that. Occasionally they would say, ‘I want to pursue success,’ or they needed money — my father had seven children; my mother had four — and in that moment they were not as happy. So I think I learned it from them. If I pursue my interests and my curiosity, it’s very joyful.

“When I started raising chickens I thought Lancôme for sure — I mean, already they let me go because I was too old, now I’m raising chickens? Forget about it! But they are wonderfully enthusiastic and show great solidarity, which stupefies me. [Laughs] I didn’t [re-sign with Lancôme] as a plan, like, ‘I’m going to prove it to the world.’ Basically, I didn’t work as a model anymore because I was too old. Then I also started to work less as an actress, because I was too old. So instead of saying, ‘What am I going to do?’ and being depressed at home — and of course, I was — I remember: Just follow your interests. Follow your curiosity.

“The world is so full of interesting things. One doesn’t have to just be sad about the things that are not available. I didn’t know I was going to write a monologue or make films about animals; I just signed up at [Hunter College] because I was curious about that subject. And in 10 years I started making films and they were successful on the internet, and they evolved to become a theatre piece — small theatre, it’s avant-garde, it’s off-off-off-Broadway, but it doesn’t matter to me. It’s interesting and it’s fulfilling, and it is the same as acting on a big film, only you make less money. [Laughs] Good I have Lancôme, I’m so lucky!”

Looking forward

“Link Link Circus” is a one-woman show, albeit one with dogs (Pan, plus understudy Minnie) and puppeteer Schuyler Beeman. In addition to writing and performing the show, Rossellini co-directed with Guido Torlonia and is also producing, which makes for a hectic schedule helping book plane flights and cutting deals with theatres. “It’s an enormous amount of work,” she concedes merrily.

But it concerns a subject she cares about greatly, and points toward a hoped-for future direction. The show “connects the dots of all the things I ever liked: acting, performing, storytelling, and even fashion — everything that I was always interested in in my life. The part that I had not expressed until now was the interest for animals; when I started writing it, that passion of mine also was voiced.”

The subject of whatever she writes next, she says, will also be animals. But much as she loves performing, it will require another actor.

“I have to find a way that I will not travel to 40 cities,” she says. “It takes too much time, and I would like to write and be more productive. If you are traveling, you just pack and unpack and get to your hotel — there is a joy to it, but it lasts a year and it’s a long time. It’s very tiring. I’m old. [Laughs] The spirit is not, but the back is!”

When she writes, she talks to somebody in her imagination, but she doesn’t know who it is or who her audience might be. She focuses on clarity, and trying to understand what was not initially clear to her. Following that path has guided her to discoveries that dovetail with her goal of merging art and science.

“It was totally unclear to me that some farm animals are in danger,” she says by way of example, “not the species but the breeds. The same thing you do to vegetables happens to animals: When you go to the supermarket, you have asparagus, spinach, and there are many types of asparagus and spinach like there are many breeds of dogs. But industrial farming has selected just one spinach, one asparagus, and also one type of chicken, one type of pig. So all these kinds of breeds became highly endangered. And I am now starting a collection of them at my farm. I’m still stupefied about the depth of biodiversity that is lost, and I think a lot of people are unclear about it as I was. I’m trying to explain it as I would explain it to myself. If I say, ‘Don’t buy any more dogs but Labrador,’ you’d say, ‘That would be a terrible loss.’ But that’s what happens to chickens and cows. …

“Sometimes I dream about science and art becoming closer together. They’ve separated so much, and I sometimes look at artists who are inspired by animals or the environment, but know so little about science. Then I see scientists who attempt to do something artistic, but they know little about art so their art doesn’t have
a pull, doesn’t have any audience. … There are so many things that could be done. I’m afraid I’m not going to live long enough to make them happen [laughs], so I’ll do whatever I can.”

Isabella Rossellini brings “Link Link Circus” to The Broad Stage (1310 11th St., Santa Monica) on Jan. 25, 26 and 27. The Friday and Saturday shows are at 7:30 p.m. and the Sunday show is at 2 p.m. Tickets are $69 to $99. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.org.

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