I Went to a Theatre Show Written Specifically For, Uh, Chickens

Chickens are smarter than you think: They have personalities, emotions and dreams. So, argue the writers of 'Kip', why wouldn't they enjoy art?
A man in a chicken costume crouches on a theatre stage next to two chickens.
Photos: Romy Kerkman,courtesy of Mediamatic.

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

“This show is not for you”, says artist and performer Anne Hofstra as the audience take their seats in the theatre space at Amsterdam’s Mediamatic. “It’s for the chickens.”

Before the show even begins you can hear the humble flightless birds clucking and scrabbling around backstage. “When the curtain opens, you will be on the chickens’ stage,” says Hofstra. “Be aware of that. Don't make big movements or noises. Let's all radiate a calm energy that is as pleasant as possible to the chickens.”


This is Kip (Dutch for chicken), the play that was on everyone’s lips in the theatre circles of the Dutch capital. Written by playwright Doke Pauwels – and created in collaboration with Hofstra and artist Willem Wits – the play is centred around the idea that we have no idea what it’s like to be a chicken, and therefore don’t know for sure if a chicken would, or wouldn’t, enjoy art.

It all seems to gesture at a wider point about how humans have made plenty of incorrect assumptions about animal intelligence and consciousness, which are probably due a rethink. But while the premise might sound a bit tongue-in-cheek, the preparation included months of research into what chickens actually like, to the best of our human knowledge.

The show begins and Hofstra explains why she picked this animal among all the other options: Chickens have expressionless eyes and a rigid beak, and are therefore very difficult for us to read. Lots of people are a bit scared of birds in general, or simply think that there’s not much going on behind those beady eyes.

“Chickens are much smarter than most people think,” she says. For example, continues Hofstra, they have some level of self-awareness, and can evaluate their circumstances and adjust their behaviour. Experiments have shown that a chicken will forego an immediate reward in favour of a delayed larger reward, which shows they have a rational grasp of self-control.


They also possess some logical abilities, like “transitive inference” (the capacity to deduce that if A is bigger than B, and C is bigger than A, then C will also be bigger than B), which is usually only acquired in humans by the age of 7. 

Besides, chickens can recognise and distinguish between several other chickens and humans. They have a sense of time and can anticipate future events. They even have their own personalities, emotions and dreams, which means it’s likely they have an imagination. With all this considered, it’s suddenly not so outlandish to think they might enjoy a nice evening at the theatre. “Really interesting,” I hear someone whisper in the crowd.

Photo of a man wearing a chicken suit holding up a chicken mask towards the audience. In the background, a chicken is standing on some scaffolding.

An attempt to get the chicken's attention. Photo: Romy Kerkman (courtesy of Mediamatic)

The curtain lifts and three chickens scurry across the stage. Their participation in the play is strictly voluntary, and we are told that two of the five plumed actors didn't feel like performing today. They’re sat outside in their pen.

Sharing the stage with the birds is Wits, the only human actor in this play, who walks around in a chicken suit the whole time. The stage is set up in two sections divided by a low fence, each side complete with stair-shaped scaffolding that the chickens use as a platform to hop on and off throughout the show.

Wits has been informed by Hofstra on how to keep the birds’ attention. Throughout the performance, he walks with big strides, waving his arms and lifting his chicken mask over his head from time to time. The stage is includes a large white balloon, reminiscent of a huge egg, that periodically inflates and deflates. That's my human interpretation, anyway – I can hardly imagine what the chickens saw.

Two of the chickens seem fascinated by everything Wits does. They sit as close to him as they can, right against the fence that separates them. The third chicken, which seems more bold in character than the others, continues to peck at the food bowl undisturbed. Every time the birds' attention fades away, the curtains close, and Wits and Hofstra try out a new choreography. The human audience, meanwhile, watches in silence.

Man lying down on stairs scaffolding, holding up a letter in front of his face and reading it. One chicken is on top of him and two others are next to him.

Wits reads a letter to the chickens. Photo: Romy Kerkman (courtesy of Mediamatic)

It feels childish to assume that you can please animals in the same way you please people, like putting on a pretend tea party for your cats. On the other hand, giving up completely on humanising animals as a way to connect with them might make us lose out on something big – particularly when it comes to better understanding our place alongside them in the world.

In Hofstra’s opinion, just because we can't fully understand an animal's experience, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to please them. She says it's impossible to know if the chickens actually enjoy her work, but that's not really the point.

Kip is primarily an attempt to think about a world that’s not centred on the human experience – a perspective that’s increasingly important in the face of the potential extinction of most life on earth. And it’s particularly significant to centre the narrative on the chicken, an animal frequently seen as a mere livestock commodity rather than a living, thinking being. If we had more respect for chickens, maybe our conversations around animal cruelty in the meat industry would shift.

In the climax of the show, Wits steps over the fence, lies down on the scaffolding, and reads a letter to the chickens. “Aw,” goes the audience as the birds rush towards him. They seem to be genuinely overjoyed that the actor, who looks like a very big chicken, is now among them. And by the end, they are all sitting on top of him.