by Mark Blankenship
There's an old saying that actors should never co-star with pets and children, but don't believe it. Nothing boosts a play like a dog.
If you've ever seen "Annie," for instance, then you know the crowd goes wild when Sandy trots on stage, and actors can play off that energy. Even in Shakespeare's "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," there's a pooch named Crab who's always good for comic relief.
But how do you cast the perfect stage dog? Unlike mutts in movies, stage dogs have to perform their roles for a live audience, which means there's no going to back to fix mistakes. They also have to perform the same part over and over, week after week, without getting distracted by cheers, lights, or costumes.
When productions need one of these remarkable stars, they often call William Berloni, head of William Berloni Theatrical Animals. Berloni found the original Sandy for "Annie," and after thirty-five years, he has worked on hundreds of shows. (He's currently training new dogs for the Broadway revival of "Annie" set for this fall.)
Berloni only uses rescue dogs, and even in the shelter, he can spot a future star. "You can't find a more stressful situation for a dog than an animal shelter," he says. "What I look for are dogs that are dealing with that stress."
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He says there are generally three types of shelter dogs: closed off, overly excited, and remarkably calm. He opts for the latter, explaining, "If an animal can deal with an animal shelter, doing eight shows a week is a breeze. Those are the dogs I gravitate toward, and those are the dogs I tell people who want to adopt a good pet to gravitate toward."
Once he's rescued a dog, Berloni trains them for five or six months before they perform. "My job is to teach the dog the pattern [of what's going to happen in the show], make it fun, and keep the distractions at a minimum," he says.
But since Berloni can't be on stage with the animals, he also teaches actors how to keep them on track. Sometimes, that means secretly delivering a treat, and sometimes, it means gently turning a dog's head away from a disruption.
There are also strategies for when things go wrong. If a pooch falls asleep on stage, for instance, a performer can subtly wave a treat under its nose to wake it up. During one Broadway performance of "Legally Blonde," audience members were eating fried chicken in the front row, and when an actress came on stage with a dog, she knew the smell would be a problem. "She turned the dog upstage so she couldn't get a whiff of it," Berloni says. "And that's what you do, as opposed to not being in tune with your canine partner, letting them get distracted, and then having to push them to the spot where they need to be."
That's a crucial point: When actors work with dogs, they can't just hand out treats and whisper commands. They also have to connect with their canine co-stars. "If an actor is on their game, in terms of handling the dog, they have to be in the moment," Berloni says.
Gina Ferrall agrees. She's currently starring as the lovable busybody Mrs. Honeychurch in a musical adaptation of "A Room With a View" at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. From the beginning, the actress lobbied to get her character a dog. "I said, 'This woman would have many animals running around," she recalls. "She picks up everything. She helps everything.'"
Eventually, the rest of the team agreed, and now Ferrall has several scenes with Mac, a Sheltie who belongs to one of her co-stars. She loves working with Mac, and even says he makes her a better performer: "Animals never lie, and if you're fake while you're holding a dog, boy, the audience knows. If somebody walks on stage, and he looks at them, I'd better look at them, too. [That] keeps me on my toes, but I also feel so connected to Mac that I absolutely trust him."
Ferrall says that when Mac exits, he gets a huge round of applause. In the grand tradition of stage dogs, he's got everyone eating out of his paw.
Mark Blankenship edits TDF Stages, the magazine of Theatre Development Fund. He tweets as @IAmBlankenship, and he has strong opinions about the best song in "Annie."
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