Preparing a dog for the theater stage can be a long and difficult process

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A talented dog might turn around and shake hands with the best of them, but that doesn’t mean they can handle eight shows a week. For this you need a real canine comedian. And for that, more often than not you will call Bill Berloni, the quintessential Broadway animal handler.

After an open call to dogs, the directors were unable to find a suitable fancier to play Billie Holiday’s beloved dog Pepi in the Broadway revival of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” at the Circle in the Square Theater until August. ten.

“Everyone got very nervous in the audition rooms with cameras there, with strangers,” Berloni said. “We needed a dog who had this courage.”

Theaters are often inclined to throw hobbyist animals to save money, as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra did in their recent production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – the compensation for dog owner Gregg Boersma was four free tickets – but it doesn’t always work so well.

“A good 80 percent of the calls we get are from theaters that chose to do ‘Annie’, and they borrowed someone’s dog and it went wrong, and they want us out but they didn’t. no money, “said Berloni. , whose company, Theatrical Animals, manages star dogs. “Would you do a show with some other professional effect if you couldn’t afford one person to do it?” “

But having such a consistent, stage-ready dog ​​comes at a price. Berloni declined to say how much the show pays for the use of its animals, but noted that it was less than a choir member’s minimum weekly wage of $ 1,800. Animal handlers, Berloni said, are among the lowest-paid theater professionals in the industry. When small theaters can’t afford his fees, he urges them to look for another solution: “Use a puppet. If you do ‘Annie’ put a kid in a dog costume, ”he said. “Your audience will forgive you more for something like this. “

For “Lady Day,” Berloni, who owns a Connecticut farm with 26 stage-ready dogs, brought in Roxie, an 11-year-old Chihuahua rescued from Hurricane Katrina whose resume includes credits from regional productions of ” Legally Blonde the Musical “.

Animal trainer and assistant stage manager Lara Hayhurst is not only responsible for Roxie in the theater, but also for the rest of the day. The dog lived in his apartment in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan.

“I had to protect my house from puppies, I had to pick up whatever she was chewing on the floor,” said Hayhurst, who also sent her cat home to live with her family in Pennsylvania for the summer to provide at Roxie a tranquil environment without distractions. Hayhurst knows how crucial this is to a dog’s success. An actress, she is on leave from “Lady Day” for a role in “Legally Blonde” in Pittsburgh, where she will share the stage with Roxie Chico’s brother in mid-June.

The first step in preparing a dog for his role is to acclimate him to the theatrical environment and help him bond with star Audra McDonald.

“Dogs don’t act, they live in real time,” said Berloni, who won a Special Tony Award in 2001. “If you want a dog to be in love with Audra McDonald, you make them fall in love with Audra McDonald. ‘Audra McDonald. “

McDonald, a dog owner, feeds Roxie’s dinner each night, and they have an uninterrupted bonding hour before the show. The dog gets about eight minutes of scene time each night. It is carried on stage by McDonald, who sings to him the song of Billie Holiday “T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do”. And in a favorite moment, “She is drinking ‘gin’ from a glass, which is helped by a little peanut butter,” said Hayhurst. “It might sound very simple, but it took years and years of training, babysitting, using [Berloni’s] philosophy of positive reinforcement. You are watching a performance, and it seems effortless.

Their efforts paid off: When McDonald’s won a Drama Desk award this month, she thanked Roxie.

“The beauty of dogs is that they are always in the moment. When Roxie takes the stage, she doesn’t perform, ”said Hayhurst. “I think that’s why we love animals so much on stage. It is more difficult for us as humans to be in the present moment. We have the cognitive ability to get inside our heads.

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