Working in the Theatre: Theatrical Animals


[TO PIGS] Buddy? Hi! Cold out today, huh? Connie, Caterie, hi! How are ya? Staying warm today? [OINKS] Really? Good boy. Connie, Connie. [OINKS] I didn’t throw any treats. Connie sit. Good, pig. Good pig. Sit. Sit. All the way. [NARRATING] There are animal psychologists,
there are animal communicators, there are all these people who claim to have these special
abilities, but it still comes down to the fact that nature is nature. And I always listen to nature because it’s
always talking to us, communicating with us. I’ve chosen to call myself the dog listener,
as opposed to the dog whisperer because whispering implies that you are telling someone else
to do something. I choose to listen and they will tell me what
their needs are, what they like, what they don’t like, so other than that and the basic
concepts of classical conditioning, I don’t think there’s anything more. When I studied acting when I came to New York,
I studied with Stella Adler and she was part of the Group Theater and that method of acting
was being real onstage. I had to really cry and really be angry and
really be in the moment. Little did I know that that would be the specialty
of what I do. You know when I work with actors and directors
I tell them, “Animals don’t act. Animals are really in the moment. You cannot disconnect from that. So it forces actors into really be alive onstage
when they act with an animal. [TO DOGS] Good boy. Hey Riba. Hey Moose. [NARRATING] The prevailing technique of animal
training back in the 70s was being forceful with them. If they didn’t do it, there was a correction
and we always trained with a positive reinforcement because I knew in a live theater piece, if
you let the dog go and it doesn’t want to go, there’s nothing you can do. I always created this situation where they
wanted to go onstage. Where they wanted to have fun. [DOG BARKING]
[TO DOGS] Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Stop! It’s okay, we’re all here. Jeez. [NARRATING] An animal is an independent creature
with its own thoughts, its own will. And many of them have never listened to a
human before, so the first thing we have to do is teach them that it’s fun to listen. We do that by doing some basic obedience exercises:
walking by our side, staying, lying up and down. It’s to break through and go
“Listen, if you hand out with us, you’re going to have a really good time.” And once they realize that, then you can teach
them any behavior that is needed. [TO DOGS] You’re doing so good today. You’re doing so good today. All the sessions that we started with, we
always start with a leash so that we physically connect ourselves to the dog. So teaching them to walk by our side is as
simple as using the leash to teach them where their body should be, you know. And going in a pattern. Now, you do that a hundred times and ultimately
you don’t need this leash in the patter and the dog knows it automatically. Now, all we’ve done is taught the dog how
to go in a circle, but then we’ll teach it to do two circles, then we’ll teach it
to do other things. [TO DOG] You gotta learn how to unroll this
rug, buddy. [NARRATING] Each one of these behaviors we
go through a very slow training process which sometimes will take a year before we ever
show up to the first day of rehearsal. [TO DOG] Push it. Push it. Push it. Push it. Good boy. Push it. You got it. Good boy. Good boy. Good boy. Alright buddy stay. Look. Down. Excellent. Good job. Good job, bud! [NARRATING] Sometimes we don’t want the
audience to recognize that we’re giving them a cue. So, for example, petting their eyes means
stay. If an actor does that onstage, they can walk
away and, “Why aren’t you following me?” I mean, they could be saying things like,
“Come on, lets go,” and the dog’s not going to move because that hand signal means
stay. And nodding our head… [DOG BARKS] “What are you talking about? I don’t understand! What are you talking about?” So the actor can nod his head and actually
create a dialog with an animal. So, that’s all part of the stage magic that
we do to get animals to do behaviors and the audience is unaware of it. We probably do these behaviors hundreds of
times to perfect them. [TO DOGS] Come on, Minnie! Yep. Good girl. Minnie up. Minnie Down. [NARRATING] I represent a population of creatures
who do not voluntarily walk into my life and say, “I want to do this.” So I feel a huge responsibility to protect
them, to make sure they have a good lifestyle, to make sure that their welfare is always
first and foremost because it’s only a show. The first thing I do with directors and producers
is remind them that they are sentient beings and that they need as much rehearsal as the
actors do. And that if you hire an actor that doesn’t
like animals, it’s not going to work. [TO DOG] Look who’s here!” Minnie! Minnie! How are you good girl! Today, I want to do sort of our standard warmup. Yep. We’re going to do the basics, then we’re
going to do some of the more difficult behaviors from the show. Should we do the stay? Um. Yes, let’s do stay. Minnie. Minnie. Stay. Keep her focused on you. Sometimes I think their heads are going to
go 360. All the way around. [LAUGHS] Yes. She turns like an exorcist. Uh hm. Good girl. Dance. Good girl. Thank god evolution took the Big Bad Wolf
out of you. You are a nice little doggie, I can hug and
kiss you. Oh, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “Oh Isabella, the maternal
instinct has gone askew.” Well, you’re wrong. We might have evolved and domesticated the
wolf, making him into a dog, but the wolf might have domesticated us. Kidnapping the feelings we reserve for our
children for themselves. We are the top predator. Okay, so now you concentrate. So when the chicken makes this sound it means
danger from above. [NARRATING] I always had dogs, and I always
teached them tricks, and I also volunteered for many years for the guide dog foundation
teaching but it’s different on the stage because of the vastness of the rooms, the
audience, the light, the fact that I have a microphone and my voice is much stronger. It’s much more difficult for the dog to
keep their attention on you. And Bill told me that not all dogs can act. They have to have it in them. They have to be confident, and they have to
like it. They have to be playful and they have to relate
to people because, you know, today Minnie works with me but tomorrow she might work
with another actress, so they have to be incredibly social. Lots of the same characteristics that we have
to have as actresses. [LAUGHS]
Well, I wanted a dog that was small because we have a show that travels. I wanted a dog that could travel with me on
the cabin. I want a distinct sign of domestication and
floppy ears. Patchy coat, she has a little bit of white
patch- it’s something that happened with the process of domestication. I wanted somebody light, to travel with, floppy
ears, patchy coat, talent, an actress talent. This was her favorite. Chase the-
[LAUGHS] She’s ready to go. People ask me, “Why do we use rescue animals?” And I go, “Why not?” When we get a call for a show, we send out
an email and all the shelters rush to send us pictures because they want their dog to
be the next star. [TO ISABELLA] Well that was about 20 minutes,
that’s all we really need to work. Great! Keep it fun, keep it fresh. Okay, Bill Thank you so much. You’re welcome. You’re welcome. [NARRATING] When I go to the shelter, it’s
a very stressful place for an animal. And if I meet a dog in a shelter, and as a
stranger it comes up to me and it’s friendly, chances are that when we bring him to a stage
there is nothing that is going to be that stressful. [TO MINNIE] Where’d she go? She left. [NARRATING] So they got to be non-aggressive,
they have to be very friendly, and they have to be treat motivated. Currently, we have 31 canine actors. [VOCALIZING]
Who made that sound? I didn’t make that sound. Did you make that sound? Did you? A chicken! Oh, well, it’s not really a chicken, it’s
my dog that I dressed like a chicken. She’s an actress, I’m an actress. So we will interpret for you all the animal
that we’re going to talk about in the Circus Link Link. [FRENCH MUSIC PLAYS]
Bark. [DOG BARKS]
[FADE INTO DRUMBEAT] [NARRATING] When I was in high school, I decided
I wanted to be an actor. There’s a very famous theatre here in Connecticut
called the Goodspeed Opera House. And they had a summer apprentice program where
they used to invite kids to come and build scenery and be around professionals so I signed
up for that program. My second summer there, they were doing a
new play about little orphan Annie. And after that had already advertised they
were going the show, they recognized that there was a dog in the script. And they called professional animal trainers
in New York, and they couldn’t afford them so at that point the producer was stuck and
he needed basically a sucker. I remember being called into his office, he
sat me down, he said, “Billy you’re doing a great job here, we really admire your work.” He said, “How would you like a part in one
of our shows and your equity card?” Now, 20 years old, here I am thinking, “Wow,
this guy is so smart, he recognizes my acting ability by the way I’ve been moving scenery!”
and I said, “Yes, yes, that would be great!” and he said, “All you have to do is find
and train a dog for the new show.” And of course my response was, “Of course!” I left his office on cloud nine because I
was going to have my chance to be an actor, and then the whole thing about having to find
and train a dog… One day, I took one of the trucks and I went
auditioning for dogs. I ended up at the Connecticut Humane Society,
and there was a little dog there who was abused and he wasn’t very friendly, and I trained
him as I trained my own dogs growing up on a farm. My dogs followed me around, they were never
on a leash, and being an only child my animals were my companions. They were my family members, they weren’t
things that I forced to do anything. So that’s the theory I applied when I trained
the original Sandy for the original production of Annie in 1976. In fact, Sandy was the first animal to play
a character in any live theatre production: a character in which the play depended upon. I was moving to New York City and then six
months later I got a call from Mike Nichols Office. The director Martin Charnin has recommended
me because they were now doing the show for Broadway and wondered if I wanted to train
Sandy again, and I thought, “Any way to work with Mike Nichols and Martin Charnin
in a Broadway show, sure I’ll be an animal trainer!” And the show opened April 1st in 1977, Annie
became a huge phenomenon and I became a world famous animal trainer at the age of 21. So, how is Addison doing? She’s doing really well, she’s obviously
excited to be here. Yep. [NARRATING] When Annie first opened on Broadway,
the producers said, “Well, we’re going to need an understudy.” And I said, “Well, yeah, I’ll work with
two little girls,” and they said, “No, an understudy for the dog.” And it never dawned on me that in case Sandy
got sick, he would have to have an understudy. So, for every theatrical event we do, we have
two dogs. We have a main dog and we have an understudy
dog because everybody has the right to get sick now and then. [TO WRANGLER] This is her first outing, just
to get used to the world of the theater. Right. Right. And, uh, Addison sort of is in an understudy
role, but what she’s really here for is the training to take over the role for when
Macy retires. So this is her first time in a show. First time away from home. I mean, I adopted her ten months ago, she
was on the farm for about seven months, then she came to Mel here. So Mel has been teaching her how to be a theater
dog. How to be quiet in the dressing room, how
to say hello to people, and she has a little walk on part in the show. So, every night she goes onstage and she gets
to hear the audience, and um all the commotion. [NARRATING] In the beginning of my career,
everybody else in the theater got a dressing room but they’d want to put the dog in the
back alley because it was a prop or whatever. And I was like, “No, it need a dressing
room where it can sleep between shows, where it can be protected from the weather,” um,
and I had to trade dollars to get that. Fortunately when I came in with my first show
Annie, our director at that point Martin Charnin trusted me and gave me those things. And so, that was the way that I was able to
say to the next producer, “We need to do it this way.” [BACKSTAGE] Come on Mace, come on Mel. I want to see this warm-up. The day I saw the very first Sandy, I made
a promise to myself. I said, “If I ever get a dog when I grow
up, I’m going to adopt it.” Since that time, every dog that I’ve trained
has been a rescue from an animal shelter. And when you rescue an animal there’s a
sense of appreciation you get, with them. So, many of them have had not so nice lives
so they come to us and they get cared for, they get trained and they get positive reinforcement,
but they get to go place where they have a group of extended friends because the cast
gets to know them, the crew gets to know them, they go to work, and they have a great time. Even though we have this beautiful ninety
acre farm that they come back to, what we’ve really discovered is that they love doing
shows because they love all that attention. And it doesn’t matter whether they’re
onstage in front of 2,000 people, or in the middle of Times Square, all they know is that
they’re with me, they’re getting love, they’re getting treats, they’re having
fun, they’re safe. And they really look forward to that. And I think that that is a life lesson for
any of us. [BACKSTAGE] Hey! Who’s here? Macy Lou! Long time no see. Yeah. How are you? Good. How are you? Great! Great to see you! You too! Alright, I’m doing one of my surprise inspections
here. Okay. Macy Heel. [NARRATING] If the animal is healthy and happy,
and the actor gives them the cue, it’s an easy show. But unfortunately, that always doesn’t happen. When Annie first opened, Sandy used to come
out every night from stage right and he’d get an entrance applause. Around six months, it was a cold October night,
it was raining, we had to open the house late. People were miserable, Sandy comes out and
he stops, midway. And Andrea looks at me and I’m looking at
Andrea, and she’s like, “Come here boy! Come here.” And he’s stopped dead there. And I see him look over his right shoulder
to the audience. Now, I’m like, “What is going on?” and
he’s looking at them and then they start to laugh because he’s staring the audience
down and then they start to applaud and he continued his bit. Now, in the New York Times the next morning,
there was an article about how Sandy held up the show for his entrance applause when
in effect it was just that every night he came out, there was noise to his right, and
there was a night that there wasn’t noise, he stopped to turn and figure it out. Alright, move along, all you bums out of here. We’re not bums! We’re tearing down this junk pile, now! Run, Sandy, run! The gift that Sandy taught me, and I’ve
learned, is that I know how to take what the animals are feeling and what the artistic
people want to do in theater and bring them together for a performance. There are certain theaters like regional theaters
or tours where I will go out and set up the show, and then once it’s set I move on to
the next project. So we have about seven or eight handlers that
work for us and take our shows out and run them so I can go from setting them up. Alright. Good job Macy. Thank you. It’s always gratifying for me to go and
see a show and check up on it and see all the pieces working, to see the dogs happily
come out, to see the actors naturally interacting with them. But one of the secret kicks that I get is
when I’m out by the stage door, before the dogs come out, and hear people talking. “How did they get that dog to do that? My dog wouldn’t do that.” When I first got married to my wife Dorothy,
I was complaining, you know, “All the shows we got, little parts, the dog’s got a little
part and he gets all the publicity.” Dorothy said “Well, why don’t we do it
ourselves.” She came across a children’s book called
Because of Winn Dixie and it was a very popular book about a little girl who find a giant
dog and this dog ends up changing her life. And we’ve created the first musical to star
a dog. There have been so many shows that have had
animal characters, but I wanted prove before my time was over that you could actually tell
a story with an animal, and I think it will be something unlike anybody has ever seen,
and probably will ever see because at this moment there’s nobody to take over my business
so when I’m done, I don’t know who’s going to be doing it, but I’m really looking
forward to leaving one more show in which an animal as the star is the legacy. In my wildest dreams, I never thought I would
have a career that would span forty years, plus. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would
receive a Tony honor for my contribution to the theater. I’ve worked with some of the most brilliant
directors in the world. I’ve met celebrities, I’ve met 6 presidents,
but more than that I think that theater has allowed me to create a bigger understanding
about rescue animals. [TO DOGS] Hey you guys want to come in here? Come on, let’s go. Come on. [NARRATING] I take a certain sense of pride
when in movies or films that other trainers are doing the same things. And I’m hoping that we’ve changed a little
bit of the collective thought, you know because people say to me, “God, he’s a great dog.” And I went, “He was a great dog before I
adopted him. You could have walked into that shelter and
adopted this dog the day before I did.” And so I think that theater has given me the
chance to leave this legacy of people thinking a little more about taking better care of
animals. [TO DOGS] Hey Romey, come on up. Romey, come on. Join the party. ‘Cause you’re a little dog.

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