The actors arrived at the audition early, so each could sniff out the competition — which they did, quite literally, in the traditional reciprocal canine rear-view salutation. For the parents of these pets, the trip to center stage at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall was a chance for their big break. For the dogs, their tepid enthusiasm for the event ranked somewhere in between going to the vet and discovering a barbecue chicken wing on the sidewalk.
There was Casper, a rambunctious 1-year-old German shepherd-collie mix, whose trick repertoire included a fist-bump. Barry Maanilow — yes, with two A’s — was an upbeat beagle-basset hound mix. Griffin, a husky-golden retriever mix, had a school production of “Annie” on his résumé. And Blue — well, Blue was just a sweet, lazy 90-pound dog with bright eyes who, minutes after arriving, was ready for his nap.
“He’s here to make every other dog look good,” his owner, Sue Patz, said as she handed him a treat.
The dogs’ humans had answered a notice from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra seeking mild-
mannered dogs for a cameo in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a collaboration with the Folger Theatre. While the symphony played Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on stage, seven actors portrayed the more than 20 roles in a four-night engagement last weekend. The ideal “dream dog” — a companion to the man in the moon, one of the characters in “Midsummer’s” play-within-the-play, “Pyramus and Thisbe,” would be calm, a little sleepy looking and tolerant of loud music.
The latter, Melanie Kuperstein knew Casper could handle. The University of Maryland student is working on her master’s in violin performance, and 1-year-old Casper — who, minutes earlier, had placed his massive paws on director Edward Berkeley’s shoulders — was so completely acclimated to the sound of orchestral music that it had a sedative effect.
“Every time I practice, he gets so bored,” Kuperstein said. “It’s, like, painful. He just falls asleep during quartet rehearsal.”
Across the room, Griffin had already demonstrated his ability to salute, pray and play dead before the audition had begun. Owner Gregg Boersma has spent thousands of hours clicker-training the eager-to-please 4-year-old dog.
Blue, meanwhile, lay in the middle of the floor like a furry ottoman.
Berkeley, the director of the Juilliard School’s undergraduate opera program, has often cast animals in his productions, and they’ve always been amateurs. Berkeley said scholars believe that the moon’s entrance — “I, the man in the moon; this thorn-bush, my thorn-bush; and this dog, my dog” — involved a canine actor dating to Shakespeare’s time.
“It’s a very humanizing story, and musically, the Mendelssohn is very humanizing,” Berkeley said. “I think that having a real dog, as opposed to a stuffed animal or something else, brings a whole new level of humanity.”
It also was a challenge for the actors: “Something that inevitably happens is that the dog upstages people. Part of it is controlling how much the dog upstages people,” Berkeley said. “One of the tricks is engaging the dog in what the actors are doing — that way what the dog is doing is feeding into the energy onstage, and not taking away from it.”
Before the dogs were marched out onto the stage, their parents waiting nervously in the foyer, Berkeley cued the music: The familiar “Wedding March” from Mendelssohn’s suite of incidental music. Although it served a specific purpose — seeing how the dogs would react to the crashing cymbals — it also gave the proceedings a stately ambiance. Berkeley stood by the conductor’s podium like a groom waiting for his bride at the altar.
Most of the actors were unable to take direction, even when bribed by a bag of snacks. Casper sniffed around the stage, the bright lights illuminating the dog hair flying everywhere, before acquiescing to Berkeley with a sit. Barry Maanilow didn’t fare much better.
“Sit. Sit,” said Meg Sippey, the artistic planning manager for the BSO, now pleading. “Can we sit? Sit.”
“His little skull didn’t leave much room for brains,” said Josh Lebar, one of Barry’s owners.
Griffin sat, stayed and shook hands, letting out the occasional yip. Once he was done, he nearly pulled Sippey’s arm out during his bolt offstage back to Boersma’s side. And lazy Blue proved Patz’s prediction true. Berkeley asked him to sit three times before he heaved his body to the ground with a sigh.
“He’s the sweetest dog, but he doesn’t do anything,” said Patz’s mother, Ellen, from the audience. “Not a trick.”
Berkeley signaled to cut the music, and after a few minutes of consultation with Sippey, he had his dog: Griffin, selected both for his ability to stay focused and for his owner’s boundless enthusiasm for teaching him tricks.
“I don’t see myself as a stage parent,” Boersma said, “More of a dog-handling consultant.”
But in a whirlwind week of rehearsals, it was hard to tell the difference. Boersma did not let Griffin jump from the car seat to the ground, preferring to carry him so he wouldn’t accidentally twist a paw. And he meticulously adjusted the dog’s eating and bathroom schedules to make his entire day revolve around the few minutes the dog would spend on stage. If all went well throughout the run, he was considering taking the dog to meet with a New York talent agent, hoping for a future in commercials for puppy chow and car insurance.
At intermission on the night of Griffin’s theatrical debut, Boersma slipped into a fifth-row seat, stage right. “We’ll see how this goes,” he said.
The lights dimmed. Was he nervous? “Very,” Boersma said.
After the four lovers of “Midsummer” had resumed their previous pairings and wed, the rude mechanicals bumbled through their play. Pyramus and Thisbe, played by Cody Nickell and Marcus Kyd, respectively, spoke through the wall. The lion, played by John Bolger, roared and shook his mane. And the moon, played by Spencer Aste, appeared, leading a perfectly groomed Griffin, whose eyes scanned the auditorium confusedly, clearly looking for Boersma. Unsurprisingly, the audience responded with a rapturous “awwwww!”
To them, it looked like Griffin was doing exactly what he was supposed to do: being a cute dog on stage. But Boersma sat with his arms folded, critical. Aste had brought Griffin out on his right-hand side, but Griffin had always been trained to receive commands from the left. So while the chaos of the rude mechanicals tumbled around him, Griffin sniffed with curiosity, flinching when the lion’s roar took him by surprise. At one point, Aste accidentally dropped a treat, and Griffin gobbled it up from the ground. But when Starveling is dismissed — “Moon, take thy flight” — Aste asked Griffin for a speak command, which was granted with a cute little yip.
For the first time since Griffin came onstage, Boersma finally chuckled.
“Anything he might do badly is only going to add to that comedy,” Boersma said. “That, to me, is the most comforting part. It’s not expected to be perfect.”
It wasn’t a flawless performance, but a solid debut. At the curtain call, Boersma and Griffin trotted out onto the stage, where the dog flawlessly executed a command that he does every day, but with a special meaning this time: “Take a bow.”