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


Shelton Becton, Roxie the Chihuahua and Audra McDonald in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” (Evgenia Eliseeva)

A talented dog might be able to roll over and shake hands with the best of them — but that doesn’t mean it can handle eight shows a week. For that, you need a genuine canine thespian. And for that, more often than not, you’ll call Bill Berloni, Broadway’s preeminent animal handler.

After an open call for dogs, directors weren’t able to find a suitable amateur to play Pepi, Billie Holiday’s beloved dog, in the Broadway revival of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” at Circle in the Square Theatre through Aug. 10.

“All of them got very nervous in the audition rooms with cameras there, with strangers,” Berloni said. “We needed a dog that had that courage.”

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

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

But having such a consistent and stage-ready dog comes at a price. Berloni declined to say how much the show pays for the use of his animals, but he noted that it was less than the $1,800 minimum weekly salary of a chorus member. Animal handlers, Berloni said, are among the lowest-paid theater professionals in the business. When small theaters cannot afford his fees, he urges them to seek another solution: “Use a puppet. If you’re doing ‘Annie,’ put a kid in a dog suit,” he said. “Your audiences will forgive you more for something like that.”

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

Animal handler and assistant stage manager Lara Hayhurst is not only responsible for Roxie at the theater, but also for the rest of the day, too. The dog has been living in her apartment in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan.

“I had to puppy-proof my house, had to pick up anything off the floor that she would chew on,” said Hayhurst, who also sent her cat home to live with her family in Pennsylvania for the summer in order to provide Roxie with a tranquil environment free of distractions. Hayhurst knows how crucial that 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’s brother Chico in mid-June.

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

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

McDonald, a dog owner, feeds Roxie dinner each night, and they have an hour of uninterrupted bonding before the show. The dog gets about eight minutes of stage time each night. She is carried onstage by McDonald, who sings her the Billie Holiday song “T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do.” And in a favorite moment, “She drinks some ‘gin’ out of a glass, which is aided by a little peanut butter,” Hayhurst said. “It may look very simple, but it’s been years and years of training, caretaking, using [Berloni’s] philosophy of positive reinforcement. You watch a performance, and it looks effortless.”

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

“The beauty about dogs are, they’re always in the moment. When Roxie goes on stage, she’s not acting,” Hayhurst said. “I think that’s why we love animals on stage so much. It’s harder for us as humans to be in the moment. We have the cognitive ability to get into our own heads.”

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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