Arena Stage has long prided itself on showcasing local talent, seeking out fresh faces to showcase in every production. So when a particularly charismatic gentleman from Northwest Washington entered the audition room last month, the casting team instantly knew they’d found a winner.
Maybe it was his confident strut, or his friendly smile. After all, Olly was used to performing for an audience: The three-year-old dachshund mix had already claimed five canine costume contest championships.
Now the peppy pup is about to make his debut as a professional actor, taking the stage as Cheeky in Arena Stage’s production of Cole Porter’s classic musical “Anything Goes.” During the show’s run from Nov. 2 through Dec. 23, Olly will alternate in the role, sharing the spotlight with an equally charismatic papillon named Maximilian Moonshine (friends and castmates call him Max).
Olly and Max were the winners of a local canine casting call — “a big first for us,” said Victor Vazquez, Arena Stage’s casting director. “There have maybe been about three times in the past 20 years that we’ve had pets on stage, but we’ve never done a casting call like this.”
The production — which is focused on crazy antics aboard an ocean liner bound from New York to London — was in need of a special sort of four-legged thespian. Cheeky must be no more than 20 pounds, the theater specified, and must be sociable, tolerant of tap-dancing and sudden movements, and comfortable being “at sea.” In the musical, Cheeky is aboard the ship with his owner, a well-heeled, domineering widow played by actor Lisa Tejero.
Director Molly Smith knew they would need a dog who could command just the right amount of attention (be adorable!) without becoming a distraction (no relieving oneself on stage).
“It’s important to have the right balance,” Smith said. “Cheeky is on stage for about 15 minutes, which is actually a lot.”
They briefly considered using an elaborate dog puppet, Smith said, “but this is much more fun. Casting at Arena Stage is always 50 percent local, so why not give a little animal an opportunity?”
They received more than 40 applications and headshots. About 20 semifinalists were invited to audition, and the result — considering the assortment of excited, amateur actors — was a big success. Nobody pooped in the audition room. Nobody bit anyone. Nobody ate anything they weren’t supposed to eat.
A parade of bichons and papillons and Westies and miscellaneous mutts each took a five-minute turn under the bright lights. Most of them sat when they were told to sit, gamely posed for selfies and didn’t flinch when a trainer dropped a large binder on the floor beside them.
There were several promising candidates, but none quite like well-mannered Max, with his tongue-lolling grin and giant ears, or obedient Olly, with his furiously wagging, fluffy tail.
Tejero said she has loved working with both dogs, who joined the cast for a handful of rehearsals. Olly was more “chill and introspective” in rehearsals, she noted, while Max — the younger of the two dogs — was more perky and curious. Since both have long hair, she added, she learned one particular lesson: “Never apply chap stick before picking them up to do a scene.”
As opening night approaches, she is confident the pups will steal the show. “They are definitely the most popular actors in the room,” she said. “I hope they will love being with us as much as we enjoy having them join us.”