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EXCLUSIVE: Classicalite Q&A with Bill Berloni of William Berloni Theatrical Animals

By Jon Sobel j.sobel@classicalite.com on May 21, 2014 09:39 AM EDT

Bill Berloni is the go-to man for theatrical animals. Since chancing into the dog training job for the first "Sandy" in the original Broadway production of Annie when he was just 19, Berloni and his subsequent enterprise William Berloni Theatrical Animals have provided countless stage productions, movies, TV shows and commercials with dog actors--and with cats, pigeons, pigs, lambs, rats, snakes and more.

In 2011 he was awarded a special Tony for his decades-long body of Broadway work, and this Thursday the Outer Critics Circle will be bestowing a Special Achievement Award on him "in recognition of this season's outstanding performances by his dogs in Annie, The Open House, The Threepenny Opera, Bullets Over Broadway and Lady Day as well as for the 300 dogs he has found in homeless shelters and made into theater stars over his illustrious career."

Right now, in addition to working on HBO's The Leftovers, Berloni is co-producing Because of Winn-Dixie, the first play to star a dog, with music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin. He took some time to give us a bit of the inside scoop on his philosophy and methods for working with animal and human actors on stage and on screen.

Classicalite: You use a lot of rescue dogs. Is that on principle, or do they make good actors?

Bill Berloni: I use all rescue animals, and it's more on principle. When I was assigned to find the first Sandy, at 19, there was no budget for it, and somebody said they have cheap dogs at the pound. The day I went looking was an eye-opening experience. I had never been to an animal shelter. I never knew that animals were abandoned and abused and had an expiration date when they'd be put to sleep. That day, I made a promise to myself that if I ever got a dog I would get a rescue dog.

The second part of it is necessity: If you had a Pomeranian you loved and I offered to pay you $10,000 to take your dog for a couple of years, would you agree? Probably not (and if you did I'd question your ethics). So where else do you get adult dogs you can train for this work?

CL: What's the biggest professional challenge you've faced?

BB: Anything that's not a dog. Dogs were domesticated to live with man and work with man, which is why they're the most popular pet. Anything else really has no reason to listen to man, and when you get down to pigeons, who have very small brains, their capacity to learn is even more diminished.

CL: What sorts of challenges does that pose in terms of training the animals, or getting them to do what you need them to do on stage?

BB: The way you phrased that question shows exactly what I go through in my career, which is education. Man thinks we have the right to dominate other beings and creatures. The challenge is in going to a director and a writer and saying, "This is what a pigeon can do," and getting them to understand that, and not assume that you can take any creature and bend it to our will. So the harder part, and the one that I think I'm most successful at, is that I'm a collaborator and an educator.

The challenge with working with an animal is not changing what the animal does but getting the writer to understand that this and not that is what you can get an animal to do on stage eight times a week with any surety.

CL: You've pretty much answered my next question: Do you ever encounter a script that calls for an animal to do something that's not practical for that animal to do?

BB: Oh, all the time. You want people to be creative, but I get these young TV writers who say, "We want a penguin to…" And I say, "Have you ever seen that before? No, and there's a reason why: because it can't be done."

CL: For a movie or TV, the trainer can be behind the camera issuing a command to a dog actor. But on stage, the human actor has to do that. So is part of your job to train the human actor?

Absolutely. My whole method of positive reinforcement goes with the theory that my dogs listen to me because they love me, and dog actors have to love the person they're acting with. We have to teach the actors to become as adept trainers as we are. Animals have to have equal respect and affection for those people, otherwise why would they go on stage with them?

CL: Are there dog breeds that don't work well as actors?

There are many breeds that don't do well on stage. We all have our own personalities, from our genetics and upbringing, and that's even more pointed with dogs, who were all bred to do one job well--pointing, hunting, etc. When you genetically engineer a being with certain attributes, they do that very well, and everything else not so well.

The prime example is The Wizard of Oz. The original Toto was a cairn terrier, a tenacious little ratter. How do you find a cairn terrier who will sit quietly while Dorothy's singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow?" We have to look at a lot of cairn terriers to find one--one who'd be considered a terrible cairn terrier in the real world but has the right personality for this job.

I trained the bloodhound for A Christmas Story. They're a nose with a dog attached. They're terrible at obedience, they're so distracted by the nose. For a Broadway show I have to find a pair of dogs that won't kill each other.

So when people ask what's the easiest dog to train, I usually say a mutt, because mutts are more jack-of-all-trades.

CL: You say "a pair of dogs." Does the understudy ever have to go on?

We always have one, but we never want the understudy to go on. We try to avoid that at all costs. We spend so much time getting the actor and the main dog up to speed, so putting an understudy on, whether human or dog, upsets that balance. It's like having a dance partner, and your partner is gone and then you're working with someone who doesn't know your body or know you.

My original Sandy did the entire run of Annie for eight years and never missed a performance.

CL: What's the most interesting or unusual job you've done?

They're all unusual, I love them all. People think, Oh, it's just a dog. But I marvel at nature. I'm sitting on my porch looking out and seeing wetlands and hawks and deer. People think that's nature. But I look into the eyes of a dog, and that's nature as well. What we don't know goes on in a non-human species fascinates me.

I can communicate the best with canines, better than with other creatures. So a simple job where Sandy walks out and sits center stage and looks at our trainer in the audience and then looks out at the audience, amazes me--how they figure out things. Every day I show up to work it's always something new.

That's why I've never written a book [on animal training], I'm not done learning from animals after 37 years. My agent and my manager keep saying, When are you going to write the book? And I think the book is going to be about how much we don't know, and how to teach people to listen to animals as opposed to always trying to tell them what to do.

CL: Your newest TV project is HBO's The Leftovers. Can you tell us a little about that?

In The Leftovers, half the population has been abducted by aliens, and their dogs are running free through the streets, attacking people, attacking deer. Parts of that are computer generated. You see a pack of dogs attacking a deer. The deer is completely computer-generated, and the dogs are just biting a piece of styrofoam. But I'll get a call after that: "Can we get a trained deer to…"

CL: What else are you working on now, and what's upcoming?

The 35th anniversary tour of Annie will be going out on a yearlong national tour. That's interesting because Martin Charnin, the original director, is directing the tour, so I get to work with a mentor and a friend. And I trained the dog for the new movie of Annie premiering at Christmas.

The biggest, most exciting project is that my wife is producing the first play to star a dog. For years I've been amazed at how much attention animals get on stage, and I've been waiting for someone to write Lassie: The Musical. When I turned 50 I said to my wife: Honey, it's not going to happen. So she took it upon herself to find a property, and she got the rights to Because of Winn-Dixie, a very popular children's book, which was turned into a 2006 film.

Duncan Sheik has done the score, and Nell Benjamin, whom we worked with on Legally Blonde, wrote the book and lyrics. The world premiere was at Arkansas Rep this past December, where it was wildly successful. Our next production is at the Delaware Theater Company in Wilmington, Delaware in March 2015, which we're calling the pre-Broadway tryout.

It's exciting to take a dog and use all the things I've learned to tell a story. It's a simple story about the human-animal bond. We've explored every other human emotion on stage except this one. The play Sylvia did, but it had a human playing a dog!

Winn-Dixie is edgy because of Sheik's music, and it's family-friendly but it's not Disney! So that's the dream coming true.

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Tagstheatrical animals, because of winn-dixie, annie, Bill Berloni, dog actors, Wizard of Oz, Toto, Duncan Sheik, Nell Benjamin