Turning Dogs Into Stars: William Berloni’s Method Acting for Animals

William Berloni sat in front of a mural of some of the dogs he’s turned into stars — from Annie, Legally Blonde, Oliver – and explained his method to the members of the American Theatre Critics Association

How He Got Here

I’m from central Connecticut and when I graduated high school, I wanted to be an actor. So I enrolled in a local community college and instead of taking the summers off, I wanted to learn as much about theater as possible. The Goodspeed Opera House, one of the best regional theater companies in the country, had technical apprenticeship programs. The first summer, I was living on campus, and building scenery. I was invited back the next summer and there was a production meeting where they talked about this new musical they were doing with a dog in it. The executive producer at the time, Michael Price, said, well we’ll hire one from New York. What they soon discovered was animal trainers were very expensive. So they asked the paid staff members — the carpenters, the prop people. No technician wanted to volunteer to do this job; they all threatened to quit.
So Michael Price needed a sucker, basically someone he could.
trick into doing this. I was called into his office one day — the first time in two years I’d been in his office. “Billy,” he said, “how would you like a part in one of our plays and your Equity card?” Now I’m all of 19 and I’m thinking, this man is brilliant; he recognizes my acting ability from the way I’ve been building scenery.
And I was like: Yes, Mr. Price, that would be great.
“All you have to do is find and train the dog for the new show.”

He gave me $35 to buy the dog and feed it all summer. Someone said there were cheap dogs at the shelter.
I had grown up with a dog.I’m an only child and my dog was my best friend and I had never been to an animal shelter. So one day I took a Polaroid camera and the description of the dog: All it said was a medium sized dog, sandy colored of indistinguishable breed. I started going to the pounds here in Connecticut and I was profoundly moved. I had no idea that animals were kept in those conditions back in the 1970s.
I ended up at the Connecticut Humane Society at the end of the day.
There were hundreds of dogs there and there was one who caught my eye because he wasn’t barking. And he was sandy colored, beige colored. And I knelt down and he sort of came over to me.
The attendant brought me to the front office and he was kind of rough.
He was like, listen, do you want to adopt a dog?
And I tried explaining to him that I was auditioning for a play.
He was like, listen, it’s a quarter to five. Do you want the dog or not?
I said, well, can I put a deposit down on him? And he said, Nope. And if you don’t take him, he’s going to be put to sleep tomorrow morning.
I didn’t know what that was. Then when he explained it to me, I reached into my pocket. The adoption fee was $7.
I only had three. So he kicked me out. I raced back to the opera house to get the four dollars, but nobody was there. I had touched an animal that was going to die and I was very upset
Later that night as I was bemoaning this whole situation,
my roommate said to me, here’s four bucks go back tomorrow morning before they open it and get the dog.

He was pretty severely abused, and was afraid of people. I was dragging him into the theater and everybody thought I was crazy. “How are you going to train that dog?”

Being Italian. I said, “well, maybe we could feed him, and he’ll like us.”
I had no clue what I was doing, but I did have a dog growing up that loved me and I loved him.
If we could make him think the theater was his home and the people were his family maybe he would walk out on that stage.

And that’s what happened. We had a great cast, great crew, he came around to love the people and the stage. He just had one scene where he had to walk out on stage while the girl sang “Tomorrow.”
We opened during a hurricane. The show got terrible reviews. The New York Times really killed it. So we thought the show was over. There was no hope for it.
And I was moving to New York to study with Stella Adler at NYU.
So I figured I would take Sandy with me. I’d be a starving actor with this really cute dog.
Four months later, Martin Charnin had recommended to Mike Nichols
office that I be the dog trainer on the Broadway production. So when I got the call, I thought, well, any way to be on Broadway. Sure. I’ll be an animal trainer.
We added a couple more scenes by then.
Andrea McArdle had taken over and she and Sandy were inseparable.
So when “Annie” opened at the Alvin theater in 1977, it became a phenomenon and I became a world famous animal trainer at the age of 20.
That was some 26 Broadway shows ago.

At Home With 25 Animal Actors

When I started this business and started adopting dogs, what I wanted to do was not just save these dogs and give them a second chance, but also provide them with a forever home. So it started off with two dogs for Annie, and then eight dogs for the national tours and then other plays. I moved from Manhattan to New Jersey, back to Connecticut. And now we have a 90 acre farm here, that’s more of a sanctuary for all these actors – about 25 dogs.

We have a specially built house. The humans live in the center, and all the dogs live in and around us, in wings. So that way they’re never in cages again

Prior to the pandemic, we had animals on five different TV series, two Off-Broadway shows and a regional theater tour – which all stopped.
I came back home and my wife, Dorothy and I have been caring for the animals because we’ve had to lay off our staff.
in some way, it’s been great for me to be home and connecting with all these guys, and taking care of them on a daily basis.

How He Finds His Stars

Bullets Over Broadway

Sandy was severely abused but I had close to a year and a half to work with him. Now I sometimes have less than three months, so I don’t have time to undo behavioral problems.
So when I go into an animal shelter, I look for an animal in the same way I would look for a great pet.
You don’t want the dogs who are jumping at the cage to get out because they’re not dealing with stress well. You don’t want the dogs who are cowering the back because they’re also not deal with stress well. You’re looking for the dogs who are sort of hanging out there, just taking it all in, because if they can take the stress of the animal shelter, they could pretty much take the stress of being on stage

I look for dogs who are friendly with people

Method acting for animals

It’s my job to make the animals feel safe and have a good time. If they’re happy, they will show up eight times a week.
Sandy did the entire run of seven and a half years — he did 2,333 performances. –never got tired. I mean, he got bored of the treats. We would change the treats.
I don’t train in animals to do tricks. I train an animal to listen to me.
I train them that it’s going to be fun, that we’re going to have a good time

How to train the human stars to work with their co-stars

Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday in Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar and Grill

If there isn’t a connection between the dog and the actor who’s
working with them, then my method won’t work. So I’m forever telling casting agents and directors, if you’re going to hire somebody to be with an animal on stage,
they have to be a dog lover.
If they hire somebody who’s allergic to dogs or doesn’t like dogs, why would the animal want to go out into this scary place and do things for someone who doesn’t even want to be near it?
The first thing is: Just make friends with your co-star. Hang out with them.
Then: if you’re going to be on stage with an animal, be the one standing next to it,
If you’re not next to it, nobody’s going to look at you. It’s going to steal all the focus.
There was an actress in Dallas who on opening night, came out to sing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” but walked downstage to sing it. Toto looked at her, looked at me off stage, looked at her and went “Eh,” and he walked off stage. The audience started laughing. She had no idea why. And then in the bridge of the song, when she went for Toto and he was not there, she panicked. Guess what? The next night, she stayed with Toto.
Dogs don’t act on stage. They’re in real time. If they feel like scratching in the middle of a song, they’re going to scratch. If they sneeze, they lose their place.  They get distracted. The actors have to be able to recognize what’s happening and figure out what to do to keep telling the story.

Turning A Dog from A Supporting Player to The Lead

Bowdie/Nana as Mr. Darling and Lexie as Cinderella! in Peter Pan Live

For years, I had been putting animals on Broadway; they’d be on stage for three or four minutes and get glorious reviews. And I kept saying out loud: I want to train a dog who’s the star of the musical. My wife Dorothy found the vehicle to make that happen. “Because of Winn Dixie.”
When you break down what Sandy did,
he was on stage for seven and a half minutes and had maybe ten cues. In the last production of, “Because of Winn-Dixie,” Bowdie was on stage for an hour and 45 minutes and had 121 cues. There were two trainers backstage, another one on stage (one of the actors), and the little girl — four people to make him look completely
independent. Like good acting, you don’t see the training; you don’t see the work involved.

My wife Dorothy had found Bowdie on Craigslist for sale in Salt Lake City, Utah.I flew out, and here was this big fluffy, gray dog that this wonderful family had bought. But they hadn’t trained him. And so he was knocking the kids over and he was knocking the couch over. When I met him, I sort of just said to him, “You’re not the boss here.” He looked at me like “Wait a minute. You’re not like a normal human being.” There was this connection where he recognized that I spoke dog. And I wasn’t going to put up with shenanigans. He listened to me.

He proved to be the perfect dog for Winn-Dixie. Before he was in “Before Winn Dixie” he was Nana on “Peter Pan Live” on NBC, and in “High Maintenance” on HBO. So, unlike Sandy, who came right from the pound, by the time he was in Winn-Dixie, Bowdie had a resume

How a Critic Should Review An Animal Performer

Their performance should be critiqued like anyone else’s. Also: If you see a performance and the animal doesn’t look happy, if you feel like an animal’s not being treated well, you’re the only defense that animal has. You could just say something like “the animal looks very uncomfortable on stage.”

Doggie Divas

Do they get attitude after awhile? Yes and no. They don’t get attitude with people.
But we want these dogs to be courageous, we want them to own the stage. We want them to think that everybody loves them. So then when they go out the stage door and they see another dog, they’re like, “Hey, get off my block.” They become very protective.

Retiring from the Stage

it’s heartbreaking when I have to retire them.
We have this lovely home and Dorothy and I give each one of the 25 dogs some attention. But when we go into rehearsals, when we go into a production,
they become the center of this loving group of people. They get all this attention. They get to sleep in the bed just with us, not with four other dogs. It’s a very positive situation. Twenty people a night are petting them. When that ends, they come home and they’re like, “Damn. This is boring. I want to go back to work.”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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