A Dog’s Life: Meet Broadway’s Dog Whisperer

A Dog’s Life: Meet Broadway’s Dog Whisperer

William Berloni is Broadway’s go-to animal trainer.

The audience at the Circle in the Square Theatre goes “Aww!” when, midway through Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Tony nominee Audra McDonald, playing the troubled singer Billie Holliday, brings on stage a Chihuahua, who kisses the star and shares a drink with her. A few blocks away, at the St. James Theatre, a Pomeranian gets almost equal stage time with actress Karen Ziemba, keeping its cool while mobsters and showbiz folk collide in the Woody Allen musical Bullets Over Broadway.
Both Roxie (who plays Holliday’s dog, Pepi) and Trixie (in a gender-crossing performance as Mr. Woofles in Bullets) owe their thespian careers to William Berloni, a veteran animal trainer who received a Tony Honor for Excellence in 2011. Like many of Berloni’s four-legged wards, Roxie and Trixie were rescued from shelters and spend their nonworking days on their trainer’s farm in Connecticut.

“Animals don’t act,” says Berloni. “With humans, we suspend the disbelief and we pretend. With animals, it is reality, which is a good thing and a bad thing. What makes the animal performances so exciting is that you are watching them in real time. You know they are happy and must really want to do it; you will see immediately if the animal’s ears are pinned or if it looks frightened.”

“They learn through positive reinforcement,” Berloni continues. “Every movement, every behavior, is marked with a reward of some sort, and if the behavior isn’t pleasurable, they won’t do it again. You have to be 100 percent consistent with the rewards. If you are inconsistent or late with it, they are not going to listen to you every time. This applies to pet owners as well.”

The Lady Day production came together very quickly, which meant McDonald and Roxie had to work fast to set up a bond between them. “To make up for lost time, we have a half-hour together before the show where Roxie sits with me while I do my makeup,” says McDonald. Even so, the first time the actress and the animal rehearsed together on stage — McDonald cradles the dog while singing the Holliday standard “T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do” — the animal started to shake. Berloni explained that it was because the dog knew the actress, but not the character. “But since previews started, Roxie is quite chummy and loving to both me and Billie,” McDonald reports.

“Most dogs want to please, and of course they want the treats,” says Ziemba. “But, as Bill taught me, it is also for the love.” From the start of rehearsals for Bullets Over Broadway, Berloni made sure that only he and Ziemba got to hold the Trixie. “Otherwise, it would have been very confusing for her,” Ziemba explains. They practiced various routines where the dog was taught to stay focused solely on Ziemba through eye contact. “It was as if she could not get distracted by anything else in the room. And there is a lot of stuff going on in this show.” The actress and the dog are practically inseparable now. “Trixie has become like a part of me, my third arm. It is very comforting,” says Ziemba. “And she is so beautiful that when I enter with her, she brings focus to both of us.”

Berloni was a 20-year-old aspiring young actor when, during an apprenticeship at the Goodspeed Opera House, in exchange for a coveted Actors Equity card, he was asked to help out in the pre-Broadway tryout for the musical Annie. His job: to find and train a sandy-colored dog at no expense for the title character’s companion. He found the dog at a local animal shelter, and discovered his vocation as well. The show, which opened on Broadway in 1977, became a major hit and, Berloni says, opened a new era for animals on stage. “We showed the Broadway community that you could have a dog be a character in a play and you could get an animal to give the same performance eight times a week.”

“I am sort of like a designer,” Berloni says, describing his role in a production. “My gift is being able to tell an author or a director what is possible after reading a script; most often their ideas of what animals can do come from the movies. I tell them what is possible for an animal to do eight times a week on the stage. Then I have to find the animal.”

Since Annie, Berloni continues to use rescue dogs for his shows. “Originally it was more out of necessity, because to be able to train a dog to that level you need to own it. Then, as I got more and more involved with the humane movement, it became a mission.” For the past 14 years, Berloni has held the position of Director of Behavior and Training at the Humane Society of New York. “When I started I also researched wild animals and saw how horribly they are trained and maintained,” he adds. “So I will work only with animals that are domesticated — an animal you find on a farm or that has chosen to live with humans.”

“You have to find that right personality,” the trainer continues. “The animals are either brave or they are not. It’s not so much their intelligence, because they can all learn things. It is their ability to deal with stress. Unfortunately, an animal shelter is also a testing ground because it is such a terrifying place; there is nothing that we can do in the theater that is going to frighten them after that.” Still, he occasionally finds out more about the animal only after it gets on stage. For instance, some animals may be thunderphobic and when they hear the bass sound in the orchestra for the first time, it may sound like thunder to them.

And what do the animals make of the noisy humans sitting out there in the dark? “They react to an audience as much as they do when they are waiting on the subway platform,” says Berloni. “It’s just noise. It has nothing to do with their world. It really comes down to the relation they have with the actor and what they are doing. That’s what they look forward to, and that’s what we try to maintain.”

Berloni can regale you for hours with stories from his four-decade-long career as an animal trainer: the discriminating cat in The Lieutenant of Inishmore who refused to return to a stage after a cast member was replaced; the wire fox terrier who helped actress Joanna Gleason get the fur-free costume she wanted in Nick and Nora; or the tale of the baby lamb with the diaper in Sam Mendes’ production of Gypsy. Berloni recounts them all in Broadway Tails, his autobiography that was republished two years ago. And, of course, there is Annie. “Being part of a show that has become part of the national consciousness is something that I am very proud of,” he says. He has continued to work on the several revivals and tours of the beloved musical, including the movie remake scheduled for this Christmas.

He is currently moving forward with his dream project — a musical adaptation of Because of Winn Dixie, Kate Di Camillo’s story about a dog that changes the lives of a young girl and her father (with music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Nell Benjamin). “My wife, Dorothy, and I have embarked on our producing career with this project because I got tired of waiting for someone to turn Lassie into a musical,” he remarks. “It’s amazing: If you keep the dog in the middle of the action, it actually draws people in to listen to what the characters are saying.”

In between shows, or when their showbiz careers come to an end, the animals become part of Berloni’s extended family on his farm. His menagerie now includes three horses, two pigs, a donkey, a pony, two chickens, three cats, a macaw, and 26 dogs! All the animals are available for show business, but it’s the dogs that get the most work. “I can’t see taking a dog, exploiting it for a lot of money, and then getting rid of it. We take the responsibility of their entire lives,” he says. “But if you kennel dogs, they would have a miserable life.” So he designed his home to contain several wings for the dogs that lead off from the human living areas. Those rooms have no furniture — only dog beds and toys — and have doors that lead out into fenced-in yards. The dogs are grouped by size — large, medium and small — to prevent an Irish Wolfhound from stepping on a little Chihuahua.

“When they are not working, they are running free, chasing sticks and squirrels. It takes, like, a week after a show closes for them to go back to being dogs,” Berloni reports. But it seems that animals can get stagestruck too. When any of his staff — the handlers who mind the dogs during the daily run of a show — come over to the farm to pick up a dog for the next show (say, one of the perennial tours of The Wizard of Oz), it’s not just the potential Totos that get enthusiastic. “The Annie dogs and the Legally Blonde dogs will all get excited hoping to get selected, like they are going, ‘Take me! Take me!’” Berloni says, laughing. “It does seem that they are enjoying what they are doing, otherwise they wouldn’t want to go back to do it again. So I feel like I have taken these dogs, saved their lives, and given them a purpose.”