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Show Time with Bill Berloni

B: Do animal actors carry union cards?
BB: There are no unions for animals, and it’s a huge bone of contention for me. For example, humans get air-conditioning, animals go outside. To get air-conditioning, I have to negotiate. Also, when producers don’t pay, unions have legal teams and bonds to draw from. I have the courts. And it’s impossible to sue large companies. So I’ve learned how to protect my animals.

B: Film or live—which is more of a challenge?
BB: Movies are easier than theater. For a movie, I can stand behind the camera or the actor and give the dog a silent command; we get it right once and go home. In the theater, I can’t give commands from the wings. If, for example, you’re watching Annie and you see Sandy look toward the wings and then do something, it’s clear he’s not listening to the characters on stage. So in the theater, we train the actors to be handlers. When you see my dogs on stage, you see them running to people they love, executing the commands, getting rewarded and then coming offstage to me. The dogs will do anything for me, but in live theater, they also have to do anything for someone else, and that’s an interesting dynamic. You really need well-balanced dogs to do that.

B: Is it hard to train the actors?
BB: It can be challenging, but most of the time, I work with people who love animals—Bernadette Peters, Andrea McArdle, Sarah Jessica Parker.

B: Speaking of Sarah Jessica Parker—do you think she took what she learned as one of the early “Annies” working with Sandy to her later role as a dog in Sylvia?
BB: Absolutely. When Sarah started in Annie, she had never been around dogs; she was from a large family—eight kids—and they moved around a lot, so they always had cats. Sandy was her first dog. She learned quickly how to work with him, and got very good at it. I went to see her in Sylvia, and afterward, went backstage. I said to her “You stole some of that stuff from Sandy, didn’t you?” and she freely admitted it. She really loved Sandy.

B: We know you use positive reinforcement in your training. Is applause reinforcing for dogs?
BB: Not at all. Applause is a great positive reinforcer for humans, but to dogs, it’s just an annoying noise that sort of buzzes in their ears. One of the things we teach them to do is to ignore that noise, and it really doesn’t take them long to learn how to do that. Of course, teaching them to ignore the noise made by 3,000 people who scream when they enter can be a challenge. You can’t really prepare them for it before opening night. But what you can do is get them so connected with what they’re doing—essentially, build the bond between the dogs and the actors—that when that sound happens, the dog looks to his person for direction.

B: Over the years, have you had any improv moments onstage?
BB: There have been instances where someone wasn’t paying attention, or miscued a dog, and the dog has walked offstage. But usually, if everyone’s doing their jobs, there are no problems. Still, things happen. For example, when actors come onstage, they often get entrance applause. Annie had been running for about a year, and every night, Sandy had gotten his entrance applause. It was a rainy midweek night, the audience was wet and tired, and when Sandy came onstage, no one applauded. He stopped and looked at the audience. Andrea called him: “Come here, boy! Come here!” But he stood there looking out at the crowd. All of a sudden, the audience started to laugh, and then they started to laugh harder, and he just stood there looking at them. And then he got his applause, and he went on to Andrea. They thought he was soliciting the applause, but my take was that, for 300 performances, he’d heard that noise when he went onstage and couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t happening.

Cameron Woo is The Bark's co-founder and publisher. thebark.com