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Show Time with Bill Berloni

Another bit of improv involved the Bulldog in Legally Blonde. When Legally Blonde opened in San Francisco a couple of years ago, there was one scene for her in the first act, and it got a tremendous audience response. So before we went to New York, the creators of the show decided to write another scene for her in the second act—she’d go onstage and play with a toy. It came time for our first preview in New York, our first audience, and she was in the wings waiting to get her toy. She was so excited, she was almost vibrating. When she was cued, she ran out onstage, got her toy, sat down and threw up. In Bull breeds, this is a sign of happiness, so I knew she was looking forward to doing the new scene. After that, she never threw up again.

B: Of all the productions you’ve taken part in, does one stand out as more challenging than the rest?
BB: Prior to Annie, there had never been a character written for an animal—there had never been an animal in a play upon whom the action depended. There had been animals used as props—walked in on-leash or carried on—but nobody ever thought you could train an animal to do something every night that conveys a story. There we were in 1976, I’m 19 years old, we’ve got young composers, and no one told us you couldn’t do that. So they wrote a character for a dog named Sandy, and I was able to deliver that performance. Since then, every show that’s written tries to push that envelope. When we did Annie, just having a dog come out on stage and do a couple of simple behaviors was revolutionary. Fast forward, and it’s like...You want Bruiser to do what? Bark how many times? Most of shows I get are trying to come up with an animal behavior that’s never been done before.

B: Do you prefer to work with female or male dogs?
BB: Fortunately, gender doesn’t matter to the character; as I’ve said to directors, if the audience is looking at the dog’s genitals, I think there’s something wrong with the play. What I’ve found over the years is that canines are very sexist—dominant males, submissive females. Generally, females are easier to train because they’re willing to be less dominant, but they’re less courageous—they roll over for anyone. I use mostly males—I’ll get a male dog and I’ll butt heads with him. It’ll take a while for him to learn who’s in charge, but once he understands that, he’s unflappable. Whereas the females, they give it up real easy, and generally, they’re more easily spooked.

B: When the dogs aren’t working, do they seem to miss the routine?
BB: I don’t find it on their days off. Where we see it have the most effect is when the show is over. Here are social creatures who go to theater every night and get loved up by 30 to 40 people. They do behaviors, get treats and have one-on-one time with me. When the show closes, they come home and they’re one of 16 or 17 dogs within our family. They get used to all that wonderful positive reinforcement, and then they come home to us and we can’t give them enough. But they settle in.

They go back to being regular dogs. I think that’s very important. When news crews come to my house, I think they’re expecting an agility course, or trainers making them do tricks. When the dogs aren’t working, they interact with one another and with us. We don’t train them on a daily basis until we have a job for them. We interact with them, make sure they follow the rules, but they go back to being dogs.

B: What’s new on the horizon?
BB: It’s been somewhat of an extraordinary year for me—people are calling it the year of the dog on the road. As a performer, you’re blessed to have a hit show once a year. We’re now opening the national tour of Legally Blonde; in two weeks, we’ll go to Florida to open the touring company of Wizard of Oz, and then after that, we go back up to North Carolina to reopen the national tour of Annie. Most of the theatres in U.S. have booked three shows that have my animals in them. Chances are that anyone attending the theatre will be seeing one (or more) of our rescued dogs onstage.

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