Dallas — William Berloni was a theater major at New York University in 1976 and an apprentice at the Goodspeed Opera House when the offer happened: Become a professional actor and receive an Actors’ Equity card IF he could find and train a dog to appear in a new musical called Annie. Berloni accomplished his end of the bargain, finding a dog in a nearby shelter and beginning a lifelong career in training animals while giving a big break to the lucky dog that became the “longest running dog on Broadway.” Berloni went on to train animals for a long list of stage productions and films, earning himself a 2011 Tony Award for Excellence in Theater and a 2014 Outer Critics Circle Special Achievement Award. In addition to the original Sandy, Berloni also trained the 20th, 30th and 35th revival Sandys, the Sandy in last year’s film version starring Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhane Wallis, and the Sandy audiences will see in the production of Annie at the Winspear Opera House June 23 through July 5. Berloni took time from dog whispering on his Connecticut farm to talk to TheaterJones about his approach to creating four-legged stars.
TheaterJones: There are so many questions about your job! First, how fun is your job?
William Berloni: It's pretty cool, he says with a high voice. You keep pinching yourself to believe you could be so lucky to play with animals and earn a living from it.
Had you ever trained animals before you were given that challenge in 1976? How did you approach it?
No, I had never done it before! This was after my first year of college, and I had a dog growing up, but so did everyone else, so nothing special about that, but I was the only person to agree to train the dog for no money. I approached the whole thing quite innocently. I had grown up on a farm and had a collie, and my collie followed me everywhere, mostly because of the breed, but I also believed he did it because he loved me and wanted to show his love.
Did you always have a knack for getting animals to do what you want?
In retrospect, growing up on a farm with no brothers or sisters, I grew up with only animals— dogs, cats and rabbits. I learned a lot, like you can't force animals to play human games, so I brought with me a respect for the feelings of animals and how I grew up, and that became my profession.
Why did you choose to major in theater in college?
I was a very small kid with a funny name, and I was picked on a lot. Just like Glee, the Drama Club was the place for the misfits to fit in and going on stage was a chance to become someone besides yourself, which is why actors are so screwed up and insecure, and I fit right in there. I dropped out of NYU my junior year to work with animals and never looked back.
What other kinds of animals have you trained other than dogs?
Dogs are what I have the most experience in, so I hire experts to work with anything besides dogs, cats and rodents. We won't train certain animals, like big cats and primates. Training wild animals is not particularly fun for animals. l would have to take a wild animal and bend its will, and I'm not willing to do that.
How long does it take to train a Sandy?
It usually takes a year.
Walk us through the process.
There are two aspects. If I teach you to tap dance in your living room, that's one thing, but it’s another thing to ask you to do that on stage in front of people who have paid money to watch you. With the dogs, we have to teach them the behavior and desensitize them to the sound of applause, the stage lights and traveling on a tour. If we've trained a dog to sit, we think it should sit any time and for any reason simply because we told it to, but it's not the same learning curve doing it in a show. We have to help the dog feel comfortable performing in front of an audience and listening to someone else. By the time of the first day of rehearsal period, we have taught the dogs to be actors in the show, then it's about teaching actors to be trainers during the show.
Once Sandy is trained and in the show, do you travel with the tour?
My gift is to take what a director needs and wants and what an animal is capable of and bring those together. Once that is set, we have handlers who stay with the show for its duration. I have six handlers doing shows at any given time.
Is there much competition for what you do?
I have been able to come up with a system that works for live theater. The bulk of work for animals before Annie was film work. A trainer would stand behind the camera, and all the animal had to do was get it right once. Film work is easy! I was the kid who came along and got an animal to perform the same eight times a week and created this career for training animals for live theater. Currently, there are no other competitors for that. Ultimately, a system someone else tries doesn't work. In live theater, there really isn't any competition, the competition is in film work. Except last year, when NBC needed a dog to be Nana in Peter Pan Live. They didn't call a film trainer, they called me to train Nana. And it wasn't a theater full of people, it was in front of 80 million people. Now we're doing The Wiz Live, and we're training Toto for that. In the theater world, I'm the crazy guy doing it.
Are Sunny and Macy both on the Annie tour? Do they alternate performances?
They are both on the tour. One is an understudy. Actors are allowed to be sick, so why can't dogs? You wouldn't want to see me on stage in a dog suit, so we have an understudy. Macy does the majority of the shows because she has a better relationship with Issie [9-year-old Issie Swickle], who plays Annie. Sunny did the Broadway revival, but Macy is better on tours. Macy looks just a little more lovingly in this kid's eyes.
How do you find the dogs to be Sandy? I see that Sunny is a Texan! How did you find her?
In the olden days before the Internet, we used to call places. But the Internet has been the number one thing to help with rescues and finding them homes, and that's how we do it. To find Sandy, we have to look through hundreds of terrier mixes.
What's the hardest part of training a dog for the stage?
The hardest part is the first time they go on stage. A lot of the learning for canines is introducing them to the circumstances in which they are going to perform. We can play recorded applause sounds and move furniture around like scenery, but until that first performance, it's hard to really prepare them for it. Fortunately, a Broadway musical has long tech periods, so you have time to prepare the dogs and acclimate them to be in front of a live audience for the first time.
What was your most challenging project?
My most challenging has been my latest project, and one of our own design. As I was creating these wonderful animal characters and getting great reviews, I was waiting for someone to write a musical starring a dog, but no one ever did. So my wife and I wrote one that premiered in the spring. It's based on the book Because of Winn Dixie. Duncan Sheik did the score. The show is 91 pages long, and the dog is on stage for 79 of them. It's the first time a dog has been the lead character in a theatrical event. One dog does 102 behaviors in a two-hour evening.
Actors often warm up before a show. How about animal actors? What's their pre-show routine?
Every night, when you come home, what do your dogs do? They run up and wag their tails and act so happy to see you. So if Macy didn't see Issie until they were on stage, Macy would do the same thing. Her warm up is reminding her that she is doing a show with Issie and that Issie will give her cookies. We walk the dog around to say hello to everyone before the show. They have their own private dressing room to help conserve their energy. They could go to theater for three hours and be rubbed and play ball and then be exhausted at show time, so they rest in their dressing room before their performance. The dogs have their own hotel room with their handler, and they travel in a customized van. I never fly the animals in cargo, we drive them from city to city. Some would call it "the star treatment." We call it keeping them happy.
Do the animals know that they're about to be on stage?
Yes! If you're in a big city, like New York, and you're walking in Times Square with all these people around you all the time, people become no big deal. The audience becomes that to the dogs, it becomes ambient noise to them. What they look forward to is going to the place where everyone spoils them. It becomes like doggy crack. When their show is over, and they come back to the farm, they miss that. It's like, “What? There's only three people petting me?”
Has anything happened with one of your animal actors that is your favorite story?
I have come to have a great respect for the art. I will tell actors that the dogs are going to make mistakes, just like actors sometimes make mistakes. We always have contingency plans, even in those moments when dogs go off track, audiences won't know because we cover it. My favorite story is from the original Annie with the original Sandy. Every night, Sandy would enter stage right to Andrea McArdle and to entrance applause. This went on for eight months without fail until one really rainy night. The audience was soaked and not really all that happy. Sandy walked on stage and stopped. He looked into the audience. Andrea was calling him, but he wouldn't budge. After more calling, people started laughing. They knew something was wrong. Nothing. They laughed louder. Still nothing. Finally, they started applauding the mistake. When they finally started applauding, he was like, "OK, I can finally start my job now." It made the New York Times the next day that Sandy the diva dog was holding for entrance applause.
You have a reality show coming out this summer. How did that come about?
It happened quite by accident. We own 30 dogs on the farm. I work in rescue, but to me, it's a normal life. For years, people have wanted to do a reality show, but they said we need you to be crazier. I kept saying we would do it if we could be good role models. My manager was about to give up, then we learned about a production company from South Africa that was interested in nature conservatory films. We pitched a show about rescue called From Wags to Riches with Bill Berloni ... but instead of 19 and counting, we're 30 and counting. It focuses on rescue animals, and we're committed to doing a good show about people doing something good. The Discovery Channel thinks we'll be good role models for that.
We have no little people working for us, no parolees. We are in the midst of filming. I've done enough TV interviews to be comfortable with a camera around, but instead of cameras once a month, now they're here for several weeks. And apparently I'm more of a comic character than I thought. It premieres Aug. 9, which has been designated as "Pawgust" in honor of the show's premiere. They've only ever done Shark Week, and they're giving it a whole month and it's not even on the air yet! But viewers will get to meet the family and all the canine, bovine and equine characters. My wife and daughter are on it. We are so boring—we don't drink or do drugs or get in fights. One whole episode is done on Sunny and Macy and me visiting them on the tour.