BWW Interview: Bill Berloni of FINDING NEVERLAND at Orpheum

BWW Interview: Bill Berloni of FINDING NEVERLAND at Orpheum

Bill Berloni has been in the animal training business for more than 40 years. Having trained such iconic animals as Sandy in ANNIE, and Elle's petite Chihuahua, Bruiser, in LEGALLY BLONDE, Berloni's currently working canine actors are appearing in the national tour of FINDING NEVERLAND which is coming to Omaha's Orpheum Theatre October 11-15. Berloni is the only animal trainer to win a Tony Award, and recently added a Drama League Award to his credits. He has trained animal actors for two dozen Broadway shows, hundreds of Off-Broadway shows, regional theatre, movies, commercials, and television. His book, "Broadway Tails," is available for purchase in stores and online. He stars in a reality TV series based on his life with his dogs in "From Wags to Riches with Bill Berloni." Berloni rescues all of his dogs and adopts them when they no longer work. He lives with his human family and family of 31 canine actors in his 90-acre home in Connecticut. I phoned Mr. Berloni last week to ask him about his success as an animal trainer.

I read that you always go to the humane society or other rescue organizations to find your animals. How do you know who to choose? What do you look for?

I've been doing it for 41 years. So, I've learned pretty much by trial and error. The thing is, the dogs that perform have to be super dogs. They have to be super friendly. They have to be able to deal with stress. They have to be able to want to learn. They have to be motivated to like humans. Unfortunately, an animal shelter is a very stressful place. So if they display these characteristics in a shelter, chances are once we get them out and work with them, they're going to be very happy and even more willing to work.

Have you ever had problems with the dogs interacting with the actors?

Well, you know you would think that if an actor has to interact with an animal, a) the actor who's auditioning would like animals, and b) the director who's hiring him would ask that question. Very often, that's not the case. When you have a method that's based on positive reinforcement and the actor is not that interested in dealing with the animal, the animal as a result is not interested in dealing with him, so it sort of falls apart. In this show, I did not do the original production. I didn't have any input to the design of it. There are two adults and two children who interact with the dog, so they all have to be up to speed on their commands and relationship to the dog. In addition, there are four understudies. So in this show, our dogs have to be able to work with eight people, which is unprecedented. Usually, like when I did ANNIE, there's one Annie and one understudy. Or in WIZARD OF OZ, there's one Dorothy, so the dog really bonds and you can hone the skills of one actor. But in this one, there are so many people working with the dogs that it's constant training. The actors love the dogs, but they don't appreciate having to come in every night and rehearse. That's the only way to keep the dogs up to speed. Every night there is a dog call, a rehearsal call, before the show with the actors that are going on that night. That's how we minimize those mishaps.

What kind of dogs are the two that are in FINDING NEVERLAND?

They are poodle mixes. You can call them "doodles," you can call them whatever. We wanted a sheep doggy looking dog, but unfortunately, sheep dogs are impossible to train. So we got these big poodle mixes. Sammy is the brown one, the darker one. The understudy, the lighter one, is Bailey.

So normally, it's Sammy out on stage?

Correct. If you were to look at the show record, I don't believe that there is any one actor who has done every performance. Sammy has never missed a performance. Bailey has not gone on. He's prepared. He's done his understudy rehearsals. If our dogs were to become sick, that would mean that something went wrong. That's a testament to our handlers keeping the dogs in tip top shape. To look forward to going in and doing their job.

They just got six weeks off. They took the show to Japan for four weeks, and obviously, we couldn't go with them because of the quarantine. So Sammy and Bailey have had a six-week vacation. We start back up next Tuesday.

What did they do for dogs when they were in Japan?

I wish they would tell me! (laughs) They said they were going to get local dogs over there.

I read that they used to use dogs more than they do now in Broadway shows.

Yeah. This season on Broadway there is not one show with an animal. Animals bring a different dimension to what you're watching. My original Sandy (ANNIE) had 15 cues in the show. Sammy has about 20. The dog that we're training for an upcoming musical BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE had in the last production 109! He was onstage for a total of 85 minutes of a 2 hour and 15 minute show. The audience really got to invest in him as a character.

You have been doing this since you were 19 or 20. How did you develop your skills?

I was originally a technical apprentice at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut where they couldn't afford a dog trainer. No one on the paid staff wanted to do it, and I wanted to be an actor. The producer called me into his office and offered me my Equity card in exchange for finding and training a dog. Necessity is a mother. I was going to get my Equity card, but I had to figure out how to do this. It was all a matter of timing. I was raised on a farm. My dog followed me around without a leash growing up. Why? Because he liked me. It was very simple. I thought if I could make dogs have a good time and like the people onstage, they should be able to do that. The basis of a positive reinforcement method of training back in the early 70's hadn't really been looked at yet. Sandy (ANNIE) was the first animal ever to play a character in a live theatrical event in which the action depended upon him. Up until that time there were shows lIke Oliver where you could cut the animals and still do the show. You couldn't cut Sandy and still do ANNIE. When I was successful at that simple, have a good time method of training, all of a sudden Broadway was like, "Hey! Let's see if we can do more of this."

What is the first trick you teach a dog?

If I taught you how to take a drum stick and hit a drum, that wouldn't make you a drummer. Right? So you don't teach dogs "tricks." You teach them that it's fun to listen. If you're able to get a dog to want to listen to a human, then they are willing to do the things you ask of them. That's where people get out of whack. They'll say, "I want to teach my dog to sit." That's like forcing them to do something that they don't want to do. But if you can get them to want to work with you, they'll follow you around, then they'll tap dance. Then they'll do anything you want them to do. When you start with simple, basic obedience- exercises like heeling, walking by our side, sitting, and staying. What they learn is, "Oh! If I do something, I'm going to get a treat. Oh! Isn't this fun?" All of a sudden, they become these sponges that do more to please. We teach them how to learn. Not how to do a trick.

We should teach our kids the same way.

You know, people look at our daughter and they say she's so lovely and we think, of course she is! She has animal trainers for parents. She didn't have a chance! (chuckles) It's the way I treat people. I can't force anyone to do something. I'm not going to force you to be my friend or hang out with me. But if I'm nice and I have fun, maybe that's how people should interact with one another.

Are you still the only animal trainer that's ever gotten a Tony Award?

Still am. Yep. It was for "excellence in theatre." There is no category for animal trainer. After twenty some Broadway shows, they said, I guess we should give him something! This year I was given the Drama League Award for "unique contribution to the theatre." I'm equally as proud of that. Being singled out by my peers...for them to recognize me. We have sort of made a lot of people happy over the years. Theatre is ahead of the Academy Awards. They should start honoring their animal trainers. Everybody else gets an award.

I know you get this question all the time, but what's the funniest thing that's happened when you've had the dogs onstage?

I think the funniest thing is a moment in which a dog brought the audience to its feet. Unfortunately, it's a story that's 40 years old about the original Sandy when he was appearing with Andrea McArdle. Every night when he came out, he'd get entrance applause. He'd enter from stage right, and hear applause, and go over to Andrea McArdle. We'd been running about six months, when one fall, on a rainy, cold October night, people came in wet. We opened the show late and they were just sort of grumpy. Andrea McArdle turns to Sandy and say, C'mere boy." He comes out and he takes like six steps and he stops. I, of course, freak out. She's going, "C'mere, boy. Come here." He's not moving. He turns over his right shoulder and he looks at the audience. I'm thinking, "What's he going to do? Is he going to jump off the stage?" Andrea is still going, "Come on, Come on, Come on, boy." The audience starts to titter. It's clear the dog is not performing like he's supposed to. I'm of course, like, "Go Go!" Andrea is just looking at me. And she's looking at the audience. Then they start to laugh out loud. And he's standing there staring. Then they start to applaud and he goes on with the show. It made the audience happy, but scientifically, what had happened was, every night for multiple performances when he came out, there was a loud noise to his right side. And that night there wasn't. So he looked to where the noise had come from, trying to figure out where's the noise, and when it came, he went on with the show. That was the night I peed my pants.

How well do Sammy and Bailey handle traveling? What special considerations do you have to make?

What I do is acquire the dogs. I train them. Then I go and work with the director and all the actors. Once it's set, one of my handlers travels with them. He's basically their caretaker. He has to keep them healthy. He has to keep them happy. He has to keep them exercised. He has to keep them interested in doing a show. They travel around in a customized van. We never fly them in holds of planes. They get their own private dressing room in the theatre. They obviously have their own private hotel room wherever they are. So they get pretty good care.

You won't be coming to Omaha. It will be your handler?

As much as I'd love to come and visit, they only send me out when there's problems. I have not visited this show since it's been on tour. I love Omaha, it's beautiful.

Photo Credit: KSP Images

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