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Interview: Bill Berloni Helps Shelter Dogs Become Stars of the Stage in ANNIE at Broadway San Diego

Annie runs December 27th through January 1st.

Interview: Bill Berloni Helps Shelter Dogs Become Stars of the Stage in ANNIE at Broadway San Diego We may be "Never fully dressed without a smile," but the musical ANNIE is never fully cast without a Sandy. Bill Berloni, the animal trainer to Broadway and beyond and who helped train the original Sandy talks about finding and training the dogs for performances, and their connection with the human cast. Playing at the San Diego Civic Theatre through Broadway San Diego, Annie is running from December 27th through January 1st.

Bill Berloni's animal training career started in 1976 when he was 19 and working for the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. They needed someone who could find and train a dog for the musical ANNIE that was premiering there, so with the promise of an Equity card and part in a show Berloni committed to finding and training the dog. Along the way, he helped create an iconic role in Sandy, and build a career for himself as well.

Berloni was in a unique position with the original ANNIE, since up until then, a role where the show depended on the dog's behaviors in order to tell the story had not yet been written. So he worked to figure out what kind of dog was needed for performances, and how to create an environment in the theatre that works for both dog and show. Bill Berloni is the Winner of the American Humane Association Richard Craven Award and humanely trains animals for all media.

"Obviously, it's in front of live audience so the dog has to be really centered, they have to do it 8 times a week so there has to be positive reinforcement, and they're being commanded by another person. When you see the show you don't see the dogs look in the wings for the cue, so we train the actors to be trainers so they give the commands. So theatre dogs have to be willing to deal with crowds, and orchestras, willing to walk out on stage 8 times a week to get a cookie and listen to someone else with the same accuracy that they listen to us."

Interview: Bill Berloni Helps Shelter Dogs Become Stars of the Stage in ANNIE at Broadway San Diego
Addioson (top) and Georgie (bottom)

The original Sandy was rescued from a high-kill shelter the day before he was to be euthanized. Berloni says that this left such an impact on him that as he walked away from the shelter he made a promise to himself that if he ever got a dog for himself it would be a shelter dog.

"I made that promise to myself and so when the show moved to Broadway and they asked about the dog understudy, I went to the shelter and got his understudy from a shelter. I've kept that promise to my 19-year-old self and along the way, I decided to use our celebrity for good and continue to promote, and the welfare of animals and adoption."

Decades later ANNIE is still playing worldwide, and Berloni finds himself finding and training shelter dogs to play Sandy - as well as working with a variety of animals on projects from Broadway and beyond. The national tour coming to San Diego will have 2 dogs with it, Addison as Sandy and Georgie as the Sandy Understudy.

Training for theatre is a specialized skill and starts with the dogs healing up from their time in the shelter, and then introducing them to low-stakes theatrical environments.

"It's hard to find a dog who could deal with the touring lifestyle because the only way you can desensitize an animal to a situation is by introducing it to them. Addison came from a shelter in North Carolina, and when we first get a dog we let them chill out and heal their bodies, and start slowly training them. If they like the training we start taking them to outside venues that have space, noise, and strange people. If they like that then we start them in like a high school production, because the stakes are low."

As both the trainer and owner of each of these dogs, their health and safety are his priority, so Berloni is also involved in the casting assessment since the actors also have to give commands.

"Before the final choice is made I do the cues with the actor before I sign the contract. All you need is someone who likes dogs, it's imperative for the theatrical experience. I have kids from 40 years ago who still love working with animals and remember that time."

Bill says that this production and the lead Ellie Pulsifer who plays Annie are really special in their performances and their connection with the dogs.

"This is a pretty special production, when Ellie Pulsifer came into the final auditions she had a natural warmth and she's so good both as Annie and as Annie with Sandy. It's a special production and she's special Annie and for a show that's 45 years old, it still melts people's hearts. We all need a dose of optimism, especially nowadays."

How To Get Tickets

ANNIE is playing at the San Diego Civic Theatre through Broadway San Diego, Annie is running from December 27th through January 1st. For ticket and showtime information go to www.broadwaysd.com

You can also see his life at home with all of his animals and how he trains and works with them in theatres and rehearsals in "From Wags to Riches With Bill Berloni" available on streaming services.

More information on Bill Berloni, his training, and his animals can be found at his website www.theatricalanimals.com He encourages people if they think something is amiss, in tv, film, or a stage play he has animals working on to reach out to him because he takes his role as their advocate very seriously. "I am their advocate and their guardian and I take that role very seriously and I want to make sure they are always happy."

Photo Credit: ANNIE - Addison and Ellie Pulsifer - ANNIE National tour



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