While hits like The Lion King and War Horse, in which human actors play a host of wild creatures with the help of fantastical puppets have demonstrated how human ingenuity and artistry can trump the limitations of the theater, there is no doubt that when you can get the real deal you should always opt in. The first animal to ever grace the stages of Broadway was a dog named Sandy who found fame through the original production of Annie. However Sandy's path to stardom was not paved without a few human hands along the way. Lead among these behind-the-scenes geniuses of theater is Bill Berloni, the man who trained Sandy and defined the role and methodology of animal trainers and handlers in live theater. Bill knows better than anyone the warmth and soul that a real, live animal can bring to a stage and has dedicated his life to showcasing such four-legged co-stars while campaigning for their rights, welfare, and rescue.
Though demand for live animals in theater has seen a dip recently due to financial constraints, Berloni's expertise has not gone unrecognized, as he received A Special Tony award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. He spoke softly and steadily and kept a steady gaze. After speaking with him for five minutes, even I had relaxed a little after what had been a very bad New York day. The famous animal handler of Broadway surpassed even his reputation and my expectations. "It was basically because they couldn't afford a professional animal trainer," he said modestly. "So, to save money, I went to the animal shelter."
"Up until Annie, there had never been an animal that played a character in a play," he continued. "No one thought that you could train an animal to do the same thing eight times a week. You could do a film with an animal, but not a theatrical event. But we were young and naive and we didn't know that, so what I devised, was a way that they [the dogs] would look forward to coming to the theater." They must have looked forward to it, because they did it 2,337 times over the next six years. Berloni's career was launched and Sandy lived with him for the rest of her life. With the revenue from the show, Berloni was able to buy a home and land to turn into an animal refuge. "I look at my house as the house that Sandy bought!"
And Berloni continues to honor Sandy's memory through "The Sandy Fund" which is affiliated with the Humane Society of New York and has raised over $10,000 for animal rights, welfare, and rescue.
Since Annie, Bill Berloni Theatrical Animals has gone on to do numerous Broadway shows including revivals of Camelot, Oliver, and Anything Goes. Most recently they trained the animals for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. They have also done movies, including the recent remake of The Producers, and Charlie Wilson's War, starring Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks, as well as numerous TV shows and commercials. And now that they've proven that animals can be trained for live theater, the demands and expectations have gone up. "Last year there was a show called The Woman in White. We had to train a rat to run from one hand to another across an actor's back and back. That was sort of fun!"
But how does he do it, I wondered. What makes these animals respond to him so well? "I think what differentiates me from most of my contemporaries, other animal trainers, is that I don't demand or force the animals to do anything. I don't think any of us have the right to dominate anything else. All of that is about man controlling nature, and I never wanted to do that with animals. I use positive reinforcement to create a situation where the animal wants to do something." I asked him what "positive reinforcement" actually meant. "That can come in the shape of a treat, or a ball, or it can be a hug and a kiss -- whatever motivates an animal the most is what we'll use."
Berloni is not only a pet professional but, of course, also a pet lover. "We own 16 dogs, five cats, four horses, two llamas, a donkey and a pony." The "we" he refers to is his wife and business partner, Dorothy, who is also a trainer, and their daughter Jenna. The couple manage to successfully navigate the dangers of being in business with someone you love, perhaps because they both love what they do. "I grew up loving animals and at one time considered being a vet or moving to Africa to be the next Joy Adamson," said Dorothy Berloni. "Ultimately I pursued theater, first as a performer and then as an administrator. My marriage to Bill became a true one in all senses of the word. We are partners at home and in the business and two of my greatest joys are united in a new career."
Bill and Dorothy Berloni get most of the animals they work with from shelters and work closely with the Humane Society of New York. "Over the years, we have kind of become ambassadors for the plight of homeless animals," Berloni said. " The Humane Society asked me to work with them as a behaviorist and since I think they are one of the best organizations out there, I said yes. I've been doing that for about ten years."
When asked about his favorite moments from a life spent in the theater, Berloni replied, "Well, being in the theater and being backstage in itself is gratifying on top of getting to work with animals. I would say that every opening night of every show we've done has been really exciting."
One might ask, "Where does a theatrical animal trainer go after winning a Tony?", and Berloni has his eyes locked on the producer's chair. He and his wife have recently secured the theatrical rights to Because of Winn-Dixie and plan to bring the world's first musical starring a living animal as it's protagonist to Broadway. Additionally, Berloni's talent has been secured for a revival of Annie to debut in the fall of 2012.
For more information on Bill Berloni visit: www.theatricalanimals.com
And for more articles and videos from Wendy Diamond, please visit www.animalfair.com