by Linda Escalera Price
I’m a huge fan of W.C. Fields’ quotes. And when the topic of “Writing with Pets” came up, the above quote was the first thing that popped into my head.
I don’t have pets. It’s not that I don’t like animals, I grew up with pets. But think of me as the Aunt who has no children. I like to visit you and play with your “children.” I like to hear stories about your “kids.” I even enjoy a photo or two. In a pinch, you might leave me to babysit for an hour or so, but you would never, ever ask me to watch your “children” for any longer than that.
As a playwright, I have never even considered putting a live animal in a script – let alone on stage.
Suzie27 summed up my feeling in a comment she made on an article in The Guardian Is it wrong to use animals in plays? “[Animals] steal the show! Who wants to look at some pompous actor reciting lines when you can watch a dog licking itself? There is also always the constant tension – will it start doing something untoward, like barking or mistaking the leading actor’s leg for another dog? If you want people to watch the play, don’t give them an animal to watch instead.”
But it’s been done and done well – or so I’ve heard. I’ve never actually seen a performance with a live animal. In The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh, a cat is a main part of the plot and is an integral character. But most productions, including the one that I saw, use a variety of puppets. Last March, Constellation Theatre Company in Washington, DC did a production that included 2 live cats and sponsored an Adoption Day in conjunction with the Washington Humane Society following their last Sunday matinee. As director Matt Wilson said, “I think it is impossible to direct a cat. I think it is possible to direct actors and props designers and scenic designers so they make choices that rein in the possible choices that the cat can make. It’s about: When do we pick the cat up, when do we put the cat down, when do we just take the cat away?”
A man who I’m sure has a really good answer to that is animal trainer William Berloni. He’s made a living out of working with animals in film – and more rarely – on stage. In fact, in 2011 he was awarded a Tony for Excellence in Theatre for training rescued animals for the stage. He actually earned his Equity card by training a dog he rescued from the pound for $7 to be the Sandy in the original production of Annie. He’s also trained the chichuahua for the Broadway musical Legally Blonde as well as many Totos. All the dogs he’s trained come from animal shelters. Working with animals on film is very different from the stage. On a film set, he is generally just out of camera range giving the animals commands. In the theatre, he is offstage. The actors have to learn to give the dog commands – and the dog has to be able to be loyal to more than one person. Berloni was so compelled by the idea of having a musical with the dog as a main character, he bought the rights to Because of Winn-Dixe and hired a Tony awarding-winning team, composer Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) and writer/lyricist Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde), to create the script. The musical played to record audiences at the Delaware Theatre Company in April and by all accounts is poised to head to Broadway.
The unpredictability of animals onstage isn’t the only reason directors and producers shy away from them. There’s the cost factor as well. It requires more than one animal – they need understudies too. And not only do you have to pay the trainer to create the commands needed and get the animal and cast comfortable with each other, you need an animal handler constantly backstage.
In researching this piece, I started rethinking my position on animals on stage. Then I stumbled upon this video and remembered my misgivings.
These animal encounters are not from stage plays but are with journalists. Still the unpredictability of the animals reminds me why I haven’t – and probably never will – create an on-stage role for an animal.
And I won’t be getting a pet anytime soon.