By Christine Covino, Marketing and Communications Coordinator
Peter Pan and Wendy reimagines the story of Peter Pan in many ways—even the Darlings’ beloved nanny, Nana. Instead of an actor in a dog costume, Peter Pan and Wendy features a real dog star, who has performed on hundreds of stages across the country. Theatrical Animal Trainer Bill Berloni, the only animal trainer honored with a Tony Award, and dog handler Tyler Garstka spoke to us about their trade and about Bailey, the furry actor who is sure to steal many hearts.
Christine Covino: How did you become a theatrical animal trainer?
Bill Berloni: I was 19 years old when I was asked to find and train the original dog for the role of Sandy in the original production of Annie, which started at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. I was an apprentice there, and they couldn’t afford a dog trainer. So, I was offered my Equity card if I could find and train a dog for free for this new show. Being a young actor, I agreed, and I went searching through the Connecticut shelters. I had never been to an animal shelter and, being an animal lover, I was profoundly moved. The day I found the original Sandy, I made a promise to myself that when I grew up, if I ever got a dog, I would rescue it. Well, a year after that, Annie opened on Broadway and, at the age of 20, I became a world-famous animal trainer. So, I’ve been keeping that promise to the original Sandy and, along the way, trying to raise awareness about homeless animals.
CC: What has Bailey’s life been like so far?
BB: About three years ago, we were looking for understudies for Because of Winn-Dixie. Bailey was surrendered to a shelter in Louisiana, and we adopted him from there. His first assignment, as it turned out, was not Winn-Dixie. Instead, we were asked to do the national tour of Finding Neverland. He was the understudy for the first year of the national tour, and then he took over the role.
CC: So Bailey already knows the story?
Tyler Garstka: Finding Neverland is all about J.M. Barrie and how he came to write Peter Pan. Bailey played Porthos, who was Barrie’s dog in real life and inspired the character of Nana. When that show ended, I thought, well, this might be the end of my Peter Pan experience. To do this again, and to do it in such a fun and new way, is just so exciting.
CC: What do you like most about Bailey as a performer?
TG: The energy he brings to a role. Our goal is that when a dog’s onstage in a scene, it isn’t actually about the dog. The audience shouldn’t look at the dog instead of the scene taking place. Bailey does a very good job of that. When it’s time to just lay down in a scene while there’s some exposition happening, he does that. But then when it’s time for him to do his cues and his behaviors, he’s so excited about it. He loves being onstage, interacting with different actors. He loves the attention. He loves all of that, and he is the biggest sweetheart.
CC: A six-week run of eight-show weeks can be taxing for human actors who do it professionally. How do you keep the animals happy throughout the life of a production?
BB: In the same way than an Olympic performer prepares for the Olympics: they go on a diet, they exercise, they don’t drink, they don’t do anything that would possibly harm them. Tyler’s job is to keep Bailey in peak performing mode. That means they can’t go to the dog run, because what if he gets attacked by another dog? Tyler can’t take a day off. It is a big commitment.
CC: What’s it like for human and canine actors to work together onstage?
BB: What’s interesting about stage is—when I do a film, the trainer can be behind the camera so it looks like the dog is reacting to the characters, but he’s really reacting to the trainer who owns and feeds and loves him. For the stage, the actors who interact with the dog need to be as important to the dog as we are. So, we have to turn the actors into trainers. We have to build the bonds between them.
Having an animal onstage also requires everybody onstage to focus. The entire cast has to be aware there’s an animal in the room, and how their behavior might affect him. Any change in that pattern is going to take Bailey’s attention away. It’s something that provides a very exciting performance element.
CC: What will Bailey add to this production?
BB: When we come to the theatre, we suspend our disbelief. But when a real animal comes onstage you go, “Wait a minute. What is that? I don’t know what that animal is going to do.” It brings a new danger to the piece. That sense of reality in the first scene helps suspend our disbelief so that, when we come back from Neverland, we know we’re back in reality.
Peter Pan and Wendy begins performances on December 3. Tickets start at $35 and are available at ShakespeareTheatre.org or by calling 202.547.1122. Recommended for audiences 5 years and older.