Sunday, August 9, 2015

You CAN Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

The first weekend in August was the run of my second show as AD. Annie Jr. which was our children's camp for the theater company I work for. It was four long weeks filled with seven hour days and cranky children, but well worth the work. I have to say our show was pretty great. The ages range from 8-18, so we had everyone from the hyper elementary school kid, to the moody middle schooler, to the diva high school girl. We dealt with it all, but after all of the hormones and attitudes were worked through, the cast came together to perform an amazing show.

I have always liked working with kids, and this camp allowed me to combine kids and theater which was a joy! Especially after the working with all of the adult cast in Evita (see previous post). They all worked hard. From our Annie to our Apple Seller, every cast member put 110% into this show. It's amazing and inspiring to see how much time and energy they pour into their scenes and songs. It was a privilege to work on this show.

Another great opportunity I was given while involved with Annie Jr., was to be able to work with a real dog as Sandy. The junior version originally calls for a child to play Sandy, but the production team unanimously decided that playing "the dog" is not a coveted part and that having a real dog would add that extra touch to the show.

At first, I tried collaborating with our animal shelter. I wanted to use a dog that was ready for adoption so that we could promote him and advertise for the rest of the animals at the shelter to prove that shelter dogs can be stars too. The girl at the shelter I was in contact with was all for it, but when she heard about the time commitments and raised some questions like "what would happen if the dog were to get adopted during the rehearsal process?", she never really got back to me. I was disappointed and we were running out of time to find our Sandy. I even offered Sunny, my white Chihuahua, as a last resort.

Finally, the girl playing Annie offered her mom's dog. We knew her family because they are heavily involved in the theater company. Her mom sent us a pic of her terrier mix and even though the dog was smaller and mostly gray and black, she was better than my chihuahua and already had a connection with "Annie".

So two weeks before we open, in came "Annie" with this shaggy terrier. I learned her name was Rigg'N (a bull riding term) and that she was 15 years old and deaf. What!? Old, I could deal with old, but deaf? How was I going to teach her the routines? Even though she was only in two scenes, and one scene is coming out with a bow on her neck at the very end of the show, I definitely had some work ahead of me.

So from the first moment I met her, Rigg'N was attached to my hip until closing night. I was worried about over working her because she did have some heart problems and I didn't want her passing out because of all of the excitement. Thankfully that wasn't a problem.

I decided that she should only enter and exit from one side of the stage so she would learn that stage left means that she's is going onstage and stage right means to chill out and wait. I also worked on her focus on Annie. Annie would hold a treat or two in one hand and the leash in the other. So Rigg'N would always be watching her hand for signals and not looking or sniffing around.

We worked on coming straight to Annie when it was her cue. Basically we worked it out that when Annie was backstage, I'd give her treats and then Annie would show Rigg'N that she had them. Rigg'N then knew to go straight to her. And that went very smoothly. We also worked on walking and sitting with Annie. Annie walks all over the stage during the number "Tomorrow" and we wanted Rigg'N to follow her. But because she could hear, we could use vocal commands. So I had to teach Rigg'N a hand signal for "sit" that wouldn't be noticeable to that audience. It ended up being a slight flick of the wrist. So when Annie walked, she would tug on the leash so Rigg'N would follow. Then, when she stopped, she would flick her wrist and Rigg'N sat. It took a couple of rehearsals, but she eventually got it.

Rigg'N also had to come when called "Sandy" which seemed like it would be difficult because she couldn't hear. But it ended up being very simple because she did have a leash and knew that Annie had treats. So the "policeman" just let her go on the third call. And at the end, both Annie and Rigg'N run off and I caught Rigg'N in the wings.

Her next scene was the last one, and she just came out on a leash with a big bow on her collar. But because every cast member was onstage, it was hard for her to focus. So we ended up using treats again and she immediately focused on Annie.

Rigg'N was such a sweet dog and, although she was older and we had to take caution with her heart issues, the deafness proved to be in our favor because the audience's reaction never bothered her. This experience seemed to open another door for me because I am considering looking into an internship with Bill Berloni, who is basically the go-to guy for animal training in live entertainment. It would combine two of my passions; animals and theatre. So we will see what the future holds!!

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