Recently Superdogs had the opportunity to train a dog for the KicksArt Theatre Company’s production of Annie. Superdogs worked in collaboration with Mari Borain of GoodPet Trading to ensure a high standard of training for “Sandy”. Collaboration in the KZN dog training arena is not something we often see, but Lindelani from Superdogs and Mari broke that mould and produces a wonderfully trained stage dog. Here is Mari’s take on the experience.
WHEN English playwright and actor Noël Coward uttered his famous words …
Don’t put your daughter on the stage.
The profession is overcrowded,
And the struggle’s pretty tough,
And admitting the fact
She’s burning to act,
That isn’t quite enough.
… he certainly wasn’t thinking of a KwaZulu-Natal dog called Pluto.
Instead it was the perfectionist KickstArt Theatre Company’s director Steven Stead who decided to introduce his new star to the stage after discussion with Pluto’s owner, Debbie Kuhn.
In his director’s note, Stead wrote: “Annie is undoubtedly one of Broadway’s most enduringly appealing shows. With terrific tunes, cartoon-clear storyline, and its unashamedly feel-good message of hope and optimism, it has all the ingredients of a popular success.
“Oh, and it has a dog. Bingo! The final ingredient in a flop-proof recipe.”
Aiming for the flop-proof bit, though, was the challenge.
As a companion animal behaviourist, working with a dog who is such a crowd favourite has been a truly surreal experience.
Our initial decision to save Pluto added distraction from the task at paw, was that only those cast members directly involved with him in a scene would be permitted to interact with him.
However this “ban” was soon lifted when we saw that Pluto had all four paws firmly on the ground and actually benefited from the cast’s love and attention.
So when he experienced some stage fright during dress rehearsals as the lights came on, the cast’s very supportive attitude towards him – along with some stage desensitising – helped lift him to his true “Theatre Dog Celeb” potential!
After that there was no stopping him. He became intimately connected to the stage experience and each show I watched proudly as he enjoyed himself more and more. Each day when we drove to the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre in Durban, he would take his own lead in his mouth, and go over to each backstage crew member to greet them.
Next would be down the stairs to all the dressing rooms … first the kids’ dressing room, then the girls’ dressing room – his absolute favourite. Our Dog Pluto showed himself as a ladies’ man – he thrived on the continuous cuddles, kisses, affection, and attention from all the beautiful female singers and dancers, and especially the extra yummy treat gifts they brought him.
He would play up to his Romeo persona and had his “team” wrapped around his paw – including “Miss Hannigan” Lisa Bobbert who was highly allergic to his dog fur!
Next on his arrival greeting routine was the boys’ dressing room, then the Green Room (backstage “Common Room” or area for warming up singers’ voices and dancers’ bodies!). Here he would inevitably find “President Franklin D. Roosevelt” Peter Court with his laptop. Pluto would sit and keep him company until Peter had to get ready.
Pluto loved the kids’ dressing room, where he would steal the shoes they needed for the show and parade them around backstage! He often sat with kids helping them with their card choices for UNO games; he also gave them much needed support while they did their homework.
Thankfully, the kids denied his offer to eat their homework when it was too hard!
Pluto’s most embarrassing moment (for us, not him!) was peeing on the stage – marking his territory as he made his way off the stage – DURING the performance!
He also began waltzing off the stage carrying his lead off in his mouth … spontaneously and to the audience’s delight.
He usually helped dancers Evashnee Pillay and Dominique La Grange stretch and warm up before a number.
The kids loved him. Some of the comments included:
“He’s very cute and he’s playful.”
“He’s friendly and adorable.”
“He likes to sleep a lot. He loves it when we love him.”
“He helps us feel more confident on stage, and helps us remember to smile!”
“I used to be a lot more nervous to perform, but when Pluto is backstage or onstage I’m not nervous anymore.”
“We’re so happy that they didn’t use a stuffed dog.”
“The whole experience has been excellent socialisation for the kids and the dog and all the performers, to interact with each other.”
“A great morale booster for cast members.”
As a Pet Trainer, my happiest moment each performance was when Pluto looked over to me in the wings from the stage for reassurance. I would smile at him, and he’d turn his head back to the scene and audience, clearly enjoying himself.
If it’s true that every dog has his day, Pluto has made an absolute meal of his “day”!