“The hardest thing for a dog to do on stage is nothing,” says Bill Berloni, a Tony award-winning dog trainer.
Berloni has worked with the best: Sandy from “Annie,” Toto from “Wizard of Oz,” and Chico from “Legally Blonde.” His newest protege is an 85-pound standard poodle mix named Bowdie, being groomed for Broadway in a new musical, “Because of Winn-Dixie.”
Bowdie will play the title role, with more than 100 cues throughout the Delaware Theatre Company production of the show.
“With audiences and distractions and boredom – having a dog sit for the biggest ballad of the show and not do anything is hard,” said Berloni.
After spending decades training dogs for other people’s shows, Berloni and his wife, Dorothy, jumped into the game, buying the rights to the best-selling young adult novel by Kate DiCamillo and turning it into a musical. Bowdie plays a lovable, shaggy mess of a dog, who is loyal but disobedient, affectionate but stubborn.
He’s no show-off dog. At first glance he does not seem like theater material.
“We were hoping people would not be amazed at dog tricks. We did not want to make a Disney movie where you go, ‘wow, that’s amazing,'” said Berloni. “We wanted to talk about the human-animal bond. So we wanted to train the dogs to do things that dogs do normally. We want the audience to relate to it, and say, ‘My dog does that.'”
Acting naturally on stage is not easy for people, and it’s certainly not for dogs. With the excitement of live theater, plenty of people backstage running around (some of whom – quite possibly, you never know – might have a sandwich in their pocket), and hundreds of people with thousands of scents in the audience, what’s a dog to do?
Berloni sets up strict rules. Everyone, from director to cast to stagehands, must greet Bowie individually before every rehearsal and performance, so the dog does not get distracted by new people. No food of any kind is allowed backstage. Bowdie is never allowed in the auditorium, where the seats are, so that he never assumes it is his territory to explore.
Like any working dog on a ranch, Bowdie is trained to perform complicated tasks reliably and on command. But like a family pet, he also has to appear calm and playful.
The stage has to feel as familiar as home. During the months of preparations, Berloni has slept many nights on the stage of the Delaware Theatre Company with Bowdie, feeding the dog his meals on stage.
A generous co-star
“I have to give him lots of love,” said Kylie McVey, 11, the two-legged star of the show. She played Winn-Dixie’s adoptive owner, Opal. “Since he’s the lead in this huge show, and I’m mostly his partner, I have to make sure I bond with him on and off stage. “
Between run-throughs during a tech rehearsal, as the director pondered blocking options, Kylie would lie down on the stage floor with Bowdie and give him a belly rub.
“Bodie is not your normal dog. He is more lovable,” she said. “Open your arms, and he runs to you. He knows what he’s doing. He can teach you, and I can teach him.”
Kylie and her father, along with Berloni and Bowdie, all live together in a house outside of Wilmington during the production of the show. A board member of the Delaware Theatre Company took in the menagerie for the duration.
“I said to the owners, you can’t talk to him,” said Berloni. “They thought they were going to get a free dog for three months. I’m like, no, you can’t. The whole point is he has to fall in love with her, not with you guys. That was a big surprise to our hosts.”
Bowdie and Kylie are being groomed for Broadway. After an initial production of “Because of Winn-Dixie” last year in Arkansas, the producers made significant changes – including a different dog (the 150-pound wolfhound proved too lazy for the part) – that they’re trying out in Wilmington.
If it works, it may be the first production the Delaware Theatre Company sends to the Great White Way.
The show continues through May 3 at the theater in Wilmington, Delware.