Canine performers steal the show at American Shakespeare Center

Canine performers steal the show at American Shakespeare Center

The first thing they teach you in theater school is…well, don’t go to theater school, because you won’t make any money. But, the second thing they teach you is to avoid getting on stage with a dog. And the reason has nothing to do with dogs being difficult or unpleasant; it’s just that no matter what you try to do, those adorable little creatures will steal the scene. The on-stage relationship between man and beast goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks, but the convention of man’s best friend as a character actor found purchase during the Elizabethan era of theater, right around Shakespeare’s heyday, and the Bard took full advantage of this crowd-pleasing convention in one of his earliest plays, The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Cooper, Tulip, Gabby Gail, and  Jed (clockwise from top) have all appeared on stage. Photos: courtesy of American Shakespeare Center.

Central Virginia’s foremost Shakespeare company hasn’t shied away from the convention either. The American Shakespeare Center developed a relationship with Augusta Dog Adoptions, a volunteer-based dog fostering and adoption non-profit, for the purpose of casting well-suited pooches to perform in ASC’s production of “Two Gents” at the Blackfriars Playhouse, and if you develop an irresistible urge for ear-scratching and tummy-rubbing, you can apply to take home the hairy little thespian. This arrangement piqued our interest, so we dug a little deeper via e-mail with ASC’s Director of Education Sarah Enloe and Benjamin Curns (who plays Launce).

C-VILLE Weekly: How were the dogs auditioned?

Sarah Enloe: “ADA chooses the dogs and brings them to us.The only guidance we gave them is in asking them for adult dogs, they have chosen all of them based on their ability to work in large crowds, deal with loud noises, etc.”

What kind of training do they go through?

“They are walked around the space when they arrive. They meet the actors with whom they will have direct contact. We expose them to loud music and other noises to make sure it is not frightening to them. ADA also uses crate-training for all of their fosters, so the dog is placed in a crate between scenes for their comfort. The ADA brings us the dogs and takes care of any training before they arrive.  We have “handlers” (volunteers and interns) who meet with the dog before the performance, work with them backstage, take care of them during the show, and greet the audience.”

How long do the actor companions work with the dog to develop a relationship?

“Approximately 15 minutes to 1 hour.”

How are the relationships between the canine actor and the human actor?

Benjamin Curns: “The relationships with the dogs are generally very good, very easy-going…They have all been very loveable, very people-oriented, and not ever presenting anything that can’t be dealt with in the moment.  Some have [been] downright amazing.”

Any funny or unpredictable moments caused by working with the dogs onstage?

“Two performances ago, while complaining that my dog had no heart and that he was ‘a stone, a very pebble stone’ with no feelings at all, our gorgeous dog Cooper decided to plop his hips down to the stage and expose his belly for additional petting.  The audience roared mostly because it was adorable, but also because he was “acting” against the text and therefore making my job as Launce both harder and more hilarious.”

“At our very last performance, our rotund lab, Jed, cried a bit onstage for the first time.  It was his second performance and his second scene. It started with a small whimper and got increasingly louder.  My thought is that this was because he was not the center of attention as this scene is a quick one between Launce and the play’s other clown, Speed.  Well, ol Jed is interrupting the setups for jokes, screwing with timing, and crying before the punch lines.  After a few silent takes and reassuring pets, I finally asked Allsion Glenzer, our Speed, if she was aware about any rewrites of the script that I didn’t know about!  The audience roared, Allison giggled and Jed stopped crying.”

What are the next steps for the dogs? Where are they headed after the show closes?

Sarah Enloe: “They go to their foster homes, visit adoption events at Petsmart, hopefully people will fill out applications to adopt them. We will host a puppy event (probably October 27) to show off all of our past pups and get those who haven’t found one yet permanent homes.  Bring the kids!”

All featured dogs are available for adoption through ADA’s website:

The Two Gentlemen of Verona/Through November 23

Blackfriar’s Playhouse, Staunton

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