If you’ve seen The Two Gentlemen of Verona already, you’re probably well aware of Crab, Launce’s scene-stealing pooch. If you haven’t seen the play yet, you probably know that Two Gents is referred to as “the play with the dog.” With this in mind, I sat down with The Two Gentlemen of Verona’s furriest cast member, Oliver, and his handler, Kathryn Zaremba, to find out what life is like for a four-legged Shakespearean actor.
When Kathryn steps into the green room at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, she’s easy to spot, her sandy-colored companion trailing quietly behind her. Oliver stays close to her, lying on the floor as we begin to talk. Actors pass by and give him a belly rub or an ear scratch, and it’s obvious that he is well-loved and incredibly comfortable in his environment. Life wasn’t always like this for Oliver.
Bill Berloni, Oliver’s trainer, rescued him from a shelter. Berloni is well known for his work with shelter animals for stage and screen, which earned him the 2011 Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre. His career as a trainer began when he was looking to earn his Equity Card as an apprentice in New York. Bill was told he would need to find and train a dog for the role of Sandy in Broadway’s original production of Annie. He found his Sandy in a shelter, and has continued to train rescued animals for stage and screen ever since. When Oliver was first rescued from his shelter, he was very submissive and easily frightened, suggesting that he had been abused as a puppy. With the proper training and lots of TLC, Oliver has transformed into a well-behaved, content dog.
So, how did Kathryn come into Oliver’s life? Bill was a family friend when Kathryn was a child. He asked her to consider originating the role of Annie in Annie Warbucks, a sequel to the original Annie, in part because of her natural rapport with animals. After acting for several years on Broadway and on tour, she moved from the performing arts to fine art, and is currently a masters student at the Corcoran College of Art + Design. Naturally, when Bill knew he would be bringing a dog to Washington, D.C. for STC’s production of Two Gents, he asked Kathryn if she’d be willing to be Oliver’s handler. I talked to Kathryn, who is now one of Oliver’s biggest fans, about their daily life and work together.
On the first weeks of rehearsal:
The cast was asked not to pet or interact with Oliver. Euan Morton, who plays Launce, and Kathryn, his handler, were established as his two “masters.” Kathryn notes that when dogs have more than two masters, they can get confused, so it was crucial that they followed this protocol in rehearsal. Now that Oliver knows who’s “boss,” he gets plenty of love and affection from the cast and crew.
His stage name vs. his real name:
…He doesn’t know the difference! Oliver doesn’t learn to respond to his acting name – he learns to respond to a series of repeated actions, signals and movements. He follows a “track” of rehearsed movements, although the way he follows the track can change based on his mood or the situation. No performance is ever exactly the same for Oliver, which makes his scenes entertaining and unusual for the actors as well.
On his pre-show ritual:
Kathryn brings Oliver in to the Lansburgh early before every performance, so that he has a chance to run through the motions of his scenes with Euan. This gives him time to reinforce what he’s learned and to bond with his stage master.
Kathryn stands in the wings during Oliver’s scenes. She can help him remember what he’s supposed to be doing, and also ensures that he feels safe and calm when he’s confronted with an audience full of strangers.
On being famous:
Now that he’s a local star, fans have recognized Oliver on the street. He is also regularly stopped by passers-by who are eager to make his acquaintance. In the words of Kathryn, “he just has one of those faces.”
On life after STC:
Oliver will return home to his farm, where he lives with a number of other animals and rescues and has plenty of space to run and relax. He’ll take a rest from the limelight and probably return to the stage someday soon!