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Training the animal stars of the West End

Graham Bessant at work with birds of prey. Photo: Trevor Dry Graham Bessant at work with birds of prey. Photo: Trevor Dry
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Animals in film and television are so common these days as to be totally unremarkable, but there’s still something magical about a dog or a cat on stage. Animal actors, however, are hard to get right, potentially pulling focus from their human co-stars or distracting from the drama.

A lot of companies avoid the issue altogether by working with puppets when animals appear in a script, but when naturalism is what you need, nothing beats the real thing. And there’s no doubt that British audiences can’t get enough of animals on stage.

Here, three top animal handlers with decades of experience, combined with a profound love of the animals they work with, discuss the nature of their roles that help make for a wildly memorable night at the theatre.

Cindy Sharville, Animals Galore:

Cindy Sharville with chihuahua Beatrice,  who appeared in Legally Blonde
Cindy Sharville with chihuahua Beatrice,
who appeared in Legally Blonde

“Oliver! was being made – the big musical film with Oliver Reed – and it happened that we had a bull terrier as a family pet and he won the part of Bullseye. Then we got the contract for everything on the film apart from the horses. We imported owls to be in Fagin’s den and we had all the other dogs and cats and all the background animals and pigeons. That set us on our feet.

Gradually, we got into theatre, which is a lot more difficult. On stage, the dog is working for an actor, whereas when you’re filming, it’s actually working for the handler behind the camera. Plus, if something doesn’t quite work on film, you just cut and go again. With theatre, it’s eight times a week and you don’t get second chances.

It’s a case of training the dogs and then training the actors to work with the dogs. Whenever we go up for a meeting before we start, we say, ‘It’s not just a matter of learning it with the dog. It’s an ongoing practice thing.’ We usually have a bit of time after warm-up every night when we can work through any little hiccups, because things change every night.

I have animals because I want them. If they work, it’s a bonus. Having said that, for Legally Blonde, I had to get chihuahuas and bulldogs, which I didn’t have any of before. It took me six months to train them because it was very specific.

I can train them to do it at home, for me, but it’s very difficult to prepare them for the atmosphere when there’s an audience in. I had a bulldog that was doing a run-across and the audience cheered like mad, so he walked to the front of the stage, squinting, trying to see what was going on, wondering: ‘Where’s all that noise coming from?’

Legally Blonde was on in the West End for a couple of years, and then it went on tour for 18 months, and then to Vienna for a year, so we went out there with the dogs. I’ve still got some of those dogs and the show is going round some of the provincial theatres at the moment, and the dogs are absolutely delighted to do it again. They recognise the music, they know their cues. They absolutely love it.”

Liz Thornton, A1 Animals:

Mia the deerhound, Tilly the crossbreed and Theia the deerhound from Liz Thornton’s company A1 Animals. Photo: A1 Animals
Mia the deerhound, Tilly the crossbreed and Theia the deerhound from Liz Thornton’s company A1 Animals. Photo: A1 Animals

“I used to ride at a local riding school. They supply horses for filming and it went from there. I left to work with someone else with horses, who also supplied cats, dogs and other animals. The owner sadly passed away, and I took the company on.

If we’re not filming, a normal day goes: take the dogs out, feed the dogs, feed the cats, muck the cats out, walk the dogs, do paperwork – obviously with the phones going constantly for different bits and pieces – take the dogs out again, feed the cats, feed the dogs. We own 57 dogs, eight that live with us. We have 20 cats that live with us.

We like to own our animals. They seem to find us. Our vets are very good – they’ll phone up and say a rescue has come in. Any animal can be trained. It’s about making sure they’re going to enjoy the work that you’re going to ask them to do. Bravery is a big thing, especially when you’re working on stage with a lot of audience members there.

They’ll come out with us on a film set or into a theatre, with no pressure on them. They’re not doing the job, but they come along with us so they learn. We’ll normally take a selection of animals along for a casting, and train three. Usually, the understudy will work with the understudy dog, so that dog gets to go into the show. The actor will use food to work with them. We don’t reward them, the actor rewards them. So that dog knows all the time to go back to that person.

When we were doing The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Royal Shakespeare Company, there was a lot of dialogue that was very difficult, and I think it would have been very hard for the actor if the dog wasn’t working correctly. So we spoke to the director and made sure that they knew it was going to be difficult so we had enough time. And, of course, it’s about picking the right animal for the job.”

Graham Bessant, Gauntlet:

“I was an engineer by trade and when I was made redundant, I decided to do something I wanted to wake up every day and do. I have always flown birds, from a young lad. I started getting little interviews and, before I knew it, my name had got about. It’s a seven-day working week, and it has been for 19-and-a-half years.

We do shows working with the public, but I also love the filming side of it because it’s such a challenge and it’s interesting with a new set of people.

I love it when they ask the impossible but I always do everything ethically correctly for the birds. Every bird that we work with needs to be as relaxed and calm as possible. I don’t want a bird that has a really nervous temperament – I need one that is really confident and inquisitive. We have about 150 birds; around 50 different species.

I know my birds incredibly well because I work with them every day. The more effort you put into them, the more they know you. You have got to consider what stimulates them. When I work with my eagles, vultures, falcons or hawks, it’s all visual – I focus on keeping them stimulated by gesturing. And when I train owls, the vision is minimal; it’s about sound.

For Dr Dee at the Manchester International Festival, a raven had to fly in above the stalls and land in the middle of the stage. I had worked with this bird for about nine years, so he knew me. He is very intelligent but he has a mischievous side. He knows when I will reward him and why I will reward him. You don’t rehearse too much because he gets bored.”

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