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'Annie' dog knows all about orphans

Claire Canavan
Sandy has her own blog: sharecaresandy.wordpress.com. Entries detail her daily life while she gets ready for the musical.

Sandy, a shaggy-mixed breed dog starring in the Zilker Summer Musical "Annie," which opened Friday, July 9, might be Austin's newest method actor.

When actors use "the method," they draw on their own experiences and memories to infuse their characters with life. In this case, Sandy's recent experience as a homeless dog wandering the streets is helping her bring a touch of authenticity to her role as the stray dog that befriends an orphan girl named Annie.

Sandy's journey from animal shelter to stage began when Melinda Parr, the executive producer of "Annie," and Susan Patton, founder of Haute Dog magazine, a publication with resources for Austin dog lovers, decided to partner together to rescue a dog from a local shelter and cast her in the musical.

"Annie" has a legacy of using rescue dogs. The 1977 Broadway production also cast a shelter dog that went on to become one of the longest-running canine performers in Broadway history.

Haute Dog Magazine decided to sponsor the months-long "Share.Care.Sandy." project, which would mean rescuing a dog from a Central Texas shelter, fostering and training her, sharing her story through a blog (sharecaresandy.wordpress.com) on the magazine's website, and working to find her a permanent home after the show.

Patton recruited Joyce Martin, a professional dog trainer who uses only positive reinforcement, a system based on rewarding dogs for good behavior.

Initial criteria for picking a dog included resiliency, as well as a friendly and trainable personality.

Martin got a call from a Central Texas shelter about a senior dog that might be a good candidate. When she went to meet the dog, she kept hearing another dog barking in the background.

"Finally I turned, and here was this big, goofy, fuzzy dog leaping into the air, barking, as if to say, 'What about me?' " Martin laughs. "I said, 'That's the dog I want!' I was looking for one that showed potential to be focused on people and had some spunk."

The dog, who has been renamed Sandy, had been at the shelter for several weeks and was covered in ticks and fleas.

"She had not been trained," Patton said. "She had no manners. But she was happy and kind and sweet, the things you can't train in a dog."

Martin brought Sandy home and gave her time to adjust to her new surroundings. Sandy visited the vet, where she got spayed, vaccinated and spruced up. At home, Martin focused on the basics of house and crate training.

Then she began teaching Sandy to sit, lie down and come when called. The pair worked on basic obedience for at least three sessions a day. Sandy also went out on frequent trips to meet new people and get used to different environments. "She really is a social butterfly," said Martin.

Finally, it was time to meet the cast of "Annie." Director Michael McKelvey worked to put together the dog's script, which broke down all the things Sandy would need to do during the show.

Martin then worked closely with Sarah Nichols and Jordan Morgan, who alternate playing the role of Annie, to teach them hand signals they can use to cue Sandy. The girls also spent extra time getting to know Sandy so that she responds to their cues.

Martin wanted them to understand that "a dog is led by the nose. You can get her attention with the nose and the dog will follow you anywhere." In Sandy's case, her nose preferred to follow hot dogs.

At a rehearsal the week before opening night, actors belted out the chorus of "Hooverville." Sarah Nichols guided Sandy into place by her collar, while Sandy looked like she wanted to run and join the dancing chorus.

Between scenes, Sandy relaxed, panting in the summer humidity. Jordan Morgan came over to spend time with her. "It's so much fun," Morgan said. "I love dogs, and this one is extraordinary." Morgan grabbed an orange monkey, one of Sandy's favorite toys, and the two had a vigorous tug-of-war.

Because Sandy is not an experienced performer, the cast has had to learn to expect the unexpected. "In the next scene, they want her to look sad and lonely when she comes across the stage. One day she might do that, but the next she might gallop across like a pony," Martin said.

There's a saying in the theater that you shouldn't have children and dogs onstage because they are notoriously unpredictable, which McKelvey acknowledges with a laugh.

After one rehearsal that did not go so well, "the dog came back out 15 minutes later and was fantastic," he said. "It's a moment by moment experience."

"Annie," which includes music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin and book by Thomas Meehan, is approaching its 35th anniversary, and plans are under way for a Broadway revival in 2012.

McKelvey believes the story is timeless. The show, set during the Great Depression, revolves around an orphan girl who wins the affection of wealthy Oliver Warbucks, President Franklin Roosevelt and the entire audience with her eternal optimism.

"I am hoping we get audiences of all ages out there," McKelvey said. "We're trying to make this a fast-running, family-friendly show." But don't bring your pooch, as barking dogs in the audience could be too great a distraction for Sandy.

Applications to adopt Sandy are available. Raising awareness about pet adoption is even more important now that Austin is moving toward a no-kill policy, Patton said. "There will be more dogs in need of good homes. Sandy is the perfect example of a rescue dog that can be the star of a show, the star of your life."

So how is Sandy handling all this pressure? A week before opening night, Sandy sat backstage with Morgan, seemingly oblivious to her new role. She didn't appear worried. She just looked around excitedly, ready to make her entrance.

‘Annie'

  • When: 8:30 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays through Aug. 14
  • Where: Beverly S. Sheffield Hillside Theatre, Zilker Park
  • Tickets: Free. $3 parking.
  • Information: 479-9491. www.zilker.org.