Two Milwaukee dogs have their day on stage in Skylight's 'Annie'
The two pooches have trained and rehearsed for the role of Sandy, the stray dog that becomes Annie’s best friend on her picaresque journey from orphan-house rags to Daddy Warbucks’ riches.
Two Milwaukee dogs will have their day on the boards when the curtain rises Nov. 17 for Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Annie.
For weeks, the two pooches have trained and rehearsed for the role of Sandy, the stray dog that becomes Annie’s best friend on her picaresque journey from orphan-house rags to Daddy Warbucks’ riches.
Shiloh and Skippy, who are alternating in the role, don’t have large parts. But as they say in the theater, there are no small roles, only small actors. That applies to the furry ones as well.
If this production of Annie is like the thousands of others that have warmed theaters around the world since the show first stole Broadway’s heart on Aug. 10, 1976, the canines will win over the audience. Not because of their acting skills, but simply because they’re dogs — and cute ones at that.
Skippy is a mixed-breed Miniature Schnauzer, Rat Terrier and Pomeranian. His human companion Dennis Beauchesne knows this from having the dog’s DNA tested. At 5 years old, he stands 12 inches tall and weighs in at about 15 pounds.
Whatever his heritage, Skippy is cute, energetic and smart.
“He’s very easy to train, because he’s very food-driven,” Beauchesne says. “From a trainer’s standpoint, that’s exactly what you want. He learns very quickly.”
With Beauchesne using food as a reward when Skippy responds properly to certain hand commands, the dog has rehearsed his movements over and over, both at home and in rehearsals with KyLee Hennes, who plays his Annie. Because the role is so demanding vocally and physically, two actresses will play the lead role in rotation, each with a different dog.
Skippy has trotted the boards before. In fact, he’s something of a veteran performer, having appeared as Toto — with Hennes as Dorothy — in The Wizard of Oz, which ran for 55 sold-out performances in 2015 at the Fireside Dinner Theatre in Fort Atkinson. Skippy never missed a curtain call, appearing before 31,000 viewers, according to Beauchesne.
Stuffed dogs made in Skippy’s likeness sold out every night in the Fireside’s gift shop.
The Fireside stage is in the round, with audience members seated on all sides of the actors. As a dinner theater, it features lots of potential actions offstage that could distract most dogs. And onstage — despite 10 munchkins, a flying witch and all the songs and dance numbers — Skippy kept his cool while waiting for the next command that would end with a mouth-watering treat delivered straight to his eager little mouth.
Beauchesne is the first to admit that Skippy is not in the theater for the glory, the money or the art — he performs strictly for the food.
Skippy went on to play Toto again with the Mukwonago Village Players. The show ended in May, so Skippy had a few months to relax. Well, not really. Beauchesne and his wife Lynn are very active in dog sporting events, particularly fly-ball tournaments.
The tournaments are kind of a subculture that allows dogs to compete, and there’s nothing the Beauchesnes enjoy more than being outside playing with their dogs. There are about 600 teams across the country and 8,000 dogs that play fly ball.
The Beauchesnes are quintessential dog lovers. Besides Skippy, the couple has three Jack Russell Terriers who race. They were looking for another Jack Russell when they found Skippy’s picture online at the Anderson Animal Shelter in Elgin, Illinois. He wasn’t what they were looking for, but they fell in love with Skippy anyway — just like Annie finds Sandy by chance.
Dennis Beauchesne has had dogs for 30 years, Lynn for 25.
“The dogs are our life,” he says. “We have the four so we can do sports with them. We’re actively with them all the time. … Some people have antique cars, and this is what we do.”
Perhaps the best thing about Skippy is that he’s always game for an adventure.
“He enjoys going out and doing things,” Beauchesne says. “He likes working. Anything you want to do with him, he’ll do it.”
Unlike Skippy, who is food-oriented, Shiloh the beagle mix is people-oriented. He loves people and just wants to do whatever it takes to please them, says Shiloh’s human, Nate Press.
Annie will mark Shiloh’s stage debut, and his Annie, Eloise Field, is new to the Skylight as well. But theater runs in his family — Press is a finance assistant at Skylight.
“When I found out they were going to be auditioning dogs for the show, I thought I’d give it a shot. I’d been bringing him into the office and he just loves everybody. He has no experience. I get nervous even in rehearsal.”
Beagles, as a breed, are hard to train. They’re scent hounds, bred to help hunters find prey. But Press says his wife Amanda has put a lot of effort in learning how to train dogs, and Shiloh is on track to be ready for opening night.
When WiG spoke with Nate Press, Amanda had just finished playing loud music while signaling commands. The goal was to accustom Shiloh to staying focused in a noisy, distracting environment.
“My wife is the smarter one, and she researches things,” Press says. “She gets these techniques from online experts.”
The Presses were looking for another beagle to keep their first one company when they found Shiloh at Elmbrook Humane Society. As with Skippy, it all started with a picture.
They were looking for another beagle, and Shiloh is a mixed-breed dog that looks mostly like a beagle. At 34 pounds, he’s “on the low end of medium size,” Press says.
Through the shelter, the Presses learned that Shiloh had once been a stray dog in Tennessee — but his love of people leads them to believe that he’s lived with people before.
“He’s never met a person he doesn’t like,” Press says. “I haven’t seen him ever react aggressively to any person. He just really likes humans. I feel like he must have never had a bad experience.”
Before being cast as Sandy, Shiloh only knew a few basic commands. But his desire to please makes him very teachable.
“He likes the food,” Press says. “But we’re not really using it so much in his work onstage. It tends to distract him.
“Skippy’s more of a technical actor, whereas Shiloh is more immersive. He becomes the role.”
It was important for Shiloh and Skippy to like each other, since the two will spend a lot of time together backstage. Fortunately, when they’re in rehearsal together the two pooches get along just fine.
But we’ll see what happens during the show’s run. Will stardom go to their heads? Will they start growling at each other over getting the best dressing room? Will they count their curtain calls, and then use the number to negotiate for better treats?
The two dog-parent couples doubt these problems will arise. And one thing’s for certain: They will not get involved in a catfight.
Annie runs Nov. 17–Dec. 27 at the Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee.
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