MAXMOM here...
Director:Tina Kruger
Producer: Santi van den Berg
Presented by: the Hoerskool Randburg (High School)
On location: University of Johannesburg Theatre,
Johannesburg, South Africa.
(Above: Toby on stage at UJ Theatre)

(Above: Annie and Toby: "Tomorrow" scene)

Presented by: Hoerskool Randburg
UJ Theatre, Johannesburg
25-28th May 2011

I’m sure that it is every dog-lover’s dream to be part of a stage production.  So, in January 2011 when I was asked by Shannon McKay (McKaynineTraining Centre), whether I wanted to train my dog Toby up to take the role of ‘Sandy’ in the musical production of ‘ANNIE’, I didn’t hesitate.
By all accounts this wasn’t a wise idea.  Toby was only just six months old – a sensitive time in any pup's life - and this was a demanding and challenging commitment.  Besides, we only had 120 days to prepare him.  The recent competion of his elementary obedience training, however, gave me a measure of confidence.  He was definitely ready for something new, but could he really pull off Annie?
:Caryl Moll, TOBY and Shannon McKay

“This is an opportunity to work with one of the top animal trainers in the country, " I told my friends.  "Toby is very impressionable at the moment and I'll have an extremely well socialised dog at the end of it all.  Besides, I've never done anything like this."

Toby's role
Not long after this, Tina Kruger - the Director of the production - met up with us at the dog school.  She smilingly told us that the young cast members, at the Hoerskool Randburg, were thrilled to hear that a real, live dog would be taking the part of Sandy.  This was far better than a dressed-up human actor!

"What do you want Toby to do?" we asked.

Tina gave us a detailed explanation, but it boiled down to this:

Toby would be involved in four different, but tricky, scenes.  These entailed a four to five minute 'down-stay' and a solitary 'send-away'.  There'd be an Alley scene, where he'd get fed out of a bowl, and a Christmas scene, where he'd be brought onto stage in a large box.

We listened attentively.  This was an enormous challenge for a six-month-old pup.  Shannon, however, was confident that we could accomplish this task, so long as I gave my full commitment.

"Let's do it!" I said.
 Let the training begin.

In the weeks that followed, I set about exposing Toby to as many varying environments as possible.  I wanted to coach him into total comfort and prepare him for all eventualities.  As with all Golden Retrievers, Toby LOVED people, but it was imperative that I socialised him well and familiarised him with a variety of public settings.

The Headmaster of our local Primary school was most accommodating and granted me free access to his school.  Toby fitted in like a glove.  Over a short time, he became rather popular with the little ones.  School galas, music lessons, playgrounds, various classes - Toby loved it all.  He offered his paw to everyone, and was enthusiastic about showing off some of his tricks.  He could 'talk' on command and 'play dead' too.  His obedience commands were also useful - heel, sit, down, stay and stand.

With 97 days to opening night, I moved him to the Hoerskool Randburg, where the formal rehearsals began.

'Is this Annie's dog?' smiling children greeted us. 

Toby quickly won them over.  Who can resist a wagging tail and a smiling Golden face?

Besides the singing and choreographed dancing, Toby needed to become acquainted with the various props - feather dusters, balls, aluminium buckets and dustbins.  He adapted remarkably and his ability to simply take things in his stride astounded us all.

(Above: Teaching 'Annie' the 'BOW')

(Above: Early stage training)
Initially, Toby was also affected by the varying displays of emotion coming from the acting.  On occasions, we had to pull the little actor aside and get him/her to interact with Toby for a while. “They’re just acting, boy!” we’d reassure him.   
(Above: "Annie" performed by: Elna van der Heever...)
(Above: Toby in rehearsal for the 'Alley' Scene)
(Toby at the theatre during the 'Alley' scene)
The Christmas scene and other challenges.
My biggest concern, however, was the 'Christmas' scene.  In his early puppy days, Toby had displayed some resistance to crates.  How were we going to overcome this?  I decided to procure a special canvas crate for him.  With lots of encouragement, Toby soon realised that his crate offered substantial rewards

There were also other behaviours to teach.  With Shannon's help, he quickly learned to 'bow' on command.  With the help of a little blue mat, Toby mastered his 'send-away' quickly too.  At home, I paid attention to reinforcing his 'stay' command.  A 'down-stay' for four to five minutes, with singing and dancing around him, was a lot to ask of a young dog.  Hopefully, with Shannon and me in the wings, he'd feel comfortable, but this could only be proved when we actually moved to the theatre.

To prepare him for the theatre, I contacted the theatre manager at the University of Johannesburg, and arranged for Toby to visit.  I wanted to introduce him to the stage, the wings, the auditorium and the backstage.  To ensure his comfort, the theatre manager graciously organised a special dressing room for Toby.  We visited the theatre four times in total.  Each time was different - set changes, lighting changes, electrical cables and space restrictions.  Toby responded well to it all. 
(Above: Finale: "Sandy" is presented as a Christmas gift to "Annie")

The intricacies of having an animal on stage

Under the careful direction of Tina Kruger, many of us gained fresh understanding about the intricacies of animals in live performances.

'Don't eat your food on the sidelines while he is working!'
'Don't dance too close to him!'
'Careful you don't stand on his tail!'
'Please keep quiet while Toby is on stage!'

Toby's presence allowed us all to develop a greater sensitivity towards dogs in general.
 Above: Toby having a pee-break at his 'special' spot.

We were most grateful for the mindfulness and understanding of the various people in charge.

 (Above: CHOREOGRAPHER: Ferdinand Gernandt and dancers during rehearsal)

Facing the audience
Theatre week finally arrived.  We were facing a marathon of dress rehearsals, and five public performances in four days.  Constant changes in Toby's environment required me to monitor his comfort levels carefully.  He'd now be facing a live audience of over 400 people, an open orchestra pit, new sounds, lighting and smells.
Waiting in the packed wings for Toby's scenes was very tricky too.  In the earlier part of the week, I had to coach him to enter the stage area quietly and to lie down in a small spot behind the curtains.  I needed to protect him from hasty cast members too, so I asked someone to be responsible for 'guarding his tail'.  Above all, I had to keep calm and convey this to Toby.  He was totally reliant on Shannon and me.  It wasn't easy work.
Toby's homesickness for his pack members - particularly his faithful matriarch, 'Aunt Tam' - became obvious towards the end of the week.
At night, when we finally returned home, the two of them spent some time romping and cavorting before finally falling asleep.  The fact that he was still a puppy, who wanted to do puppy things, was very obvious.

(Above: Toby on stage during his first scene)
"Send-away", alone, onto an empty stage.

Above: Finale: TOBY 'bows' to the audence

 No, he didn't get all his lines perfect, but he came pretty close.  His minor 'ad libs' often left us holding our breath!  Towards the end of the week, we elected to change his 'down-stay' scene to three seperate 'send-aways'.  This made us all more comfortable and Toby also felt less isolated on stage.

The audience was delighted.  The climax of Toby's final performance left Shannon and me in restrained tears of pride.  He trotted onto a dimly lit stage, to his appointed mark, rose slightly onto his hind legs, and finally let out a short, happy bark.  His message was clear:

'This is my best! And I love it!'


The above video features snippets from a High School Production of the Broadway stage musical, 'Annie'.  It highlights the role of TOBY, a ten-month-old Golden Retriever, who played the role of 'Sandy'. 
The production was presented by 'Hoerskool Randburg', at the University of Johannesburg Theatre, May 2011.  The production was produced by Santi van den Berg and directed by Tina Kruger.  'Annie' was played by fourteen-year-old, Elna van der Heever. 
TOBY's trainers: Shannon McKay (McKaynine Obedience Centre) and Caryl Moll (Toby's owner).
(Above: Shannon McKay, TOBY, and me)

Well done Toby! You are a super-star!


A 'thank you' gift

A few months after the Annie production, Toby and I were invited to the school again.
We were presented with an incredible gift - painted by the school's art teacher, Gesie Marshall:
 Above: Santi van den Berg gets TOBY to 'talk' for the assembly of learners.
Above: Caryl, TOBY, Gesie Marshall (and TOBY's painting)

Our thanks, once again, goes to the entire cast and production team for the opportunity to be part of this incredible adventure.

With love
Caryl and TOBY