[Some theater stories are just too good to go unshared. Life in the theater can be more bizarre than even the world of espionage, accounts of some of which I’ve related several times on ROT. (In fact, I’m in the midst of posting a series of reminiscences of my tour of duty as an intel officer in West Berlin in the 1970s.) I also recounted some ”Theater War Stories” on this blog on 6 December 2010. Below are a couple of stories, both from the New York Times that demonstrate what I mean. They’re not ”war stories” in the sense that they don’t concern a problem or disaster onstage or backstage, but they certainly illustrate that in the world of professional theater, you’re likely to run into all manner of odd occurrences.]
WHITE RODENT FINDS FAME ON THE GREAT WHITE WAY
by Corey Kilgannon
[The following story, which is about the Tony-, Drama Desk-, and Theatre World-winning Broadway production of Simon Stephens’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Ethel Barrymore Theater, 5 October 2014-4 September 2016) ran on the Times website (https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/11/nyregion/white-rat-in-the-curious-incident-is-unexpected-broadway-hit.html) on 10 November 2014. It appeared in the print edition of 11 November in the front section with the headline: “A White Rat Finds Fame on the Great White Way.”]
‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ Has an Unexpected Star: A Rat Named Toby
The Broadway cast was less than thrilled when it found out who one of their fellow performers would be. It made them squeamish — not because of who it was but because of what it was.
They would be sharing the stage, it turned out, with a live rat.
“The idea of a rat was not exactly familiar to me,” said Alex Sharp, an actor who plays the leading role. “It was just a thing you see in the subway that has diseases.”
But Toby, the name of the rat kept by the teenager with autism at the center of the show, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” has managed to win over the affection of audiences and the cast — so much so that the rodent role has been expanded.
“She’s a special rat,” said Benjamin Klein, the associate director of the play, which opened in October to critical acclaim.
Indeed, Toby is not your subway-scampering, stomach-turning gray varmint. She — Toby is a female, but plays a male in the play — is a 9-month-old, affable albino who has the cast and crew of the play thoroughly wrapped around her long, tapered tail.
“I’m just a rat servant now — I’m the rat butler,” said Lydia DesRoche, Toby’s trainer, who says she has become sort of a social secretary, chaperoning Toby as she interacts with the smitten cast and crew backstage at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. “People come to visit me after the show just to meet Toby.”
Toby is even more popular than Dr. Watson, a cuddly golden retriever puppy who also appears in the play.
“She just makes being backstage a completely different experience,” said Francesca Faridany, who plays a special-education teacher to Christopher Boone, the British teenager who is the main protagonist.
Ms. DesRoche, who runs a service called Sit Stay dog training, has prepared animals for the stage — in fact, she trained two dogs for the current Broadway production of “Of Mice and Men.” But she had never worked with a rat until the producers of “Curious Incident” called to offer her the opportunity of furnishing and training a rat for Broadway.
“I was terrified of them; I run screaming when a rat crosses my path,” she said. “But I wanted the job, and if that involved touching a rat, I’m going to do it.”
Ms. DesRoche adopted Toby in September from Social Tees Animal Rescue in the East Village.
“They told me she was going to be” — and here, she put her hands over Toby’s little ears and whispered — “snake food.”
Toby was initially afraid of people and would not venture out of her cage, said Ms. DesRoche, who began by getting Toby more comfortable to being handled in small doses.
Then, in rehearsals, she held Toby offstage to acclimate Toby to the flashing lights and loud noises.
She said she trained Toby “the same way I would train a dog.”
“Instead of being motivated by treats, she likes to explore and meet new people,” she said. “So if I wanted her to do something, that would be the reward. I’d praise her and let her go meet somebody.”
While Ms. DesRoche takes Toby home on the weekends to her apartment on the Upper West Side, the rat goes home on weeknights with members of the cast and crew. There is no shortage of takers; members with children usually get first choice.
As she sat in the greenroom behind the stage before a recent Wednesday matinee, Ms. Faridany fed Toby string beans from her lunch and described how thrilled her 4-year-old daughter was when she got to bring Toby home for a couple of nights.
Sitting nearby was Mr. Sharp, who, after initially being daunted by Toby’s presence, now says, “She’s a clean lovely rat, like a little puppy.”
“At first, she just stayed in the cage, and that was the relationship we had,” he added. “Then they convinced me to take her home. Toby is one of Christopher’s best friends, so it’s very important” to be on friendly terms.
Mr. Klein said, “When we first told the cast we were having a real rat, people were not very excited we would have a live rat around.” But now, he added, “this is our star.”
Befitting Toby’s status, the rat has her own dressing room alongside the other actors’ dressing rooms. She shares it with Dr. Watson, and a sign on the door reads, “Puppy and Rat Room.”
Inside, yes, there are light bulbs around the mirrors and fresh roses on the makeup counter (Toby likes to nibble on roses). Also, on the counter is a long tube, for scampering through, and a glass of water, which she climbs up onto, and nearly hops into, as she drinks.
The cage in the room is a formality, since Toby has free range. To satisfy the rat’s insatiable appetite for playing with people, Ms. DesRoche allows her to stay in the greenroom where the cast passes through. Ms. DesRoche has also made a preshow ritual of escorting Toby throughout the backstage area, for short play-dates with those she encounters.
Since rats like small spaces, Ms. DesRoche said, Toby had little problem going into the small carrying case that Christopher carries onstage. Plus, Ms. DesRoche said, Toby does not run away “because rats don’t leave when they have it good.”
Toby displayed such skills and appeal that the decision was made to amplify her stage presence. During rehearsals and previews, Toby, who appears for much of the second half of the play, was kept inside her cage.
“But seeing how good our Toby was, we said, ‘Let’s see what we can do,’ ” said Mr. Klein, the associate director.
Now, Toby hops out to nuzzle, and sometimes scamper over Mr. Sharp. Ms. DesRoche has also taught Toby to run up Mr. Sharp’s arm, across his shoulders and down the other arm.
Toby is also popular with audiences. She elicits hearty laughter when she appears onstage, and Ms. DesRoche said that when she walked out the stage door with Toby on her shoulder, fans swarmed and snapped photographs.
There are a few holdouts in the cast who have not joined the Toby fan club. “But,” Ms. DesRoche said, “at least they don’t jump and scream anymore when they see her.”
Before a recent performance, Ian Barford, who plays Christopher’s father, passed a crowd of fellow cast members gathered around Toby, and mouthed the words, “I do not like that rat,” as if not to let Toby or her fans hear.
It was getting close to show time and in the dressing room, Ms. DesRoche held up the cage. “Toby, five minutes,” she said, and the rat scampered into her cage.
* * * *
THAT BROADWAY BABY, NOW IN ‘IN TRANSIT’
by Joanne Kaufman
[The story below, concerning the a cappella musical In Transit (book, music, and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth) currently-running at the Circle in the Square Theatre (opened 11 December 2016), was posted on the Times’ website, (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/28/theater/broadway-baby-twan-in-transit-from-pittsburgh-civic-light-opera.html) on 28 December 2016; it ran in print on 3 January 2017 in the “Arts” section with the headline: “He’s Short and Phony, but Finds Steady Work on Broadway.”]
When Margo Seibert joined the cast of the Broadway show “In Transit” this past fall and learned that the script called for an infant, she knew who’d be perfect for the part: the theater veteran Twan Baker.
He made his debut in a 2009 production of “Into the Woods,” as the newborn offspring of the Baker and the Baker’s Wife at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. Since then, Twan — an 18-inch-long, 10-pound (just a guess) blue-eyed doll with an alert expression — has appeared in five Broadway shows, including “Cinderella,” “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Honeymoon in Vegas.” James Earl Jones cuddled him this summer in “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” in an “Encores!” Off-Center production.
And yes, that was Twan as Marie (he’s clearly versatile), the love child of George and Dot in the recent Encores! rendition of “Sunday in the Park With George.” (Word is he’ll be auditioning to join the human stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford when the show moves to Broadway in the spring.)
“Prop babies are usually hollow,” said Hunter Foster, who played the Baker in that Pittsburgh production. “When they handed us Twan it was the first time I had a prop baby that felt like a baby.”
Credit Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera’s prop coordinator, Marty Savolskis, who bought a large doll off the rack at a toy store and filled it with beans to create heft.
“It sounds simple, but the actors got so excited,” Mr. Savolskis said. “Adding that weight really seemed to change their experience onstage.”
An infant so special — and so solid — apparently deserved a name. “We thought Antoine suited him,” said Mr. Foster, who shortened it to Twan, in homage to a character in the R. Kelly rap opera “Trapped in the Closet.”
When the Pittsburgh run ended, Mr. Foster and Brynn O’Malley, who had played his wife, kidnapped Twan, and from that day forward have shared custody and occasionally performed in the same shows as their charge: with Mr. Foster in “Bridges,” Ms. O’Malley in “Annie” and “Honeymoon in Vegas.” They have also served as talent agents, publicists and stage parents — creating accounts for him on Twitter (@Twan_Baker) and Facebook, and dropping him off at stage doors and rehearsal studios all over town.
“If there’s a dog in a show, it’s usually a real dog,” Ms. O’Malley said. “If there’s a baby, it’s a doll and you really appreciate it if it feels real.”
“The less you have to pretend the better,” added Ms. O’Malley, who was at first given what she describes as “an old CPR baby” when she reprised her “Into the Woods” role at the Kansas City Repertory Theater.
“It was really bulky and had big plastic arms and legs and smelled like stale talcum powder,’’ she recalled. “It made me queasy, so how could I pretend I loved it?” (At her request, Twan stepped in instead.)
Ms. Seibert made Twan’s intimate acquaintance in a 2012 production of “Pregnancy Pact” at the Weston Playhouse in Vermont. When she learned that her “In Transit” character would have a baby by that musical’s end, she texted Ms. O’Malley to see if the doll was looking for work.
“It’s fun to have a bit of Broadway lore,” Ms. Seibert said, leading the way backstage at the Circle in the Square Theater, where Twan dangled unceremoniously from a hook on a wall near the stage, his head covered in a white cap, his body encased in a Baby Bjorn.
Frankly, “In Transit” doesn’t ask all that much of Twan, who, by the looks of it, is a slave to his art. For other roles he has been covered in blood or dirt. One of his eyes opens while the other tends to stay shut, perhaps the consequence of reported rowdiness at the “Bridges” cast party.
“He’s been through a lot,” Ms. O’Malley said tenderly. “And it’s only made him a better actor.”