Updated: Apr 23, 2018
From the scruffy pup in Annie, to a boy’s beloved rat, in Curious Incident, there have been many occasions where an animal has graced the Broadway stage. The Broadway revival of Once on This Island is no exception. Two goats and four chickens help to tell the story.
Pets of Broadway had the opportunity to meet the animals and chat with Broadway animal trainer, Lydia DesRoche, to hear the backstory of the goats and chickens of Once on This Island. DesRoche began, “I was contacted by one of the producers and she asked if I had ever worked with goats before. I had experience working with goats on The Rose Tattoo in Williamstown. One of my dearest friends runs a sanctuary and introduced me to a farmer in Upstate New York who takes in orphaned animals and nurses them back to health.” With experience and connections, DesRoche was the perfect trainer that producers had in mind.
A few months before the show started, DesRoche went to pick up the animals from the farm Upstate. According to DesRoche, one of the goats was a standout: “Sparky basically auditioned himself. I was there to pick up other goats; the farmer chose for me, and when I met Sparky, he was like, ‘I’m your guy!’”
As it turned out, Sparky had a sidekick named Peapod. DesRoche soon discovered that the two were a package deal. DesRoche explained, “Sparky and Peapod were very bonded. They reminded me of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson’s characters in Zoolander. They were so funny and obnoxious together.” DesRoche needed animals who were very social, and Sparky and Peapod proved right away that they fit the bill. The next step was to prepare them for the stage. DesRoche shared, “I went every day to the farm and played music from the show and danced with them. On the weekends, I would throw little goat parties and have my friends come hang out with them on the farm.”
Although the goats alternate for the pre-show performance, Sparky is the lead goat. DesRoche explained, “I would not at this point think about putting Peapod on for the main scene. We still have to work up to that point. One of the things for me that is so important is that if I’m going to put an animal on stage, I want them to have a choice. I never force them; I just make it so fun for them that they’re dying to go on stage.” Sparky and Peapod actually compete for the pre-show position each night and are disappointed when one has to stay behind: “When one has to stay here, Keren [Dukes] (animal handler) and I have to comfort them by giving them an extra brushing or massage.
As for the chickens -- Effie, Deena, Lorrell, and Michelle -- they themselves choose who will attend each performance: “The chickens come here by choice. We never know who will show up. The driver goes to get them and says, ‘Who wants to come?’ Whoever walks out of the barn and into the van is in the show that day. It’s 100 percent volunteer.”
All of the human cast members of Once on This Island have been very welcoming to their animal co-stars, but two, in particular, have exceeded DesRoche’s expectations: “There are some cast members in this show who have gone above and beyond with these animals. Merle [Dandridge] came here every single day to visit the animals before each show. She recently left the show to film the TV series, Greenleaf, but first went out of her way to help the goats transition to the new actress, Tamyra Gray, and help Tamyra feel comfortable with the goats. Kenita [R. Miller] came in wanting to learn how to hold the chickens and take them out of the cage.” As an audience member, it is clear that there is a bond between Miller and the chickens as well as Dandridge and the goats. DesRoche continued, “The chickens, especially Deena, will follow Kenita around the stage, and the goats and Merle are just unbelievable. These goats would do anything for her. I know the actors have so much on their plates and so much to think about so the fact that they take the extra time makes me so happy. I know that the animals are really loved and cared for while on stage.”
Merle Dandridge, Peapod, Kenita Miller, Lorell and Effie (Photo credit: Kenita R. Miller).
They say it takes a village, but luckily for these animals, this production has an entire island. DesRoche pointed out, “We’re very lucky to have such an amazingly helpful team here.” Upon entering the animal’s “star” dressing room, it was clear that these animals are very happy to be a part of this production with the loving people who surround them.