One great aspect of being involved in theater is the ability to combine different interests into unique pursuits. Like theater and history? Be a dramaturge. Like theater and technology? Create effects or projections. Like theater and martial arts? Choreograph stage combat. The focus of this latest Opening Doors column, 30-year-old Schuyler Beeman, was able to combine two of his biggest passions into a fascinating, burgeoning career. Schuyler is an animal handler and actor who tours the world working with (and starring alongside) the non-human performers needed in all manner of stage shows.
Schuyler grew up in Guilford, a small shoreline town right outside of New Haven, CT. An “only child with a wild imagination,” he quickly developed a love of theater and animals. After his 4th grade debut, ironically in “Charlotte’s Web,” Schuyler went on to be heavily involved in school and community theater throughout high school. When it came to college, Schuyler temporarily put performing aside to study zoo habitat design at Middlebury College and swim competitively. But after seeing a student-directed play there, he was drawn back to acting. Leaving Middlebury, Schuyler returned to Connecticut, pursuing experience on stage and off with companies like Artful Living and at the Ivoryton Playhouse. During that time, he also had a laundry list of “survival jobs” from Christmas tree seller to landscaper to cater-waiter to being a personal assistant for brides (which he calls a “professional gay best friend”).
It was while choreographing community theater that Schuyler met Bill Berloni, head of a company that trains animals for stage and screen. Berloni was providing the dog playing Sandy in a production of “Annie” that was also starring his wife and daughter. “I was given ‘Hard Knock Life’ to choreograph with two ensembles of 40 kids each that I had to teach all by myself,” Schuyler explained, “It was insane, but it was all worth it because I feel Bill saw that and said, ‘If he can do that and he loves animals, he could be an animal handler!"
The collaboration between the two didn’t formally cement until two years later when Berloni called and asked if he could handle a snake for a touring show at BAM “and the rest is history.”
William Berloni Theatrical Animals Inc. has provided animal actors for many Broadway shows – including “The Crucible,” “Legally Blonde,” “Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar and Grill” and Bernadette Peters’ revival of “Gypsy” – and worked on enough touring, regional and community theater productions of “Annie” to fill the rest of this article’s word-count. “The biggest thing with them is the humane treatment of animals in the entertainment industry, we make sure that these dogs and other animals are cared for physically and emotionally to the best degree,” he explains. As a handler, Schuyler’s job is less about training the animals but training the humans. “I teach the actors how to give commands to the animals and work with directors, designers, media managers and producers to makes sure the dogs/animals are always taken care of,” he says. Depending on the show, Schuyler will sometimes join the cast and perform alongside the animals he takes care of. During each run, he’s also in charge of the animal’s nutrition, sleep schedule and “every little thing that can and often does affect how a show will go for a dog.” It’s not always glamorous (I won’t reprint an anecdote Schuyler told me about a constipated Chihuahua) and it’s often stressful, but more than worth it.
“There is nothing better than seeing a dog onstage not just behaving well but truly fleshing out the emotion of the scene to tell the story,” he says, “Bill is a genius when it comes to creating cues that keep the dog from looking like they are just doing tricks on stage. It’s an art and I love having a hand in that theater magic.”
The current piece of art Schuyler’s working on is “Link Link Circus,” a performance piece written and starring Isabella Rossellini. A follow-up to her wildly successful “Green Porno” shorts and stage show, Rossellini’s new piece “addresses the latest scientific discoveries about animal minds, intelligence, and emotions” (according to BroadwayWorld) using historical figures like Charles Darwin and Aristotle. Not surprisingly, a dog named Pan is also along for the ride, which is where Schuyler comes in. “Link” has recently taken Schuyler to Spain, with the show making its US debut in May.
Working on “Link” has also made Schuyler rethink his career path. “I initially wanted to do this work because I thought it would be a good way to network with some of the great regional theaters around the United States who would hopefully hire me back as a performer,” he explained, “but I found that I often wasn’t remembered for my performance onstage but as the dog guy.” While that was initially troubling, Schuyler now says he “loves it” and is having a “blast” performing alongside and traveling with Rossellini.
When doing these interviews – either an Opening Doors column or other pieces for OnStage – I always ask what advice the person has for those aspiring to a career in the theater. Overwhelmingly, from 24-year-old cruise ship stagehand Dana Umble to Tony-nominee Constantine Maroulis, an astonishing number of artists have given the same answer: don’t wait for other people to give you a job. Do local theater, write your own script, form a theater company. Take every opportunity to learn and grow. Be open to the sudden twists in the path. That last one has led Schuyler to a career he never even considered a few years ago.
“I met Bill doing a community theatre production of ‘Annie’ and now I’m traveling the world with an international star for the next two years,” he says, “never limit your experiences, do everything you can.”
Noah Golden is an associate theater critic and columnist for OnStage based near New Haven, CT. Throughout his life, he has been involved in many facets of theater from acting to directing to playing drums in the pit. When not in or writing about theater, Noah is a video producer and social media specialist. Do you know a young theater professional with a fascinating job who would be perfect for this column? Contact NoahTheGolden@gmail.com or tweet him at @NoahTheGolden.