COLUMBIA — On a recent Wednesday, a crew member dressed in black walked through the green room at the Macklanburg Playhouse. "Please go check your props when you get a chance," she announced.
A resounding "Thank you" rose from the cast members of "Legally Blonde: The Musical" as they huddled around laptops watching YouTube videos, played Temple Run on their iPods or practiced songs before the dress rehearsal. The sweet chemical scent of hairspray lingered in the air, and the muffled sounds of a saxophonist working up and down the scales came from the stage pit next door.
What: "Legally Blonde: The Musical," a production of the Stephens College Department of Theatre.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
Where: Macklanburg Playhouse, 100 Willis Ave.
Admission: Tickets are $16 for general admission, $8 for students and seniors older than 60. Tickets can be purchased by phone at 876-7199 or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To adopt Gertie and Maude: Go to the Second Chance website, click on "adopt a dog" and submit an application online. Applications have already started coming in, said Allison Frisch, who is fostering the dogs.
Suddenly, a white and brown blur streaked through the crowd and down a hallway of dressing rooms.
"Lily!" Allison Frisch called as she chased after the American bulldog/whippet mix. "Lily, come back!"
Frisch returned to the green room with the dog struggling in her arms. She carried Lily into an adjacent computer room and put her into a cage with a Chihuahua named Maude. A second cage contained Gertie, another Chihuahua.
Gertie, Maude and Lily all have parts in "Legally Blonde: The Musical," a collaboration between the Stephens College Department of Theatre and Second Chance Animal Shelter.
Gertie, who plays Bruiser Woods, and Maude, who is Gertie's understudy, are foster dogs, and when the show ends Friday, they will be up for adoption. Applications are being accepted so the Chihuahuas can go home with a new family.
Frisch, a member of the show's chorus, has been fostering Gertie and Maude — not only preparing them for their stage debut but also teaching them how to be dogs. Seized from a commercial breeder along with about 40 other dogs, the Chihuahuas seemed to hardly know how to behave outside their kennel, Frisch said.
Finding Gertie and Maude
Two months ago, Frisch, a senior at Stephens studying theater, went to Lizzi and Rocco’s Natural Pet Market to pick up a Chihuahua to be in Stephens' production.
She left with two. Gertie, 18 inches tall and 12 inches long, and Maude, 10 inches tall and 18 inches long, appeared to have lived together in a cage their whole lives. Frisch couldn’t bear to separate them.
Before Frisch could even bring them back to her pet-friendly dorm at Stephens, she had to coax them out of their cage. Gertie felt brave first and trotted around the store. Maude would not budge, though, and Frisch said it took about an hour to get her to come out.
Enter Frisch's dog, Lily, who had been exploring the store. When she approached the kennel, Maude trotted right out. The two have been best friends ever since, Frisch said.
Frisch thinks Gertie, who is about 4 years old, and Maude, who is somewhere between 2 and 5, had never left their kennel because they didn’t know how to be dogs: They were afraid of people, not potty trained, couldn’t sit, stay or come on command, walk on a leash or walk up and down stairs.
But she was determined to get them ready for their first onstage gig.
"The first couple of weeks we would walk over to the green room — let them be around people, have people pet them them and teach them to walk on a leash," Frisch said.
The plan had been to train both dogs and see which one was better suited for stage work, "Legally Blonde" director and choreographer Millie Garvey said. Gertie could not speak on command, which was preferred for one scene in the show, but she was comfortable around people. Maude, on the other hand, could speak on command, but she was timid around new people.
In the end, Gertie was chosen for the part of Bruiser. Maude is Gertie’s understudy just in case Gertie cannot perform. Frisch's dog, Lily, is playing Rufus, another canine role.
"Gertie was made for the stage," Frisch said. "She acted like that before she got in the theater."
Teaching dogs new tricks
Based on the novel by Amanda Brown and the film starring Reese Witherspoon, "Legally Blonde: The Musical" tells the story of Elle Woods, a California sorority girl who heads to Harvard Law School to win back her college boyfriend. She takes along her beloved Chihuahua, Bruiser. Rufus belongs to Elle's best friend, Paulette.
The musical opened on Broadway in 2007 and includes the songs "Bend and Snap" and "Ohmigod You Guys."
That the show is accompanied by an instrumental combo posed another problem for Frisch. Gertie, Maude and Lily were terrified of the loud, thumping boxes — the drums — so Frisch took them to the group's practices until the dogs realized the boxes weren't so bad.
Another challenge was getting the dogs to respond to the right person onstage. They responded to Frisch, but she was off with the chorus; they needed to respond to Shinah Brashears, the senior who plays "Legally Blonde" star Elle Woods, as well as other cast members.
For example, Gertie as Bruiser has to come from backstage, jump on Elle's lap, sit in a purse and walk on a leash — all without getting distracted by screaming sorority girls or other action on and offstage.
The dogs are rewarded whenever they perform a trick. Lily is given a rope chew toy when she trots onstage. She loves it so much that she refuses to let go until someone pulls her off the stage, still clinging to her favorite toy. Gertie gets treats while she sits in Elle’s arms and after she runs onstage to tell the sorority girls that Elle is at the mall.
Although Frisch does not interact with the dogs onstage, it is her job to prepare them for each performance. Between costume changes and performing onstage, Frisch goes backstage to focus the dogs for their entrances.
Lily’s hyperactive tendencies and love of new people and things can cause her to miss her entrances. During one of the practices, Lily was supposed to come to an actor onstage. Instead of hitting her mark, she saw a cord connected to the moveable set piece and chased it behind the curtain.
The actors are not allowed to touch Lily and Gertie when they are offstage. Frisch hopes this will teach the dogs to come only to the actors they are supposed to come to onstage instead of visiting all of their friends.
Maude, who doesn’t have to perform onstage, gets lots of love in the green room from the cast and crew.
Ready for adoption
Thanks to Frisch, the Chihuahuas are now fully trained. To learn more, check out Frisch's blog, "From Cage to Stage."
"It’s amazing what Allison has done," Garvey said. "And in such a short amount of time, too."
After the production, the Chihuahuas must leave their glamorous theater lives as well as their foster home. They can be adopted through Second Chance, and that needs to happen by Saturday when Frisch graduates.
Before the final performance on Friday night, Second Chance will host an adoption event starting at 6:45 p.m at Macklanburg Playhouse.
Brashears said working with the dogs was "sometimes challenging, but better than any of us could have imagined."
Brashears, who has two dogs of her own, admitted she's fallen for Gertie and Maude. "I hope someone takes them home," she said. "Or else I will."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.