A very special canine actor is currently starring on Broadway in the Tony-nominated production Of Mice and Men. Violet, a rescued senior pit bull who was abandoned in Brooklyn, and Lydia DesRoche, a compassionate and dedicated dog trainer, form the perfect team as they make theatre magic eight times a week. Violet shatters pit bull, senior dog, and shelter dog stereotypes as she performs flawlessly in her role of “Candy’s Dog.” Broadway Barks interviewed trainer Lydia DesRoche about Violet’s background, her amazing personality, and her stunning performance ability.
Broadway Barks (BB): Tell us a little about Violet.
Lydia DesRoche (LD): Our best guess is that Violet is a pit bull-type dog. She is about 14 years old and was found as a stray in Brooklyn, New York. She was taken to Animal Care and Control (ACC) in Brooklyn where they discovered that she had a microchip. The chip was scanned and her owners were contacted, but they said they didn’t want her. Legally the ACC could have euthanized her immediately, but she was allowed to stay. Within two weeks my client and friend Christy Allen, who was looking for a companion for her miniature pinscher Bella, saw Violet’s picture online and went to the ACC to meet her. Bella and Violet were a perfect little match so Christy adopted Violet.
BB: How did Violet get the part of “Candy’s Dog” in Of Mice and Men?
LD: Well, my dog Blue was originally chosen for the part. Blue was having a little trouble with the “getting up” part of the show choreography, so they asked for an understudy and I thought of Violet because she has these soulful eyes that always make me think of Blue. I brought Violet in as the understudy, and she quickly got the part! Some dogs are just born for it, and that is Violet. She is a natural. I was floored at how quickly she got it. But there is no backstage drama—Blue is very happy in his understudy role. He and Violet hit it off wonderfully, and they make the cutest senior dog couple.
BB: Do you know anything about Violet’s life before acting?
LD: Well, Violet is older so she has some life experience, which included mistreatment and neglect. Her previous family abandoned her, and she appears to have ligature marks on her ankle. There is a permanent scar where her fur won’t grow back. She has a horrible crop job—her ears were cropped so close that it almost looks like she has no ears. But it hasn’t affected her at all; she is amazing. When it comes to acting, she gets it and she loves it.
BB: Was Violet easy to train?
LD: Yes. She was not difficult to train at all. It’s funny because on Mondays (Broadway theaters are traditionally dark on Mondays) we humans are like, “Yes, we have a day off.” But Violet is like, “When are we going to the theater? Is it time? Is it time?” It’s amazing because three years ago Violet was on death row in the city shelter with zero performing experience, and now she is performing on Broadway and she is so natural and perfect and unbelievable. People think that rescue dogs are all problems, but Violet came right out of the shelter as an easy, loving, smart, and wonderful dog.
BB: Do Violet’s training and performance abilities say anything about her age or breed?
LD: I have known for a long time that senior dogs not only can be trained, but they love to be trained, and it can really improve the quality of their lives. Violet is a pit bull, and some people have negative perceptions of what a pit bull is, but she is a typical pit bull to me: fun to train, eager to learn, not overly sensitive, and very funny. Pit bulls are terriers, so they have a sense of humor. They are like little clowns. Violet is very funny. Pit bulls love to learn and they are very smart, but they also crave human attention and affection. Pit bulls are a loving breed, and where other breeds could be happy living with just other canine companions, pits would rather be under the covers snuggling with you every night. They are very loving and super-affectionate lapdogs, no matter how big they are.
BB: Have Violet and Blue experienced any discrimination because of their breed?
LD: Not here. From the very beginning, when we walked into the audition, not one person mentioned anything about Blue and Violet being pit bulls. Through the entire process, everyone involved with this show has been wonderful, and they just treat Violet and Blue like dogs. Some people focus so much on the pit bull breed as if they are a different species, and they are not. They are just dogs. And each dog is an individual. And that’s what was so wonderful about entering the Broadway community—everyone just treated Violet and Blue as dogs. There was no discrimination or stereotyping.
BB: Who does Violet interact with most on stage?
LD: Violet works mostly with actor Jim Norton, who plays “Candy.” Jim fell for her right away. He was very comfortable with her. It was really easy with Violet. When they first met, Jim and Violet spent some time together. Jim gave Violet some love in the form of pets and cookies, and now she doesn’t take her eyes off of him. It’s incredible because she just knows her job.
BB: Does Violet ever get stage fright or become distracted by the audience?
LD: No, she really enjoys the spotlight. Pit bulls are generally very relaxed in big crowds. They kind of just hang out like people. I spent a lot of time with Violet in Central Park and other places, and she was just so relaxed and calm in busy or noisy situations. This is a quality many pit bulls possess, and Violet especially, which is part of what made me choose her for the play. She is very relaxed and mellow, and very comfortable with people approaching her. She will actually look to make eye contact with strangers, which is good. However, eye contact is so re-enforcing to Violet that everyone in the cast and crew had to be instructed not to make eye contact with her to avoid distracting her on stage. Now, she and Jim Norton are so connected that her eyes are glued to him throughout their scenes, but we keep the rule in place just to be safe.
BB: What is a show day like for Violet?
LD: Dogs love routine, and Violet has a show-day routine. First, we get in the pet taxi and she knows she is going to the theater. When we get in the backstage door I take off her collar and harness because she has to get her make-up done. We go into the make-up room, and she goes and sits in front of the chair and waits for the make-up guy to come down and make her up. After her make-up is done, we go upstairs and put on her costume leash. She has a bed backstage, and she lies down and waits for Jim Norton to get her to take her onstage for their scenes. Violet is so calm backstage. Actors and stagehands are running around right by us, and Violet just lies on her bed. On matinee days, Violet and Blue take advantage of good weather by taking a walk to a park near the theater to relax and get some sun. If the weather is not so nice, Violet and Blue each have comfy beds where they take naps in the doggy dressing room until it is time for the evening show. After her last scene, Violet is quickly whisked out the backstage door and into a waiting pet taxi for the ride home.
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