What Does a Rat Have To Do With The Tony Awards?
The 2015 Tony Awards have come and gone. Hosted by Alan Cumming and Kristin Chenoweth, the evening celebrated a year in the theatre and many awards were given out from categories like lighting and set design to all of the usual “best” categories you come to expect with award shows. One show, The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time, took home Best Lighting Design, Best Scenic Design, Best Direction of a Play, Best Lead Actor in a Play, and Best Play, yet one of the cast is probably completely unaware of the hype. The reason for that is simple: she’s a rat.
The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time began as an award winning book by Mark Hadden, about a 15 year old boy named Christopher who has an unstated special need. Though one can assume he has a version of high functioning autism or something similar, the book is not about that condition specifically, it is actually a rather unusual murder mystery. Someone killed a dog in the neighbourhood and Christopher, a fan of Sherlock Holmes, is determined to solve the case. The book is written entirely from his point of view, which gives the reader a unique perspective on so many levels, but what made me pick it up was Christopher’s pet, a rat named Toby. I can’t resist reading a book with a rat as a character and I wasn’t disappointed with this one. Here rats are treated well and are deeply loved.
When I heard that the play had cast a real, live rat I was shocked. I have friends in New York City and knowing the thought process up there, the first thing that went through my head was, “No one in the City is going to want to work with a rat!” In a way, that was true, even Lydia DesRoche was uncertain of rats when she got the job of training the one who would portray Toby. Still she soldiered past her fears and did some research, eventually rescuing a female who was destined to become snake food and casting her in the role of Christopher’s beloved pet. Over time working with the rat called Toby has helped change her opinions of these smart and entertaining animals and now, when you read interviews, you see the typical devoted rat owner and not someone who hears “rat” and immediately envisions something skittering in the subway while leaping into a chair. The same is also true of the cast, who were mostly anxious and unsure at first, but are now happy to be members of Toby’s extended family; happy to let her crawl on their arms and even get kisses.
What happened to Toby’s trainer is what happens to us all once we allow ourselves to really take a moment to learn about what a rat really is. Once we snuggle with that first rat, our lives are forever changed. “Without even trying, I have become a big advocate for pet rats,” explained Lydia, when I asked her to describe this transition in her personal experience with rats. “Sharing my experiences with them has prompted many of my friends to want their own rat(s). They are like tiny little dogs who can go everywhere with you.”
The similarities between rats and dogs can actually make training a little easier. Lydia uses the Behavior Adjustment Training method, which observes an animal’s behaviour and helps gently transition it into the action that is desired. This sweet little white rat isn’t being forced to perform. She jumps willingly into her carrier when she hears the call “Five Minutes!” Her rewards don’t involve treats or snacks either. In observing her personality, DesRoche noticed Toby responded best to human interaction, so a job well done earns her introductions to new people. And when her big kiss scene comes up? Well, sometimes she feels like doing it, sometimes she doesn’t, but she is always a crowd pleaser. Toby has fans from all walks of life and from all around the country. Some are twelve, some are eighty, but all have fallen in love. In fact, it has almost become quite the thing for celebrities to come meet her after a show. Some of the more well-known visitors on her list include Whoopi Goldberg, Katy Perry, Allison Williams, Lupita Nyong’o, Sara Bareilles, Michael Urie, and Jason Biggs. Even Gloria Estefan recently tweeted a back stage photo she took with Toby after seeing the show.
When you think of casting, you generally think of finding that specific look that defines the character, but that wasn’t exactly what happened with Toby. The rat currently playing Toby is a smooth coated albino, while her understudy, Calvin, is a black and white rat with a curly coat. Toby was chosen first and a lot of research and thought went in to the decision. Lydia wanted a female because they had less smell to them, a statement I can confirm, as an owner of four adult males. (It’s not that they stink, but they can get territorial and that pee marking can get to be quite strong in a day or two!) When it came to color, it was the cast, crew, and audience that came to mind, not the character of Toby. “I chose a white rat because I wanted a rat that looked as different as possible from the rats we see in the New York City subway. Ultimately it was the right choice but for different reasons. Being a female rat, Toby was very curious about everyone and everything around her. I think that her being white had the desired effect on most of the cast and crew. Almost everyone warmed up to her pretty quickly. I don’t imagine that happening had she looked more like a subway rat.” Now that everyone has come to know Toby the white rat, Lydia says that they have changed their minds about other rats as well. “Many of the cast and crew have commented to me that they have changed their feelings about subway rats. Instead of running as far away as possible people have told me that they will actually watch the subway rats and find them interesting.” So it looks like Toby the black and white rat can feel safe in the knowledge that he is equally loved when his time comes to shine.
Life as a rat on Broadway is hard work, between making appearances and all that training and time under the lights, but it has its perks too. Toby has her own dressing room (which she shares with the puppy who is also in the show) that is filled with all the wonders and toys a rat could dream of, as well as coffee and fresh roses. She also gets her own ride. “We travel to and from the theater by private car. She likes to sit on my lap or my shoulder on the way to the theater. On the way back home Toby likes to sit on the driver’s shoulder and navigate. I always keep a hand on her to make sure she is safe.” Her safety is also considered on stage. If you ever see the cage get jostled, don’t worry. “They switch to a fake rat in an identical cage for any potentially dangerous scenes,” Lydia assured me. “One night one of the actors dropped the cage with the decoy rat in it. I made sure to bring Toby out to meet the audience after the show because I knew that there would be questions and I wanted to let everyone know that she had not been in the cage when it fell. There were lots of sighs of relief and chin scratches for Tobes.”
As a rat owner I had to wonder what the actual audience response was to having a living, breathing rat on stage in a city like New York. I had images of front row ticket holders jumping up and running for the door as soon as Toby came out, but Lydia corrected that image for me. The occasional freak out comes mostly when someone thinks the rat is being harmed, but there are a few exceptions. “Once there was a woman in the front row who fell back in her seat every time Toby appeared on stage. More often than not there are lots of giggles and gasps when she does the kiss.”
Yes, that big kiss scene gets mentioned again. This came about from the folks at Curious on Broadway actually wanting to expand Toby’s role once they realized how clever and crowd pleasing her actress really was. Originally the associate director saw Toby running along Lydia’s arm and wanted to include that in the show, but although Lydia is certain the rat would not run off, others are concerned for what could happen if she were out of her cage. So, for now, her only out of cage stage-time has consisted of popping her head up and giving Alexander Sharp a little rattie kiss in one of the scenes. Not only does the audience love it, but it gives Toby a chance to be an ambassador for her species. “Recently a sophisticated older couple approached me and Toby after the show to tell me how much they enjoyed her performance and especially the little kiss,” Lydia recalled. “The husband said he had a rat as a child but had no idea they could be so open and friendly.”
Friendly, loving, curious… All words that rat lovers use so often to describe their fur babies, but up until this point one aspect of rat ownership has been left out. When I contacted Lydia about doing this interview, I had one major question burning at the back of my brain. We have had plenty of theatrical rats in our house, who love to play sick or pretend to be dead to get extra attention. I couldn’t help wondering how much does the rat that plays Toby actually do when it comes to theatrics? Did Toby react to the audience in any way? Was she as much of a character as our rats? “Sometimes when Alex [who plays Christopher] opens the cage she puts her little hands on the cage and scans the audience. I like to call it her ‘Evita’ move. I’m not close enough to see whether she’s reacting specifically to the audience or just smelling around but she does love to greet her fans when she comes out of the stage door.” In this story I realized that Toby is quite happy to fall into the role of diva as well, as I got treated to a story of typical rat antics. “She has never played dead,” Lydia told me when I asked if Toby was a prankster, “but she has pulled all of her roses out of the vase so that she can steal my coffee while I’m cleaning up more than once. I now make sure that my coffee is well out of reach when she is on the dressing room counter.”
Falling in love with rats and their antics is something that the cast and crew of The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time have mastered with flying colors. Everyone has taken a chance and everyone has come out a winner, with all that extra rattie love now warming their hearts. The distance between running from a subway rat and letting a pet rat scamper onto your arm is a huge one to cross and they have reached the finish line to a hero’s welcome from rat owners. In the not so distant future more rats named Toby will be cast to travel the country and begin introducing the sweetness and intelligence of rats to audiences beyond the Big Apple and London. These rats, their trainers and co-stars, are the ambassadors of the species, just as Lydia DesRoche is an ambassador for all people who used to be afraid. She told me she was converted when Toby gave her the same look that dogs give her when she meets them for the first time and “they know that I’m going to be their cultural liaison. I’ve always been a big fan of listening to animals before trying to tell them what to do. The more I observed her and responded to her communication the more she was willing to tell me.” If more people get to meet Toby, one of her understudies, or a rat-actor traveling with the touring company, will they get the same message? So far, that seems to be the case. May it continue for many years to come.
Congratulations on your Tony, Toby. Theater is meant to touch people and with this show, you and your humans have definitely earned this award in many ways.
Mirrani Houpe, our Small Animal Editor, has had rats since she took home her first little boy once they both completed the second grade. Since that time she has owned, rescued and bred many kinds of rats, from many backgrounds. She may not be a vet, psychology major, or scientist, but her babies have her very well trained when it comes to how to care for them. She is constantly working with her family’s veterinarian to come up with new and innovative ways to love and care for the most often misunderstood rodent in the pet world. You can e-mail her at email@example.com