If anyone’s winning during the pandemic, it’s our canine family members thrilled to have their humans (working from) home with them. But Melbourne Theatre Company is a dog-friendly work place all the time. Very good pups of all sizes regularly join the human staff at our Sturt Street HQ to provide cuddles, companionship, mental health benefits, audition tips and photo ops with Miriam Margolyes!
‘Working with dogs is pretty incredible,’ says MTC production coordinator Marta Losiewicz, who is accompanied to work every day by Willow von Ruff. ‘They help us open up to each other and make excellent conversation starters. Over the years, Willow has also become the mental health first aid officer of the production department, providing a much needed puppy fix during a stressful day to anyone who needs it. My office has become a recharge station and I love that she brings so much joy to my colleagues. She has become a huge part of the MTC fabric and even features in our Christmas party costume parade every year!’
Willow doesn’t just give her all at MTC; together with a few Instagram friends she also raised $50,000 for wildlife rehabilitation during the 2020 bushfires, and she and Losiewicz are planning another fundraiser before next summer. Follow Willow at @willowvonruff for all the updates and cuteness.
Playwright Dan Giovannoni’s two pooches, Sally and Wally, are also very good mental health workers. As NEXT STAGE canines-in-residence, they joined Giovannoni daily in the office. ‘I live with dogs so know that their companionship can be really helpful for stress release and in maintaining good mental health,’ he says. ‘That really came into focus at MTC when staff would do the rounds in the afternoons – people would pop their head into my office to say hi to my dogs Wally and Sally, and at first I would take my headphones off and chat to them too, but I quickly realised that they weren't there to see me. Instead they’d sit quietly with the dogs, give them a snack, have a pat, whisper their problems away, do some licks, and then be off. It was so nice to think that my big stinky boofheads were easing someone else’s troubles.’
For the Company’s marketing campaign manager, Bonnie Leigh-Dodds, being surrounded by dogs at the office has been a game changer ‘in terms of productivity, mental health and enthusiasm for going to work every day. Some days when things are a bit stressy, Ruby [who you’ll meet below] or Willow will suddenly appear at your feet and it all melts away – you can really only take yourself so seriously when there’s an enthusiastic pooch trotting around your feet. It’s a great excuse to look away from the computer, get some cuddles and then come back to it with a fresh mindset.’
The Penn Pooch Dynasty
Ruby Penn is another canine staff member joining the humans daily at MTC HQ. When she’s not at work, Ruby lives with props maker Colin Penn, who has been with the Company for over 35 years. For much of that time his dogs have joined him onsite – before Ruby there was Princess, and before her, Lady. In fact, it’s become an MTC tradition for each new cast to have their photo taken with Penn’s dog.
‘Dogs are a big part of my life,’ he explains. ‘It’s a real honour to be able to take your dog to work with you. It’s a positive. The actors love it. One of the best things I’ve heard said is “I’ve been missing my dog so much and there’s a dog here and I feel so much better.” When Miriam Margoyles was rehearsing for The Lady in the Van, for instance, she would always have 10 minutes to pet and play with Ruby before the rehearsal day started.’
‘I loved being photographed with Ruby (even though she’s better-looking than me).’ – Miriam Margolyes
Events manager Mandy Jones recalls meeting Ruby’s predecessor. ‘On my very first day working at MTC I was shown to my desk and sitting under it was a beautiful Pomeranian-Kelpie cross. “That’s Princess. She belongs to Colin from Props and she likes sitting under that desk,” I was told. I knew this was the place for me! Princess and I became fast friends and spending time with her at work became a daily joy. Beautifully trained, a gentle personality and kind eyes, she was the perfect desk buddy.’
For Jones, working in a dog-friendly office has many benefits: ‘Canine colleagues help create bonds between staff, relieve stress, give emotional support and provide endless entertainment. While we are all working from home, I miss the dogs of MTC as much as I miss my colleagues.’
A life-enabling policy
For dialect coach Leith McPherson, MTC’s canine-friendly environment has been life-changing. ‘Or life-enabling! With my schedule, I simply couldn’t have worked the shows I have without MTC’s dog-welcoming policy but I also wouldn’t have enjoyed them as much. It’s part of what makes MTC feel like family.’
Adorable cavoodle Scout – who passed away earlier this year – had been a near-constant part of the dialect team for almost every show McPherson worked on. ‘If she wasn’t in the rehearsal room (she didn’t like loud noises, upset people or revolves) she would hang out in the Green Room and provide a cuddle companion for actors from any show that was in the building. Or she was up with beautiful Mellita [the Company’s education bookings/ticketing officer Mellita Ilich] in ticketing, who was the best aunty you could wish for.’
‘Scout was always competition for attention but extremely well-behaved (better than Leith actually!).’ – Miriam Margolyes
McPherson notes that Scout saw and heard ‘some extraordinary actors working their craft over the years and some wonderful directors guiding them and some brilliant crew and creatives supporting them.’ She recalls ‘one particularly memorable MTC experience (for both of us)’ working on I’ll Eat You Last, directed by Dean Bryant and starring Miriam Margolyes. ‘Scout was a very happy visitor to the rehearsal room and, as Miriam brought that text to life, Scout would wander onto set, settle herself at Miriam’s feet and quietly snore through her superb work. Very fortunately, Miriam seemed to enjoy that and Dean didn’t mind too much either. Scout definitely found great artistry soothing.’
Dogs clearly love Margolyes as much as she loves them. ‘I’m aching to return to MTC and for THE RETURN of MTC,’ she tells us. ‘It’s been a career beacon for me work-wise; I’ve done some of my best work there and both back and front of house there’s such a great atmosphere. The dogs of course make it more of a home. I loved being photographed with Ruby (even though she’s better-looking than me) and Leith’s powerful but small animal, Scout, was always competition for attention but extremely well-behaved (better than Leith actually!).’
A joy and a privilege
Among other Company staff to enjoy office time with their four-legged family members are MTC technical and production director Adam J Howe, marketing campaign manager Bonnie Leigh-Dodds and executive director & co-CEO Virginia Lovett.
Howe’s miniature poodle Frenchie has been coming into the office with him daily since she was a puppy. ‘Seven years later it is just routine,’ he says. ‘As soon as I pick up my work bag ready to leave for work she rises out of her bed, does a downward dog stretch and meets me at the door. For me she brings equanimity to my workday, whether that be by initiating interactions with colleagues or a reminder to go outside and take a break.’
‘While we are all working from home, I miss the dogs of MTC as much as I miss my colleagues.’ – Mandy Jones
Leigh-Dodds and Lovett, meanwhile, are occasionally joined onsite by Pippi and Peggy Lee. Says Leigh-Dodds, ‘I’ve brought Pippi in a few times: she’s an ancient Bichon Frisé who has grown a bit timid with age, but she loves running around with the other dogs: it’s her social event of the calendar! It’s also so lovely to be able to bring in a little dog-shaped part of me for my colleagues and friends to enjoy – even if she is deeply socially awkward.’ Lovett adds that ‘as soon as Peggy Lee is in at HQ she becomes official bin monitor – checking for any random treats. She especially loves the ticketing office, as Mellita [Ilich] always has treats!’
For Ilich’s part, it’s a joy and a privilege to work with dogs. ‘When I see a dog I am down on my haunches offering to receive any kisses and cuddles coming my way, almost all of the time ignoring the human at the end of the lead – until some small part of my brain reminds me that I should be polite and acknowledge them. I have been known to kidnap a dog or two and take them to my desk for treats and more cuddles but I always leave a note! How joyous it is and how privileged I am to work in such an amazing place where you are greeted every morning with the wag of a tail.’
It’s not all treats and cuddles
Of course, when you spend all day at a theatre company, the time may come when you want to step out from behind the scenes, and having four legs didn’t stop these budding animal actors from trying out for their 15 minutes of dramatic glory...
Main image: Mellita Ilich with Ruby, Marta Losiewicz with Willow, Christine Verginis with Gerty and Adam Howe with Frenchie. Photo by Tim Grey, 2019.
Published on 11 September 2020