Stage & Dance

What does it take to play Annie? Red hair, pipes and a pocket full of treats.

Clementine Connell developed a rapport with Ryder, who plays Sandy to her Annie, by learning how to handle a clicker and by giving the dog lots of positive reinforcement.
Clementine Connell developed a rapport with Ryder, who plays Sandy to her Annie, by learning how to handle a clicker and by giving the dog lots of positive reinforcement.

Clementine Connell is ready for the spotlight.

After preparing for years by taking theater classes and voice lessons, the St. Peter and Paul seventh-grader landed her first leading role this summer, playing the title role in the Lexington Children’s Theatre’s 18th Summer Family Musical, “Annie”.

When Connell steps out on the stage wearing Annie’s signature red wig on opening night, July 18, she won’t be the only performer making a big debut.

She’ll be joined by a furry friend, a 4-year old Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever named Ryder, who plays Annie’s dog Sandy in the show.

“We do a lot of dogs,” Jeremy Kisling, LCT’s associate director joked.

LCT shows with animals are common, but usually those animals are portrayed by human actors, not canine ones.

For some shows, however, only the real thing will do.

“There’s something special about this show that lends itself to a live animal. I’ve never envisioned this show without one,” said Kisling, who has also worked with live animals in previous “Annie” productions as well as “The Wizard of Oz.”

But he was having a hard time finding one until a fellow “Annie” cast member introduced him to Mandy Eakins, owner of Manners Matter Dog Training and Daycare.

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Mandy Eakins of Manners Matter Dog Training and Daycare worked with Clementine Connell and Ryder to prepare them to work together on stage in “Annie” at the Lexington Children’s Theatre. Mark Mahan

“This has actually been on my bucket list as a trainer,” Eakins said. “I’ve been training for about 25 years and I’ve always wanted to do some sort of media, either print or advertising or stage.”

Ryder appears in three scenes as Sandy, and in each scene, Connell has the responsibility of being Ryder’s de facto trainer, his “person” on stage.

“Ryder is what we call clicker-trained and Clementine had to learn how to work with her. She became a little dog trainer herself,” said Eakins, who, coincidentally, is a long time “Annie” fan.

“My favorite movie was Annie growing up,” Eakins said, “and Ryder’s grandmother was actually named after the character, so it has all come full circle.”

So how does one prepare a dog for the stage?

Lots of treats and patience.

Eakins uses a technique called targeting, which rewards the animal with treats for going to a particular spot.

“Her first day was rough because it was all new for her,” Eakins said, “but we broke it down and by the third rehearsal she was figuring it out.”

“The biggest thing is to keep it positive for the dog,” Eakins said. “Make it a game, make it fun. It’s all about positive reinforcement.”

Connell was more than happy to give that positive reinforcement.

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Clementine Connell as Annie with Ryder as Sandy will debut together in the Lexington Children’s Theatre production of “Annie” July 18 through July 28. Mark Mahan

“I was in love,” Connell said of the first time she met Ryder. “My favorite scene is during ‘Tomorrow,’ when I get to call her and give her treats.”

Connell is a big dog lover, and she says it is fun just to cuddle with Ryder at the end of the show, but her role carries a lot of responsibility, and it hasn’t been all fluffy cuddles.

While other kids would have been frolicking in the ocean or pool on her family’s summer vacation this year, Connell was running lines with her mother.

“I got a little stressed but was so happy when I finally got it,” Connell said.

Kisling said it takes a special temperament to handle the pressure of singing, acting, dancing, and dog wrangling in tandem.

“I’ve been doing this awhile and one of the interesting things I’ve noticed over the years that is really beneficial is when I have a young person who takes on these lead roles, it’s a lot of pressure,” says Kisling. “It’s a lot of learning, they get a lot of notes. But Clementine has the temperament to handle all that and be willing to learn and grow and challenge herself a lot.

She handles it with grace, she works really hard. We’re really proud of her.”

If you go: “Annie,” Lexington Children’s Theatre’s 18th Annual Summer Family Musical

When: Thurs. & Fri., July 18, 19, 25, 26 at 7:30pm; Sat. & Sun., July 20, 21, 27, 28 at 2 p.m. Sun., July 28 at 6:30 p.m.

Where: Lexington Children’s Theatre Main Stage, 418 West Short Street,

Tickets: $20 children, $25 adults

Online: lctonstage.org

Phone: 859-254-4546

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