POTSDAM — A floppy-eared mutt named Oliver eagerly follows a girl named Jillian around the stage of SUNY Potsdam's black-box theater during rehearsal. But, on the stage, their names are Sandy and Annie.
The stars of the show are a dog from Connecticut and a girl from Potsdam. Another couple of Potsdam natives — two pit bull puppies — are playing supporting roles in the Community Performance Series' production of "Annie."
All of the canine stars have one thing in common: they all come from animal shelters.
Show organizers "came to me and said they wanted to do something with the shelter," said Anne E. Smith, who manages the Potsdam Humane Society. "The show's related to orphans and orphanages and stray dogs and dog catchers; they needed a small dog that could be carried or rolled across the stage in a cart."
Shelter dogs are no strangers to the stage. Since "Annie" opened in 1976, the role of Sandy, Little Orphan Annie's canine companion, has been played by a shelter dog.
"Oliver was a surrender; somebody didn't want him, probably because he was bad. He's a little crazy," said Patrick C. Peavy, a dog handler who works for Bill Berloni's Theatrical Animals. "I work for the guy who trained the original Sandy 33 years ago. Every dog we use for all the shows — 'Legally Blonde,' 'Wizard of Oz' — all come from shelters."
This time, Sandy will have two co-stars whose only home is the Potsdam Humane Society.
The two homeless puppies, who are white with brown eye patches, will make their stage debut at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, when the show opens.
"We want people to know there are some great dogs at the shelter who just need another chance," Mr. Peavy said. "If you can find a dog from a shelter, if they can come through there and still love people, that's a great dog."
The puppies are not going to be onstage for very long, nor have they been rehearsing for very long. They started working with the cast only about four days before the show is scheduled to open.
But they will not be the only adoptable animals around the theater; Ms. Smith plans to come to several performances to showcase other adoptable animals, probably including the other six pit bull puppies, who are about 10 weeks old.
"It wasn't partial to puppies, but we just had a litter of pit bulls," said Ms. Smith, who also is planning a pit bull awareness day Aug. 7 at Bows and Bandanas, Route 56, to teach the public about pit bulls. "It's increasing awareness, whether it's pit awareness or awareness about adopting a shelter pet."
None of the canines has any lines to learn; they have to spend time onstage, getting used to the show and the actors. Ten-year-old Jillian A. Todd, who plays the title character, spent an extra hour and a half every day for a week working, bonding and playing with Oliver, who has been on the stage as Sandy since 2008.
"It's a lot of commands like 'heel' or 'sit.' He's so well-trained, I feel like I can wink and he can do something like stand on his head," said Jillian, who is from Norwood. "I'm always giving him commands, but it looks like I'm petting him."
From SUNY Potsdam, Oliver will work his way down to Broadway, where the show is scheduled to open in 2012. Jillian, who has some previous acting experience with the Community Performance Series, said she also is thinking of heading down to Manhattan to audition.
The SUNY Potsdam show will be at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with an additional performance at 2 p.m. Saturday in Snell Theater.