A month-old lamb with an ear tag reading 1062 is gently but persistently gumming this writer's shoes in a large, straw-filled, chain-link enclosure around the back of the Wilma Theater. "When we used 61 onstage, she squeezed out of the cage," says stagehand and temporary shepherd Elliot Greer. Then he gestures at one with an ear tag marked 1054, smiling. "And she was just constantly baaing." So the spotlight fell to lamb 62, who Greer says is "quieter, calmer and the laziest." She'll be the one audiences coo over during the Wilma's run of Curse of the Starving Class.
This is not to say 62 is a particularly good actress — just less of a scene-stealer. When the play opened March 7, the three adoptive sisters had been alive for only about four weeks, and you can't house-train even adult sheep, much less teach an infant to keep quiet during a monologue. All the Wilma's cast and crew could do was cast the calmest lamb, hope she doesn't act so cute she detracts from the humans onstage and practice staying in character while cleaning up poop.
Sam Shepard's Starving Class is a difficult play — in addition to its dark themes and full-frontal nudity, there's also the out-of-the-ordinary stage direction that a live lamb be present in multiple scenes. This leads to complications both obvious and less so: The short sheeping season combined with how quickly lambs grow means that the play can only be done with a real lamb in a pretty brief window in early spring, and you need to find your animal actor fast.
Lambs 54, 61 and 62 were found with the help of a 4-H Club based outside Roxborough. As sometimes happens, their mothers gave birth to more lambs than they could feed — 61 and 62 came from a set of triplets and 54 from a set of twins — and, says production manager Clayton Tejada, the three would have had to be bottle-fed wherever they were. They came to the Wilma at two weeks old; after the play closes April 8, they'll return to the farm, where each will be assigned to a Philly-area kid who'll raise and show her.
The lambs have names, recently chosen via Facebook contest — Lady Bahbah, Justin Sheeper and Bahnka Zizbah (after Wilma artistic director Blanka Zizka) — but the crew is used to referring to them by their ear tags. Though this may read as a bit clinical, they clearly adore their charges.
But while adorable, sheep aren't standard pets — as full-grown ewes, they'll be between 130 and 180 pounds, and as long-domesticated herd animals, their behavior and instincts aren't very familiar to someone used to a dog or cat, "who are not so lazy, and are smarter," says Greer. "These guys — they eat, and they graze, and then they lie down. They have no defense mechanisms."
It's clear from hanging out with them even for a few minutes how different these animals are from anything descended from hunters. They aren't wary. If you offer them a hand to sniff like you would a dog, they look at you blankly. They don't just submit to being picked up by strangers, they seem to enjoy it. The animals are so docile that actor Nate Miller has zero worries about a scene late in the play where he carries around the 15-pound, sharp-hooved 62 while completely naked. "They like being held," he says. "Once you pick it up, it calms down. It's not trying to buck or nip."
Herd animals hate being alone, and this is why there are three lambs — to keep each other company. Before it became clear who was going to be most comfortable in the spotlight, the plan was to rotate them in, with the two benched lambs together backstage and the third onstage with her "surrogate herd" of Greer, Miller and a few other humans in plain view to keep her from getting scared. Greer, in particular, has spent a lot of time with the lambs, bottle-feeding them every eight hours, and has bonded with them to the point where "he doesn't even have to pick the lamb up to go to the stage anymore," says Tejada. "He just walks down the hall into the elevator and she goes with him."
I visited the day after 62's debut at a preview performance, which everyone agrees went well. The lamb didn't seem to mind the audience, though she could definitely see and hear them. "When she baaed for the first time, 300 people all at once went 'Awww!'" Miller clasps his hands and makes an adoring coo. All three lambs look up at the noise, then, unconcerned, resume toothlessly nibbling hay and the cuffs of my pants. "She definitely noticed that."