Live Arts: Penelope Spencer On The 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in Broadway, Theater or Live Performance Art
Positive Attitude: Your attitude determines how your casting agent, director, and crew will deal with you, come with an open mind and a beautiful spirit.
As a part of our series about creating a successful career in theatre, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Penelope Spencer.
Penelope Spencer is an award-winning actress, producer and writer for over 30 years and is considered a cultural icon across the Caribbean in the industry of theatre and film. ‘ Pennie’, as she is sometimes called, has written, produced and acted in numerous plays and live performances and her contributions to the artform has contributed tremendously to the development of the industry in the Caribbean and the wider world. Her dedication has moved her to co-find The Necessary Arts Company and drama school, where she teaches, writes, produces and mentors up and coming creatives in the industry.
She lives by these words of service “you must never determine your final path in this business too soon, always be open up yourself to every possibility! If you go to an audition and you are rejected, ask the producer, how else can you assist with the production? Never give up! Never stop reading, and exploring and don’t be afraid to play, it isn’t that serious!”
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in San Fernando in Trinidad and Tobago where I lived with my mother and three brothers. We were considered a lower-income family, my mother, was a single mother of 8 children, four lived with her as far as I remember, and my other four siblings lived with relatives. I loved to dance…….would dance the paint off the wall if I had to, and always danced in the house. When I was 8 years my mother joined me in a dance school, it felt like heaven. My mother was a disciplinarian, she looked for employment, anywhere she can. Not very successful all the time, we moved a lot, I remember going with her to one of the government housing offices, to get ownership of her own home, it was our ritual. Eventually, she got a house from the government, she was ecstatic! I got my own room, my three brothers had to share one and, my mother had hers.
I got pregnant at 16! It was a nightmare for my mother, hell for me! I was told to drop out of school by those in charge, at that time teenage pregnancy was frowned upon, and I did not want to leave school, so I begged to be placed in an ‘after-school program’. I returned to school after my son was born and the institution really supported me. I was in love with the arts and as a single mother, taking care of my baby and becoming an artiste was a challenge in itself, lots of hitchhiking to get to and from workshops and, rehearsal. I struggled; I had to get up 4 in the morning to make and sell sweets to get finances to support myself and my son.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I loved writing as a child and, would use it as an escape most times, secretly writing in my notebook, I would write happy stories, where families would live happily ever after. Dancing around my house as a child was my thing, sometimes kicking and breaking stuff, after a while, my mother had enough, then at the age of eight, she marched me to dance classes with the Arawak Dance Group, one of the most prominent dance studios in my country.
The dance will always be my first love, after many years of dance, I was asked to go audition for a musical in Port of Spain, the Capital city of Trinidad. It was a different kind of musical where you either sing, dance or act…I went to audition for the dance team, I acted in school once but never gave it much thought…but the Director of the musical Errol Sitahal had other ideas for this audition, he asked everybody to switch up their regular performance roles. I auditioned for one of the acting role, as well as a dancer, (singing was never my strong point)…anyway after I did my acting audition Mr. Sitahal was impressed and gave me the supporting role in the play, Moon Over a Rainbow Shawl, that was the birth of my acting career. I was known as a dancer who could act!
Fast forward, I started teaching……. Dance, Storytelling Creative Writing, and Drama.
I joined Necessary Arts about 19 years ago to work with their Children’s Programme. A friend Lydia Ledgerwood knew of my abilities and, invited me to meet the founder Naima Thompson . Working with this organization was love at first sight for me. First, a theatre company that was called NECESSARY ARTS…….wow! Then their slogan “Stimulating Minds through Artistic Expression”………loved it! I thought it was a perfect match for me and their social work with at-risk kids and communities was my passion and purpose. Because of Necessary Arts, I have returned to writing, I have written two children’s books Tales of the Forest with Lylah Persad, and Toy Troubles. I also wrote a chapter in the highly acclaimed book Virago, which tells some of my life stories. I have also written for theatre and several children’s television production.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person whom you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My mother was the storyteller in our home; I would mimic her all the time. She also introduced me to dance classes and to her, I will forever be grateful. I can recall she was into ceramics, she even attended classes, bringing home her masterpiece, that’s a strong word let’s say she brought home her homework, anyway, one day after breaking one of her prized possessions with a jete’ I was placed in to dance classes and banned from dancing in the house. It was the beginning.
I met Torrance Mohammed my first dance teacher who sent me on my first audition, a Best Village an artistic folk competition in Trinidad and Tobago that encourages the artists in rural communities to expose their talents, Efebo Wilkson, was one of my first directors , because of his confidence in me I thrive today,
Sonya Moze was my first voice teacher, there were so many others that touched my life, Tony Hall, Christine Johnson, Godfrey Sealy, Richard Ragoobarsingh ,Raymond Choo Kong. I would always remember Ms. Princess Donelan who encouraged me to enter a writer’s competition where I had some success. I’m grateful they all added different ingredients to my artistic journey.
You probably have a lot of fascinating experiences. Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I have many interesting stories, some with the play Jean and Dinah, characters based on the popular calypso at the time performed by the Calypso King of the World The Mighty Sparrrow. Going to New York, the first time performing there, we came through the airport dressed as the characters, JEAN and DINAH. Rhoma Spencer and myself. They took us around Brooklyn to promote the show. The people were in awe, they assumed we were the actual women and treated us as such. ‘The Mighty Sparrow sang about these women in his Calypso in the early fifties. How they could think we were the original women, I thought! However, we went along with it, maintaining character for a whole day! It was awesome though. I remember the line to come into the venue for the actual show was extremely long, people were trying to get in, and we had two shows that day, in between shows I went out and got my mother out of the line, getting the worst looks from the patrons. I remember that was the first time she saw me perform and the last.
Another time I was in a play with five women, we were in the middle of a scene. The audience was there then one of the characters in the play fainted on the stage, just like that, she just fell. This was not rehearsed the other actors were flustered so, in character I took charge I got them to get water and after 3 seconds or so she got up. I kept calling her by her character name, then immediately she recognized what was going on and, there she was, then in seconds she got back into character, we then carried on with the play all unbeknownst to the audience.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Coming into Port of Spain as a young actress, I got my “Halls” mixed up; I was supposed to get to Queen’s Hall for a rehearsal but somehow heard ‘City Hall’ instead, which, mind you are in two totally different locations. I got to the wrong hall, no one was there, no cell phones in those days so I thought I missed the whole rehearsal I cried, I beat-up myself, I went home depressed.
Missing a rehearsal even then, was not an option for me, then and now. Got a call the next day and figured out my mistake. My lesson; get a map! Thank God for, Waze and Google maps now.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am also working on the first episode of a sitcom written by me, I was a finalist in the Film TT writer’s room competition held locally. It is called ‘Uncle Pete’s House, and, being produced by METV a new local station investing in local content. I’m also helping a friend with his sitcom and training the new actors, also a small bit of directing. There’s a Carnival production that I just finished writing the script to be produced in 2023. I have a couple of other projects in the pipeline.
You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of rejection, lack of support, or failure?
The arts are such a wonderful evolving vessel for creativity and sometimes the artist starts off wanting one aspect of the arts, be it an actor, writer etc. then another area of the arts pulls you another way, and sometimes that is where you are best suited. Embrace it! Many friends who were dying to be actors and now they’re the best ‘stage managers’, they are flourishing in their roles, I also know people who started as stage managers now they are actors. My advice for young people is you must never determine your final path in this business too soon, always be open up yourself to every possibility! You go to an audition get rejected, and ask the producer, how else can you assist with the production, never give up! In addition, I will let them know, never stop reading, and exploring and do not be afraid to play, it is not that serious!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the live performance industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Find new ways to play your character/s, never stop developing your character, and find new ways for your character/s to live. It could be something simple as a new move or as big as a new interpretation of a line, all within the parameters of your ‘direction’ of course, Also, sometimes you just got to STOP for a second, on your days off, do something completely different, go to the beach, a museum, a garden, a park; anything but the theatre!!! SEPERATION is important as well, let go of your character/s after the show, it’s important you must release, and LET GO, let it all go the music, the dance, the accents, the mannerism! I always say there are two people on stage ‘the Character and the Actor’, and the Actor is in charge; never let the character take over the actor or therapy might be in your future…and nothing’s wrong with that!
Thank you for all that. This is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in Broadway, Theater or Live Performances” and why? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Commitment: Being able to give your time and dedication to the craft is integral to being a successful performer.
- Training: Always work on your craft, get to your voice, dance, and acting classes as often as you can…invest in yourself and your future.
- Positive Attitude: Your attitude determines how your casting agent, director, and crew will deal with you, come with an open mind and a beautiful spirit.
- Reliability: Your reputation is important in this business, be respectful of people’s time and energy. The world is small if you have a reputation for lateness or being untrustworthy, it will get around.
- Flexibility: You’re going to be playing different roles in this business, and sometimes you can be typecast. Still, you need to be flexible. I’ve been in that position playing the same kind of characters for years but I knew they were all different people, in their walk, speech, and mannerisms, so as an actress I had to be able to adjust myself to make them all different. As an actor, you need to be able to fit into any role from a Prince to a Pauper. Always be observant of different people in society, you never know the role that will come at you. You must stretch yourself, do classes, and workshops, This will help you to be able to show your skills/flexibility in your portfolio
For the benefit of our readers, could you describe how the skill sets you need in a theater performance are different from the skill sets you to need for TV or Film?
Theatre is grander, alive, in your face, there is no ‘Cut” or ‘Reshoot” or edits on a theatre stage, nothing is colored or textured. What you see is what you get. Personally, it is more of a challenge for the actor to keep the character with a live audience watching your every move. Your projection is important in theatre, being able to reach the person in the front row, as well as the back row of your audience is necessary for the live audience, they all must connect with what’s going on, on the stage.
T.V./ Film has its challenges and advantages as well, just being able to create a scene whether comedy or drama, with a million cameras and crew staring at you, can be intimidating especially for first timers, getting the emotional value of the scene can be a challenge. Some studios work with a minimum set or half a set and it’s up to you the actor use your imagination. The extra lights and sounds and waiting for the right weather can be challenging on a film set. Having your director on set giving you tips and direction as they film a scene is a good advantage, being able to have your script close by is great, while your makeup and costume needs are constantly on focus is cool.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
‘Adopt a class’ was a project I wanted to make happen, I did try then the pandemic hit, and it squashed. I recognized there was a major problem with our youths in Trinidad & Tobago.
I also knew that some schools were overwhelmed, teachers were focused on getting the academics done, no school counselors, there was no time for classes on storytelling, good manners, communication, some boys were missing that fatherly experience, there was no time to deal with social interaction with the children in a meaningful way! So, I thought if we could get into the most vulnerable school with celebrities or sports personalities or politicians, respected elderly community, to assist our teachers once or twice a month, for an hour with storytelling, playing a game, teaching life lessons, sharing fruits with the kids’.
Anything to show them what LOVE looks like, anything to give them some confidence, anything to help that navigate life more holistically. I only wanted to work with children from 5yrs to 9 years…so by the time they get to an age of reason, they would be better equipped to deal with life. I wanted to create a movement in my country a sought of giving back while helping our youths.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My life is a school of lessons. I’ve learned many, some by force, some unexpected and some became my mantra that I kept chanting for survival but the one that stands out and the one I always have to remind myself of is “If you want the rainbow you got to put up the rain.” Things never came easy for me growing up. It was always a struggle to survive. Getting to where I am now was not easy and sometimes quite unpleasant, being a teenage mother was a daunting task most times, one for which I was unprepared. However, there were some rainbow moments and milestones in my life that have kept me always reaching to find more. Moments I look back now and identify that as “the rain” and there is the moment I know the rainbow is bright and will always come, such as this one.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Oh, there are many folks I admire out there, Mia Mottley comes to mind I think the world should speak to her, a powerful Caribbean leader, Viola Davis is another woman I respect, I would always love someone, anyone to help with Necessary Arts, we just celebrated 20 years and we don’t have our building! I’ve seen the power of the arts and how transforming it can be, to the many folks who came to us, so I would love to have a place where we can discover and nurture new talents, which will always be my priority. Now if I had to sit down and talk to someone in a private session, I want to learn more about how to maneuver in this realm we function in “show business” it’s Tyler Perry! He’s so admired by myself, the work he does as an actor, first of all, is outstanding becoming all those characters in his movie is awesome, the topics he is interesting and topical and there’s plenty who could identify with his stories, his work as a playwright respected and applauded plus he has his studio. The man is what I would love to be. well, with little differences but I appreciate this iconic gentleman.
How can our readers continue to follow your work online?
FB: @Penelope Spencer
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!