Sunday, May 27, 2001

Marni Penning

Shakespeare Festival co-founder endures auditions, lines and agent hunting

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Marni Penning
(Jackie Demaline photo)
| ZOOM |
        It's 7 a.m. in New York's theater district. The air is cool, the sky is gray and the only people on 46th Street are sanitation workers and actors without agents. Outside the locked doors of Actor's Equity there's a line of actors half a block long. Some are drinking coffee, others are chatting, some are dozing. Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires is holding Equity auditions this day. The actors aren't waiting to audition, but to sign up for an audition.

        Actors Equity will open its doors at 8 a.m. The people at the front of the line get first shot at picking the ideal brief time slot in which to make maximum impact on casting directors.

        Marni Penning is rushing up Broadway. She has overslept. On a brisk morning in late April, she is bundled up, dressed for her job as an office manager and loaded down with enough paraphernalia to fell a meatpacker, including a folding chair in a carrying case, a softbound copy of The Poisonwood Bible, an umbrella, workout clothes and (of course) a large purse.

        “Normally, I would have been here an hour ago,” she sighs, and greets the folks at the front of the line by name as she takes her place further back.

        She's back in New York after spending two months in Cincinnati starring in Lovers and Executioners at Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival. She is one of the festival's co-founders and is married to artistic director Jasson Minadakis.

        Ms. Penning won't be getting her favorite audition time today, which is 12:50 p.m., “just before lunch, so they have lunch to mull over me.” She laughs.

        Ms. Penning has had plenty of big roles at the festival, including Hamlet. So what's the thirtyish actress doing as a full-time office manager and living in a 7- by 16-foot studio above a coffee shop on upper Broadway?

        Following a dream.

        “Ideally,” she says, “I'll have a career running from regional theater to regional theater to regional theater.”

        That career must start in New York.

        Ms. Penning has been here since August “auditioning for as much regional theater as possible” and trying to get an agent so she doesn't have to be in line at 6 a.m.

"Very lonely'

               In January and February, which is high season for tryouts, Ms. Penning had as many as five auditions a week. She has been dutifully sending out packets to agents since she arrived, but the easiest way to get an agent is to be seen performing. Her only stage gig has been a brief off-off-Broadway run in White Devil.

        New York “is very lonely” she says, and while she didn't know precisely what to expect, “I have a decent resume. I guess I expected a few more agents to call and say "Let's talk.' ”

        Which is not to suggest she's losing her spirit. She talks about auditioning as “opportunities to network.” Too, “I want to learn about TV and film. I took a soap class for six weeks, and I want to take more.”

        She's gotten a bit of day work filling out scenes on Ed and Law & Order and on a couple of films.

Good news, at last

               She has put together 85 new agent packets, including head shots and a collection of stellar reviews from Lovers and Executioners.

        That evening over Chinese she happily reports that the Williamstown audition went well (the casting agent remembered her from an audition three months earlier) and she has a nibble from one of the agencies she wrote.

        A week later, the Barry-Haft-Brown agency agrees to represent her on a free-lance basis. They'll scan for appropriate jobs, set up auditions and they both — the agency and Ms. Penning — will see how they fit.

        Even better, she's been cast in an experimental theater piece, TrueMyth. Rehearsals begin June 18; it plays Aug. 3-19 at the Blue Heron Arts Center on Park Avenue South.

        “It involves the writings of David Wojnarowicz and has movement, mime and mask work. I'm so excited!”

        In the dead of a New York summer, there's a good chance that the folks on Ms. Penning's invitation list will RSVP.


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