AAPEX Interview: Petronia Paley — AAPEX Interview , Petronia Paley — AAPEX

Thursday, January 19, 2012

AAPEX Interview: Petronia Paley

Petronia Paley
in her play
On The Way To Timbuktu

Interview by Jaz Dorsey,
AAPEX Dramaturge

What role did theatre and the arts play in your childhood and upbringing?
I was born and grew up in a small segregated town inGeorgia. There were no theaters and had there been, I would have not been welcomed. There were movie theatres which I loved and,of course, there was television, which I absolutely loved with its repertoire of old movies, comedies, and dramas, soap operas and variety shows. I loved the radio and the love affair continues. Being an only child, I learned to entertain myself, resulting in an active imagination. I loved to dress up in my grandmother’s dresses and hats. My aunt’s big voluminous wedding gown rested underneath the bed, waiting for me to open the magical box and transform myself into a fairy tale princess or a bride or a queen--anything I imagined. The record player and records were my soundtrack as I stood before the mirror singing or crying my heart out. And there was the church with its music, Easter pageants, and the minister’s struts, prances, moans, and his waving of the beloved white handkerchief which served to punctuate the sermon at key moments, as well as, mopping the abundance of sweat, having been produced because of all the drama about hell and damnation and the probability of our going there if we didn’t straighten up and fly right. It was the stuff of theatre, harking back to its beginnings. I loved to read poetry and at bedtime I created stories and dances in my head which lulled me to sleep and waited patiently to continue the next night. My imagination was a dear and cherished companion. This was my theatre.

Tell us about your own evolution as an artist.
I had always wanted to act, so I took an acting class and there was no turning back . I came to New York after graduating from Howard University with a degree in acting. I had studied with Owen Dodson among others and I was immediately drawn to the Negro Ensemble Company, where I took classes and was in one of their productions; Leslie Lee’s “First Breeze of Summer," which was my first Broadway show, and also at The Public Theater where I did Ed Bullins’ “The Corner” and Ntozake Shange’s “A Photograph” and that was the beginning of my career. At some point, I got an agent, and she was the one who got me into daytime television, getting me under-fives at that time. Daytime was my professional training ground. It taught me to be disciplined, focused, yet flexible, to spin on a dime. It taught me the value of preparedness and the virtue of working fast. It taught me humility, to accept what life gives and takes with equanimity. It taught me how to move forward when I wanted to stay still. It taught me that I was more than my job, that it’s easy to think you are what you do and to accept the illusion of 'celebrity' as who you are. Because of depression, I knew actors who had to seek therapy to help them (get through) life after the soap. I certainly had to deal with the loss of my job on Another World, but when I left, I wrote my first full-length play. Perhaps writing was my therapy.

What inspired TIMBUKTU and what is it about?
On The Way to Timbuktu tells the story of Dr. Selene Slater-Bernaud, a professor whose passion for Shakespeare’s sonnets lead to an obsession with “The Dark Lady”. She is also in a troubled interracial marriage but she finds herself in love with a young female student and grappling with personal demons that threaten to destroy her and leave her on the verge of a psychic breakdown. She becomes so possessed with the sonnets that she begins to live them. Having gone through family drama and relationship trauma, she struggles to find a way to reconnect to her own authenticity, her identity and her strength. I created On The Way to Timbuktu because I needed to speak in my own voice as an artist. Creating this play has given me the opportunity to perform a role unlike any I have ever been offered or played.

What are your thoughts on acting as a profession in our country at this time?
I teach now and I tell my students all the time that they have to create their own work, which is of course much harder. They have to create their own shows, they have to create their own films and webisodes. When I first came to New York I think there were about 13 soaps and that whole market, it's all gone, it's horrible. And I see that as a terrible thing for the young actors. It's very sad. I just hope and pray that there's work for them. I see them in my classes and I wonder, “Where are they going to work?" I teach them that they have to be more pro-active in their careers. It's terrible, it's hard, but that's what they have to do. I tell them to continue to develop themselves, don't give up. Just keep developing all the things you want to do. When I was on all the those programs, The Doctors, Another World, Guiding Light, if I had asked the director if I could shadow him to learn more about directing for camera perhaps... But then being a woman and one of color at that time, perhaps the request would not have been encouraged. Better not to ask, "What if?' but resolve to move forward with fearlessness.
Thank you.
Petronia Paley
Actor, Director, Playwright, Teacher
Founder & CEO I the Actor
To learn more about On The Way To Timbuktu
and to order tickets, please click the post's title.

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