Five Friday Questions with Emily Penick

Emily Penick is a director, choreographer and artistic associate at ACT. Born in California and raised in New Jersey with an MFA in directing from Ohio University, she’s worked all over, from DC to New York to Milwaukee. She currently calls Seattle her home, and this year she’s directed readings at New Century Theatre CompanyNorthwest Playwrights Alliance, and the Young Playwrights Festival as well as associate directing alongside John Langs on Mary’s WeddingA Christmas CarolBethany, and Seven Ways to Get There (running through March 15 at ACT). She’s currently choreographing Café Nordo’s Don Nordo Del Midwest (check out Jonathan Zwickel’s feature about the show over at City Arts) and associate directing Seattle Shakespeare’s upcoming Othello.

Penick is loaded up with projects well into the future, including the launch of ACTLab’s 2016 season next February with The Lover, a Pinter one-act that will be accompanied by live jazz and Café Nordo’s delectable food and cocktails. Penick took time out to join me for this week’s installment of Five Friday Questions.

What’s the best performance you’ve seen lately? 

UMO Ensemble’s FAIL BETTER rocked my world. I saw it three times. I am a huge physical theatre and Beckett nerd. What the brilliant UMO Ensemble created in FAIL BETTER embodied all that I love about Beckett. It was delightful spending an hour with their unique cast of deeply human and hilariously tragic characters. The impressive live-mixed sound design and playground of a set were integral to the theatrical experience.

UMO used the architecture of the theatre in playful and surprising ways. And sure, it’s gloriously absurd to have a massive teeter-totter on stage, but when you see those dear clowns struggling to balance on it with each other you can’t help but recognize that very sensation in your own life. We’re all fools struggling for balance. Sometimes our efforts are virtuosic and impressive, and other times our efforts are hilariously pathetic. I loved FAIL BETTER, and I’m so glad we’ll be hosting them again at ACT this spring. They are definitely back by popular demand. 

What’s the best meal in Seattle?

This little Ethiopian place, Meskel. I love to take a friend and share their lamb in berbere sauce with the veggie combo. It’s a very social food, eating off the same plate, with your hands. Wherever I make theatre I search out the best Ethiopian food in town. DC, NYC, even Milwaukee.

When I was getting my MFA in directing, a dear friend and wonderful playwright, Bianca Sams, taught me how to make injera and several Ethiopian dishes from scratch. That cooking lesson was worth a master’s in its own right. Delicious. There’s really nothing like a fresh spongy sourdough bread and bold spicy dish complemented by some home-brewed honey wine. 

What music gets you pumped up? What do you listen to when you’re sad?

This is embarrassing. Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” is my guilty pleasure if I need to get pumped up to pitch a show. If I’m about to host a party or go out, I’ll put on funk. Bill Withers’s “Use Me” is a favorite. If I’m sad, I’ll spend a little time with my beloved Talking Heads listening to “This Must Be the Place” or “And She Was.”  

Do you have any opening night rituals?

Thank you notes!! Always, always. And usually a whiskey toast. I also love not wearing my glasses at opening. After a week of tech and previews, taking my glasses off is the final test, to see if the play works as a whole. One big blurry story-telling whole. 

What’s the most useful thing anyone’s ever taught you about working in theatre?

All great art comes from trust. That wasn’t so much a spelled-out lesson as one I gathered from working with friends and mentors.

The most useful straight-up tip I ever got was: Don’t be an asshole to anyone. Chances are the girl who helped you with your quick-change in undergrad, or the shy little board op from your high school theater will one day be running the Rep or be in a position to give you a job. Assume everyone around you is bound for greatness, and treat each other well.