AN INTERVIEW WITH SHELDON PENNER OF THE PATTAYA PLAYERS

AN INTERVIEW WITH SHELDON PENNER OF THE PATTAYA PLAYERS

Sheldon Penner at Koh Phanang, December, 2016

Note: this is the first of a series of interviews with English language literary artists residing in the Kingdom. Our definition of “literary artist” is broad enough to include fiction writers, playwrights, poets, humorists and comedians. The insights and experiences of these artists are universal.

Sheldon Penner currently serves as President of the Pattaya Players, an English language community theater group. He also acts in and directs many of their productions. Sheldon recently sat down with your blogger for an in-depth interview.                     

A native of New York City, Sheldon graduated Stuyvesant high School and received a B.A. in Theater from Brandeis University. He lived in Los Angles for over twenty years, where he wrote and directed several plays, including Tales of the Great Depression, Real Pulp, and  Fog of War.  He recently directed the  Pattaya Players’ production of Neil Simon’s Fools,

Tell us a little about your background before you came to Thailand. 

I was born and raised Jewish and middle class in Queens, New York. After graduating college, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and spent most of the 1970’s as a street performer with the Thieves Theater comedy group, an experience which has formed my tastes and creative methods to a great extent. After that I moved to Los Angeles where I wrote stage plays (some produced) and screenplays (none produced) and performed at the Groundlings improv comedy theater in Hollywood. But I was never able to get a foothold in the entertainment industry, and became instead a computer programmer, returning briefly from time to time to my first love, the theater, as writer or director.

How did you come to live in Thailand?

When time came for me to retire, I realized that I could not live as comfortably as I would like in California on the modest pension I expected to receive.  I had been on vacation many times in Thailand and knew that rents there were a fraction of equivalent places in America, as was the costs of living. I was also drawn by lovely beaches and islands, a sizable and welcoming English-speaking expat community, and the rest of Asia at my doorstep to explore.  I live in a large one-bedroom condo in Jomtien with a communal swimming pool and gym, a view of the Gulf of Siam from my balcony, quiet tree-lined grounds and a row of bars, restaurants and shops on the ground floor of my building.  I pay the equivalent of about $450 a month rent plus about $25 for utilities.  I have been living here about three and a half years now and it does seem to be working out.

How did you get involved with the Pattaya Players?

When I decided to move to Thailand, I said to myself, “I guess this is the end of my involvement with theatre.”  After all, I was leaving San Diego, with its lively theater and improv communities, for a non-English speaking foreign land.  But a Google search turned up the “Pattaya Players.”  I contacted them by email and arranged to audition for their next production, which was to start rehearsals a few days after my arrival in Thailand.  Since then, I have acted in several plays, directed a couple, had one of my own scripts produced here, and I run monthly improvisation workshops with Pattaya Players.

What are the major differences between your creative life in America and in Thailand?

When I did theatre in America, I worked mostly with professional actors. There is nothing close to that level of experience or commitment here in Pattaya, and no reason why there should be. The people here are retirees or working people with other commitments.  Theater to most of the Pattaya Players is an avocation or a one-time lark.  That said, I do enjoy the privileges of a being a big fish in a small pond (or, let us say, a moderate sized fish in a tiny pond).  I can initiate projects, I can bloviate and be taken seriously, and most importantly I can dedicate my time to my creative efforts to an extent impossible back home.  And while professional theater folk are a rarity here, they are not unknown, and several have worked with us, challenged us, and raised the level of our output.  Pattaya is anything but a theater town, and we struggle both for audiences and participants. Bangkok, about two and a half hours from here by bus, with its much more diverse population, has more in the way of theater and other arts.  I would like to participate in the Bangkok theater and improv scenes; it is not yet clear to me whether it will be possible to remain living in Pattaya while doing theater in Bangkok.

You seem quite objective, offering the pluses and minuses of a theatrical personality living in Thailand. What exactly is it that keeps you here aside from the economic factors you mentioned?

What keeps me here in Thailand?  The economics, without a doubt.  The freedom I now enjoy to work only on what interests me- theatre, improv, writing and personal programming projects.  And the opportunity to travel, another thing I could not afford to do if I lived in America.

What if anything do you miss about living in America?

There is a lot I miss about the USA:  bagels, hiking Topanga Canyon, the improv scene, sane drivers, safe cross-walks, Broadway, my old Solara convertible, cool weather, the mountains, the desert, and most of all my friends and family.  Skype makes it possible to virtually visit my friends anywhere in the world; and my low expenses leave enough cash in my bank account to enable me to travel several months a year and to spend real time in their genuine, flesh and blood presence.  And, of course, I have a wonderful place to invite my friends from back there to visit.

What artists have influenced your work the most?

My artistic influences are comic, mostly.  I idolize Charlie Chaplin, who brings more humanity into his comedy than anybody without missing a single laugh.  The great film comedies and comedians of the 1920’s and 30’s, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, inspire me always.  Peter Sellers, certainly!  Mike Nichols and Elaine May!  Among my contemporaries, Steve Martin and the Firesign Theatrer.  I love physical comedy, by which I mean much more than slapstick (much as I love slapstick).  I value the gesture more than the spoken word

It seems like your background was really in more traditional theater-acting, directing, writing. How did you make the leap into improv comedy?

I am a rather controlling and risk-averse type of person by nature.  I particularly value improvisation because it forces me to let go of the controls and just let things happen.  When I was at the Groundlings in Los Angeles, I think I wrote good comedy sketches and acted well and funny in other people’s sketches.  But I was no damn good at improv.  Some people seemed to have an instinct for it – Phil Hartman and Paul Rubens were in the main company when I was in the Sunday second-tier show – but I was not one of those.  After leaving the Groundlings, I did no improv nor any kind of performing for a good 25 years.  Then a woman took me to Jacquie Lowell’s improv workshop in San Diego on a date, and I had a wonderful time showing off and getting lots of praise and encouragement.  I discovered that while I was away, Del Close and Charna Halpern had developed a technique and system of training that made improvisation quite approachable and learnable.  I discovered also that a large community of improvisers had grown in San Diego, and I dove in with enthusiasm, taking workshops, attending improv jams and gradually getting good!  And then I retired and moved to Thailand.  Like many improvisers, I have become obsessive on the subject; it is a movement, with a great deal of idealism and ambition fueling it.  I have been running workshops here in Pattaya, but I have never, since my days at the Groundlings, had the chance to hone my skills week after week in front of audiences.  I hope to correct that this year.

With all due respect to your hometown of Pattaya (or Jomtien which you claim as your address to avoid the stigma of Sin City), it hardly seems like the venue for someone with your theatrical background and interests.  Bangkok, by comparison, is an international city with a lively theater, comedy and improv scene. Judging from some of your own observations, it seems like we might be seeing a move to the Big Mango. Is that in the cards?

Bangkok has a diverse population and several theaters and improv groups.  Jomtien, where I live, is a backwater.  But Jomtien is a comfortable beach town where I can dress appropriately for the climate; Bangkok frowns upon shorts and tank tops.  Bangkok, with tall buildings on all sides and the Skytrain overhead, can feel oppressive and claustrophobic.  In Bangkok, I could not afford the life style I enjoy in my present apartment.  I am torn between the opportunities in Bangkok and the comforts of Jomtien.  I must say, I enjoy the horror on some people’s faces when I tell them I live in that den of sin and debauchery, Pattaya.

If you could have dinner with any three artists in history, who would they be?

My three artists for dinner: Steve Martin, Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx.

Thank you very much for your time and insights.

Support the Pattaya Players!  Visit them at:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/pattayaplayers/

Support the Pattaya Improv! Visit them at:  https://www.facebook.com/Pattaya-Improv-Group-595839277228367/

2 Replies to “AN INTERVIEW WITH SHELDON PENNER OF THE PATTAYA PLAYERS”

    1. Sheldon Penner lives in Pattaya. Jomtien is a section of Pattaya. It is less sleazy than the Pattaya known as Sin City, though still utterly unacceptable to most foreigners who live elsewhere in the Kingdom and it is not quite as despised by the Thai people. Many foreigners who live in Pattaya try to disguise the fact by saying they live in Chonburi Province or in Jomtien. The Pattaya area is a lot cheaper than Bangkok and the lifestyle is let us say more informal (although I hardly consider wearing a sport shirt as opposed to a tank top formal dress.) Sheldon is correct, for the most part men in Bangkok don’t go around in shorts but it is ok for quick errands or when it is really hot. As Sheldon indicates in is interview, a foreigner living in Pattaya is a non-starter for most of the rest of Thailand. As for Sheldon’s skills as an improv artist, I have not seen him but I am friendly with many standup comedians and improv artists in Bangkok (which is now a huge center for English language comedy and improv) and they have told me that they respect him. No reason why they would tell me that if it were not true. I have encouraged him to relocate to Bangkok and work with them.

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