MEET PAULINA SARPONG OF SCHOOL GIRLS;
OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY
Photo by Christine Dong.
How do you rehearse?
What does a typical session entail?
Process is everything to me! I learned that in college. During the rehearsal process, I spend a lot of time listening to my director, castmates, crew, and dramaturg during table work because it’s so nice to hear how other people are envisioning and feeling the play. After I listen, I ask questions. Once we get the play on its feet, I try to do as many “wrong” things as possible to try different approaches before we get to the finished product.
Do you get nervous before a performance? Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I only get nervous before a show when there will be people I know in the audience. If you love me, don’t ever tell me you’re coming to one of my shows! And I do have a pre-show ritual. Enunciation and articulation are so important; it’s a disservice to the audience if they can’t understand what I’m saying on the stage, so I warm up vocally for about half an hour with tongue twisters and lines from the show. I always finish my warmup by rapping the first verse of Can’t Tell Me Nothing by Kanye West. Then I warm up my body, speak affirmations, and say prayers out loud in the space about what I expect from the performance. I thank God for the opportunity to share my talent and the story I’m telling with my cast and crew. I ask that at least one person is touched by the story and hope we all kill it!
How do you handle mistakes during a performance?
Mistakes will happen in live theater, and I live for those moments. That’s why I love theater! The mistakes cause me to think quickly on my feet, which I find exciting. Either I improv or adapt to whatever has gone off-script.
If you had not become a professional actor, what do you imagine you would be?
I would definitely be a teacher. I came from a long line of teachers in my family. My mother teaches kindergarten; my dad is a high school dean; my grandmother is a retired fifth grade and night-school teacher; and my cousin teaches pre-K, just to name a few. Teaching is in my blood.
Are there other actors in your family?
Yes! Not professionally but each in their unique way. The way my family members tell stories is so interesting. They may not realize it, but they change their voices and postures to embody the character and bring you back to the moment in the story. My grandmother Loretta, especially, is incredibly animated. She even writes the plays for her church!
What are your fondest theater memories?
I think about the first time I caught the theater bug in high school. Those are the best memories — when I felt so free in theater, not thinking about technique but just hopping onstage and diving into an improv scene with my assigned group — taking huge, incredible risks! I miss those days. I was maybe 15 years old when I saw my first play called In the Continuum by Danai Guirira. It was the first time I felt so seen. I remember being in awe of these two amazing black women onstage, telling this story that had me completely hooked. I fell in love. Then I went to my first theater competition in high school that I chose to attend instead of grad weekend, which is huge for a senior. It was one of the hardest decisions I’d ever had to make, but I chose the theater competition. I was surrounded by all these theater kids from across the state of Florida singing and dancing — they could freaking act! I had never felt so motivated and inspired up to that point in my life. I remember calling my dad and saying, “THIS is what I want to go to college for!” and he just said, “OK.”
What inspires you now?
I’m inspired by freedom. Anytime I can witness artists or anyone being completely free in their life or work, it fills me to the brim with inspiration. Freedom, to me, means to be free of self-judgment, fear, self-doubt, and other people’s opinions of you. Witnessing that in art gives me goosebumps and makes me strive to achieve that kind of freedom in my life and the art I strive to create.
Who have been some of the most influential people in your life?
Wow. I have so many influential people in my life. To name just a few: my parents, all of my college professors at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, my friends (you know who you are!), and most recently, the choreographer of Redwood, Darrell Grand Moultrie.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome so far, and how did it change you?
The biggest challenge that I’ve had to overcome was my unwillingness to be vulnerable and my lack of self-esteem. Having to rewire being so guarded out of fear of people wanting to hurt me and having to change how I think about myself was challenging. Learning the power of letting people in to see my scars and believing that I’m not weak for letting people see those sides of me has made me a better artist and a better person. I’ve learned to trust myself and my capabilities and to seek reassurance from myself that I am enough.
Tell us something unexpected about yourself.
I’m a huge advocate when it comes to mental health and seeking therapy if people have the privilege to do so because accessibility, in reality, is a privilege. My brother is schizophrenic, which taught my family and me so much about ourselves and life in general. I learned that we have no control of what things will happen to us — anyone can have a psychotic break. If you’re reading this and struggling with something, please don’t internalize it. If you don’t have access to a therapist, please talk to someone — a friend, a teacher, a parent, a sibling, whoever. Don’t suffer alone in silence. You are loved, and someone cares.
Artslandia’s theme for the 2019–2020 season is A Night Out. Describe for our readers your perfect night out.
My perfect night out includes great food, wine, and dancing to a live band surrounded by my friends. The band would be playing everything from R&B, hip-hop, jazz, soul, funk — everything. Or playing games at an arcade, going go-karting, and maybe ending the night with a group of my friends talking loudly around a fire pit and just having fun at one of our favorite bars.
School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play at Portland Center Stage at The Armory January 18 – February 16, 20202019
Radisson RED is a proud supporter of the arts in Portland.
This vibrant hotel is an ideal city base that features smart design touches in every room and an upbeat social scene. OUIBar + KTCHN, the on-site restaurant, offers bold street fare from far corners of the world alongside Oregon-brewed beers and wines. Bring your dog or cat, rent a bike, and find the quirky, creative hotspots nearby or head further afield to enjoy Oregon’s natural beauty.