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Women’s History Month: Celebrating Women In The Arts – Spotlight On Penny Pollak

by Karen Tortora-Lee on March 16, 2011

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These women of the arts hail from different disciplines, but they all have an indomitable spirit and a luminescent spark that makes them amazing human beings who are out there every day, doing amazing work.

Today we continue our series with Penny Pollak. I picked this photo above ‘specially for her: “DON’T let your woman announcer be too agressive.  She will antagonize all men, and many women.  She must, however, speak with authority, either form experience or special knowledge of the product.  A woman announcer is always a hazardous risk and few can please all viewers.” (snicker.)

If you’re part of the downtown NYC scene and an emerging artist (or a seasoned artist who just needs a comfortable place to work through some new material) then chances are you know Penny Pollak best as the producer and host of “Penny’s Open Mic.  Yes, Penny is the ringleader – but she’s so much more. Ms. Pollak welcomes the crowd, sets the tone, supplies the rules (there are very few, but they matter) and keeps the night humming along at a solid pace.  You only need to attend one of these open mics to find yourself hooked.

Hearing each performer refer to Penny’s Open Mic as “Home” before they launch into their own song, story, routine or reverie is to understand that you’ve walked into a sacred space where magic happens week after week  - and while regulars count on the rituals and habits the truth of it is – no two nights are ever the same.  And therein lies the reason people come back time and again.  To rediscover the joy of the first time – every time.

Penny Pollak

Penny Pollak herself is a gifted actress, a talented writer, but most of all, an all encompassing spirit that moves artists every week to dig deep and hone their craft, share their heart, and sharpen their skills.  The world could use a million more like her, but for now I’m grateful that the one Penny Pollak we’ve been alotted  this time around has been put straight in my path.  I’m honored to showcase her here :

Talk to me about being a woman who does what you do- just overall.

Honestly, I don’t think about it that often. My parents did a really good job raising me to be completely independent; supporting the idea that I could be anything I wanted. But of course the world doesn’t work that way and I still find myself surprised and offended by the double standards and the simple language difference. For example, a man who is in charge and exerts his authority is strong and just doing his job whereas a woman who does the same thing is a diva, a cold princess or just a bitch. I’m very lucky that the men who surround my shows and projects don’t see the world that way, and when I work I feel I’m treated as an equal. But the inequality is so ingrained into our society — and the fight is far from over — which is why I’m delighted you’ve made this issue a feature this month.

Are there days it makes a difference – good or bad?

These days not as much; I’m in a great place in my life now and surrounded by amazing people. The fact that I do more theater now than bartending is the biggest change. A few years ago I used to manage a bar on First Avenue for a short time which is actually where I started my open mic before I moved it to UNDER St. Marks Theater. Managing a bar I was constantly presented with those problems. By patrons as well as management. In fact that’s the reason why I quit working there. I’ve butted heads for months with the owner over the women I hired and so forth. He wanted me to base my decision on the picture they sent in rather than the resume. Oh – and I wasn’t allowed to hire men as bartenders, only barbacks. Then one day he told me to fire three of our very talented bartenders because “They weren’t hot enough”. That was it for me, not only did I quit but I told everyone who worked there. Everyone quit immediately and in protest we all stayed in the bar all night drinking his booze until he came in the next morning apologized and begged us ALL to take our jobs back. It was a small triumph but it felt pretty good at the time.

Are there barriers you fought against in the past that are now becoming easier?

As writers we are taught to above all, write what we know. I am a woman, so my writing reflects that. There have been a few instances where a piece I think is universal and human has been remarked as being ‘woman’s issues’ and ‘Men just can’t connect.’ There may be some truth to that but I think it’s just a lazy way of thinking. My play No Traveler (which will be in the Winnipeg Fringe Festival this summer) addresses themes such as suicide, abuse, self-destruction and control brought together in a very dark humorous way. I think our society allows woman to connect more freely to these subjects but they really do touch everyone in some way, male or female. As I’ve taken it around to different festivals and countries I was very excited to receive those responses. One goal I’d like to achieve with my writing is to express that ‘woman’s issues’ are actually human issues and affect everyone.

Penny Pollak

Oh, and one more thing about Penny?  My dad is completely smitten with her.


More about Penny:

“PENNY POLLAK earns major points for her creativity in her dark and fascinating No Traveler” (
No Traveler a comedy about suicide written and performed by Pollak received glowing reviews in this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival and NYC Frigid Festival. She recently starred in Broken Dog Legs a one-woman play by Emily Conbere.

For almost three years now she has hosted and produced Penny’s Open Mic, (featured in The New York Times, New York Magazine,, NY Press and Time Out NY) a weekly show at UNDER St. Marks Theater dedicated to supporting artists of every kind to experiment and workshop in a safe environment.

A past resident of Horse Trade Theater Company she has produced and performed in just about every performance venue, bar and street corner in the east village since she moved here in 2007. She graduated with a degree in Theater and a minor in Sociology. After graduation she studied at the TVI London theater intensive program at Rose Bruford College, UK. She was nominated for Best Actress in this year’s Strawberry Festival and has won awards for her writing as well as been featured in a number of readings in NYC.

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