The Artist Spotlight is a weekly interview series highlighting entertainment professionals, working actors, singers, stage managers, producers, directors, designers and others in the arts and entertainment industry.
This week’s Artist Spotlight is no shrinking “Violet!” Monika Pena talks about how the arts are an essential part of her life, her struggles and triumphs, what she is up to now, and her secondary career in the field of veterinary medicine.
FEBRUARY 7, 2021 — By Chris Daniels
For me, great acting begins when the performance is so believable that you forget you’re watching an actor act on stage—to get so swept up in the sincerity of their work that you accept them as the character they are portraying. They seem spontaneous in thought and action and you can’t wait to see what will happen next. In short, it seems like real life unfolding before your eyes.
This week we are featuring a paragon of that illustration—an actor who has already accomplished so much in only a few years and rapidly making a name for herself. I’m talking about Monika Peña. It's no secret Monika can belt great vocals, but in addition to her well-proven skills behind the mic, she's also shown some serious acting chops. She’s an artist who fully embodies her character in every role, usually dominating the stage, offering audiences not just a slice of life, but the frosting too—the concentrated, sweetest portion. Have a look at what a few of the critics say about Monika:
"As Aldonza, a radiant, gutsy Monika Peña reveals crystal-clear legit pipes (in an exquisite 'Dulcinea' reprise) to match the rocker vocals she showed off as Chance Theater's Lizzie Borden,"
-- Steven Stanley, StageSceneLA
"[Peña’s] raw emotions become razor-edged, showing masterful deliveries and execution…Her character of a regularly abused firebrand hellion is played with just the right amount of sullenness, and presented as a complex woman trying to find her own self-worth and dignity in tough conditions. And Ms. Peña handily fills her mantle with layers of complexity.”
-- Chris Daniels, The Show Report
"...all four women are exceptionally strong, both dramatically and vocally, particularly Monika Peña in the title role... Peña imbues her strident character with grim determination,"
-- Tom Titus, LA Times
"Once again, I am incredibly impressed by the excellent Monika Peña... who plays Lizzie with a relate-able sensitivity that slowly stokes a fiery, bubbling aggravation that is mesmerizing to watch unfold. Of course, it helps that she has the singing pipes to truly realize this metamorphosis."
-- Michael Quintos, Broadway World
"Ms. Peña’s take on Lizzie as a double murderer, not to mention being totally nuts and still managing to be engaging – even endearing, is truly spectacular. "
-- Chris Daniels, The Show Report
"Peña, equaling if not surpassing her sensational star turn in last year's Violet, digging into Lizzie's anger and her pain and her primal urges while belting out sky-high notes to rival the roughest rock diva."
-- Steven Stanley, StageSceneLA
"Pena [is a] first-rate pop-and-rock musical theater singer... Pena’s plucky, fearless, charismatic Fish is a feisty bundle of energy who yearns to soar."
-- Eric Marchese, The OC Register
We caught up with Monika a couple of weeks ago and asked her about her upcoming projects, how she’s coping with the virus and the temporary lull in theatre, and how she stays motivated. Here's what she said:
Since the pandemic hit in March of last year, this has been an extremely difficult time for most artists and performers. Has there been any of your own challenges you’d like to share with us?
"I think the biggest challenge has been staying motivated. I found that I'm really inspired by being around others so being alone at home without artistic people has been SUCH a bummer. On top of that, actors have had to learn a new way of auditioning and let me tell you, I would rather drive to LA and back in traffic then have to record at home! It's been so difficult finding the right equipment (and on a budget) to record and do self-tapes. I've certainly learned that I'm no videographer or audio engineer!"
Can you walk us through an average day in your life?
"Well, an average pre-COVID day was working all week and rehearsing or performing every hour in between! As exhausted as I was, I miss it so much!!! Nowadays, I've thankfully still been working but now I just go home after a long day to binge shows I haven't seen in the last 10 years, deep clean all the boxes and drawers of junk I've neglected, garden, and explore new avenues of creativity with crafts as well as trying my had in film and TV! I figured, if I couldn't be on stage I could at least try a new creative avenue and have been lucky to be involved in a few projects!"
How old were you when you decided to pursue a career in the arts?
"I had done some children's theater as a kid, choir in junior high and high school, and danced with a studio all through high school but, it wasn't until I was 18/19 when I realized performing was the only thing that truly made me happy and from then on decided I needed to pursue it."
What has been some of your proudest accomplishments so far?
"My proudest moment in my theatrical career thus far has been my Ovation nomination for Best Lead Actress in the musical Lizzie as Lizzie Borden and winning Best Musical in an intimate theater! It was such an incredible process putting that show together and an amazing run. We knew we had a great show and to have our LA community recognize all the love and passion we put into it was so validating and fulfilling. It reassured me that the time and effort I put into being a performer is not misplaced!"
Who do you look up to as your greatest creative inspiration?
"I can't say I have one person I emulate but, I do follow and study performers that are like me in vocal range and character like Sutton Foster for example. In general, though, I usually do a lot of study while watching the shows and movies I love by picking apart the nuances that make my favorite characters come to life. With any type of art or medium that interests me, my first question is, 'What is it that makes this scene/character/piece work so well?' followed up by 'How can I reproduce that authentically?'"
People often talk about working toward their dreams, especially actors. What is your dream and where would you like to be, say, five years from now?
"Honestly, my dream is just to be a working performer. I don't want fame, I don't want fortune. In five years, I just want to be making my living from the arts and to be happy and fulfilled—to feel like my love of the arts has helped inspire others, create more communication, and promote togetherness."
Monika, you’ve played a number of characters on stage. What theatrical character do you identify with the most and why?
"Ooo, tough question! I'd have to say Violet from Violet the musical. She is a young woman, fending for herself, slightly jaded, with self-love and acceptance issues, and emotional struggles with her parents. That's pretty much me. I've always thought I wasn't pretty, I've made my way through life by my own ferocity to be better and get farther, and my parents and I have had some traumas to work through. Those tears when she faced her father? 100% real, every night. But, I can say that like Violet, I have also overcome a lot of my demons."
What do you consider to be your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
"Oh gosh, I'm not sure! I really had to think about this! I guess I'd say that I always try my best in any project I do, whether it's for a show I'm excited about or a job duty I hate, I will always put my best foot forward. My weakness, however, is my self-confidence. I never quite feel like I'm good enough, or doing well enough in terms of where I'm at in my career. I'm just really, REALLY hard on myself and try to remind myself that all I can do is the best that I can."
Do you sing in the shower, or serenade the neighbors like most musical theatre people?
"I absolutely sing in the shower! I sing at home while crafting or doing dishes, in the car, anytime a good song comes on!"
What is your absolute favorite song?
"Oh boy, that's the worst question you could ask me! I don't have one favorite song because there are just so many great ones out there! However, to give you a small idea of my taste, I love to sing anything by Sara Barielles, Judy Garland, and definitely the entire cast album of "Heathers."
What else are you passionate about when you’re not doing theatre?
"I'm a veterinary technician by day at an animal ophthalmology clinic so I have a deep love of animals and biology. I even got my bachelors degree in Zoology! Creatively, I'm a serious crafter/scrapbooker. I love paper crafts, cross-stitching, creating home decor and decorating."
And finally, what’s something you are really good at that few people know about?
"I think I'm pretty darn good at set dressing and home decor. I like to think I create visually interesting placement of decor with fun and balanced color palettes and textures. I like how my apartment turned out anyway!"
Monika is an Orange County native and has performed at various theatres in Southern California. Her credits include the titular roles in Lizzie, the Musical (Ovation Winner: Best Musical Production - Intimate Theater, Ovation Nominee: Best Lead Actress in a Musical; Chance Theater), Violet (LA Times Critics Choice, Ovation Recommended; Chance Theater), Aldonza in Man of La Mancha (Candlelight Pavilion), Princess Fish in Claudio Quest (West Coast Premiere; Chance Theater), and A Christmas Carol (2018 & 40th anniversary, South Coast Repertory). For videos, production photos, and more, visit www.MonikaPena.com and follow her on Instagram @singingvettech
Thank you Monika Peña!