Oakfields College graduate goes from Stage to Screen!
Penny Wolhuter has landed a role in SABC3’s new, daily TV series: The Estate, but how exactly did this musical theatre graduate make the transition from a dancer on stage to an actor on screen?
It’s hard to believe that a little over ten years ago this Oakfields College alumnus was a tiny sprite chasing wildlife around the African bush. But the accomplished musical theatre graduate and cast-member of SABC3’s new telenovela The Estate, is just as at home in the bush as she is on stage.
Growing up in White River, Mpumalanga, this small-town girl spent many hours with her older sister and renowned wildlife, film-maker father Kim Wolhuter, tracking, observing and filming animals in the wild.
The fondness of her memories is easy to pick up when she speaks about her childhood.
‘A short description of my childhood would be ‘naked in a river.’ When we were in the bush with my dad, my sister and I always used to run around naked and when in the city with my mom, it was a struggle for her trying to get us to keep our clothes on. We would go visit my dad in the bush on weekends and holidays and would just fall into his routine. If he was filming nocturnal animals, then we would be out with him all night peacefully sleeping in the back of his well kitted out filming vehicle. We would often make a little fire in the bush at night and braai, or we would make one early in the morning and boil some water for tea with peanut-butter and honey sarmies on homemade bread.’
While her time in the bush sounds idyllic and peaceful, Penny and her sister had a rigorous routine during the week balancing schoolwork with their passion for both ballet and gymnastics.
‘Straight after school Lindy and I would change and have lunch in the car on the way to gymnastics. After this we would rush off to ballet before heading back to gymnastics again! There was a period where we were waking up at 4am for a gymnastics class before going to school each morning. How my mother managed to get us out of bed, I have no idea. She was clearly a miracle-worker.’
Penny started rhythmic gymnastics and ballet at around age two, but it was only in her final school-year that she knew she wanted to enroll for full-time training in the performing arts and pursue a professional career in the entertainment industry.
‘I think I always had a bit of a performer in me, but I only really decided to pursue it in my matric year. My singing experience consisted of one-man shows in the shower, but I took drama as a subject in high school so I had a bit of acting experience. We were doing a ballet show and the entire rehearsal and production process was just so amazing and being on stage brought me so much joy, that I decided I wanted to perform forever.’
The idea of studying musical theatre and dance drew her in, but with so few tertiary institutions offering an accredited qualification in this specialised genre, she was unsure of her options and where to turn.
After hearing about the Oakfields College Faculty of Musical Theatre and Dance through a friend of her sister, Penny knew that this would be the perfect fit to help her achieve her dreams.
It was only once she arrived at Oakfields College that Penny branched out into contemporary and other styles of dance. She credits her dance lecturers, especially Dance Subject Head Ignatius van Heerden, for playing a massive role in her development as a dancer.
Upon first meeting her, Ignatius says that although her movement was quite rigid he immediately saw that Penny had great potential. ‘It was so rewarding to see her develop with every class. She devoured all the information in every class and rehearsal, always asking for more information, insights and opportunities to learn. She couldn’t get enough. Her dedication was inspiring.’
Penny also credits her time at Oakfields College not only for helping her develop as a performer, but also as a person. Before studying she was always quite shy around people, especially in big groups.
‘I think I really just grew into my own skin while studying. I was in an environment where I could really be myself and I think I just got to know myself and who I was and what I wanted. I can still be very shy sometimes, but I think I open up around people more easily now and I am more confident and less afraid to be unique myself.’
Penny believes this inner confidence, as well as being exposed to so many different forms of theatre and art, really helped open up her mind. This, she says, is one of the biggest ways that Oakfields College helped her develop and grow as a performer.
‘I think I had a very closed-minded view of what dancing was and I was very conservative. Dancing to me was kicks and turns and jumps and tricks but while studying, I was exposed to so many different forms of dancing and theatre that my mind was just blown wide open. I learnt that dancing is about so much more than a series of steps but also about the movement, the emotion and the art. Instead of putting me in a box as a classical dancer, the amazing lecturers at Oakfields College pushed me out of that box and helped me explore different ways of moving and different ways of performing, no matter how uncomfortable or awkward it may have felt at the time.’
Penny believes the large variety of workshops and modules that formed part of the musical theatre and dance syllabus, exposed her and her classmates to many different performance aspects they might not have known they enjoyed had they not participated in them. This, coupled with the routine and structure of the core classes, was a huge benefit and what she enjoyed most about studying at Oakfields College.
‘I loved being able to go to dance classes and learn every day! Now that I’m done studying I realize how difficult it is to go to classes often and how blessed we were to have such amazing classes daily. I also just really enjoyed being surrounded by people who had the same passion and goals as me.’
Jackie Rens, Head of Department for Musical Theatre and Dance, believes that along with the support and guidance provided by her lecturers and mentors at Oakfields College, Penny’s growth is largely attributed to her own desire to be better.
‘Penny’s growth, not only as a performer, but as a student was remarkable! Watching her blossom from a little ‘Betty Ballerina’ in her first year to a fully rounded, versatile performer at the end of her training, was enormously rewarding. Penny was one of those students who seized every single opportunity presented to her – whether it was working backstage on a production or signing up for optional workshops, she grabbed every opportunity with both hands. She was like a sponge – absorbing as much as she possibly could! But I believe her most admirable quality was her sheer courage and grit. Even when things were way out of her comfort zone she bravely pushed herself beyond her own fears and parameters. To quote Shakespeare: And though she be but little, she is fierce.’
As for her recent professional success, Penny credits the Oakfields College faculty of musical theatre and dance, not only for preparing her in a holistic way for the industry, but also for giving students opportunities to connect with working professionals.
‘Oakfields College helped me launch my career by helping me make connections and preparing me so well for the industry. They really taught us everything we need to know about show business: the audition process, performance etiquette, finding an agent, understanding contracts, doing taxes and so much more. They also gave us practical experience by giving us the opportunity to work with professionals during our dance and musical theatre productions. We worked with many acclaimed industry professionals (directors, choreographers, performers, etc.) and I have been given several work opportunities through these connections.’
Each year, at the culmination of the third-year students’ training, the musical theatre and dance faculty provides the students with a platform to showcase the various performance skills they have honed and developed during their time at Oakfields College. An extensive list of VIPs (including agents, producers, directors, choreographers, acclaimed professionals and theatre makers) are invited to this annual showcase to scout the next generation of graduates.
This was exactly how Penny landed her current agent. Juliette Jansen and Boniswa Holland, agents from Elysian Management saw Penny perform at the showcase and emailed her shortly afterwards to set up a meeting.
‘When I joined Elysian Management, they were still a very new agency – which was part of the reason why I chose to sign with them. They were new and fresh and have many interesting ideas. They are at the forefront with so many different divisions, they even have a division for drag artists. When choosing an agent, it’s important to choose someone who you connect with because you have to feel comfortable to talk to them about any problems or ask them any questions you might have. Boni and Jules were just so friendly and welcoming. I immediately felt comfortable and happy with them.’
Crossing over from dancing into acting is something that happened quite naturally for Penny. While dancing is by far her strongest discipline, she says that she has always seen herself as a performer rather than just a dancer.
‘I didn’t really decide to branch out into acting, it was always something I knew I would do as part of being a performer. I don’t think it was ever really a conscious decision I had to make. Also, training in all the different performing arts disciplines as a student, made the cross-overs between acting, singing and dance a natural progression.’
For this reason, Penny is quite used to auditioning for acting parts. But when her agent contacted her to audition for the part in SABC3’s new telenovela The Estate, she admits she was quite nervous.
‘Due to COVID most, if not all, auditions had been done with self-tapes and for some reason this was actually a live, in-person audition. It was the first in-person audition I had done in a long time so that was really exciting but also a bit scary. I had been staying home in Mpumalanga during lockdown and just happened to be up in Joburg the week that they were having the auditions.’
The producers sent Penny two scenes for preparation from the series prior to her audition. She analysed the scenes and drafted a character-analysis to get a better idea of the character she would be portraying.
‘Everyone in the audition room was really kind and relaxed and this helped to put me at ease. I did the scenes, then they gave me a few notes and I did them again and that was pretty much the audition. I had a really good feeling about the audition and I left feeling very positive about it.’
Penny had an orthodontics appointment to get braces three days after her audition, but her agent called the evening before the appointment to say that even though the producers still hadn’t made a decision, they would like her to postpone the appointment. This made her hopeful that the part could be hers!
‘About a week later my agent called to say that the bad news was I couldn’t get braces, but good news was I had landed the role!’
The Estate is a gripping premium daily drama produced by Clive Morris Production and runs every week day at 19:00 on SABC3. The storyline is set within a gated suburb: Echelon Estate. Within its walls live a cross-section of South African society, from the highly affluent to the struggling middle class as well as the working class labourers.
In the show Penny plays Leah le Roux, a rebellious, 15-year-old teenager who is constantly posting about her life on social media. Leah is the daughter of Suzaan Le Roux, played by Nadia Velvekens and Ryan le Roux, played by Charlie Bouguenon.
The experience of meeting and working with all the cast and crew is a definite a career highlight for Penny thus far. ‘There are some truly phenomenal artists in this series and it has been so great learning from them.’ says Penny ‘It was quite scary stepping onto set for the first time, but they have all been so kind and helped mentor me and have given me advice or answers when I have been unsure. The directors are also just amazing to work with!’
An average work day for Penny is never ‘average’ as her call-times vary constantly. If she has a large number of scenes then a twelve hour shoot day is the norm but some days she will only be required for a few scenes and may be on set for half a day or less. The shoot schedule all depends on the script requirements.
‘It is definitely a game of hurry up and wait; some days I shoot a lot of scenes back-to-back and other days I get there and wait a long time before my scene. If I am in the first scene of the day, then I arrive on set and go to breakfast, followed by wardrobe and make-up. Once that is done, we walk through the scene with the director and run it once or twice before shooting.’
Penny has two points of advice for others who are considering pursuing a career in the performing arts:
‘Firstly, find a reputable performing arts college that offers a diverse range of singing, dancing and acting subjects with lots of practical training - that will not only focus on your skills but also get you industry ready and help launch your career. It’s also super important that it is a nurturing and supportive environment where you feel safe enough to be challenged to regularly step outside of your comfort zone.
Secondly, remember the importance of balance. This is something that I am still trying to learn, but it is so important to find a balance between work, rest and socialising. You have to work hard if you want to get anywhere, but that hard work becomes almost pointless if you burn out because you don’t rest.’
Looking to the future Penny says her biggest aspiration is to join a professional dance company.
‘I am enjoying doing this series and I enjoy film work immensely, but I would also love to join a dance company while my body is still young and able. I can act forever, but I won’t be able to dance forever.’
Given the dynamite in this small package as well as her determined work ethic, solid training and exceptional talent – there is no doubt that Penny Wolhuter’s career will be one filled with diverse experiences and exciting ventures.