By R. Flora Kim.
I was first introduced to Clarence Sponagle when I viewed ‘Eighteen’ – a soul touching coming of age story about a teenager named Pip who, like his WWII grandfather, felt lost in the chaos of his environment. Sponagle played Clark, a young street hustler who, strangely, helps Pip discover himself. Though the film wasn’t widely known, Sponagle’s performance was memorable in my eyes. Sadly, I hadn’t seen the actor in a film since.
That was until this past Summer, when I made a last minute decision to attend a small film festival put on by InFocus Film School at the SFU Goldcorp Theatre. After films about a woman who changes the life of a homeless man, a world where humans have a finite amount of tears they can shed, and a politically driven-shocker about female menstruation, I was taken aback to see Sponagle again in a short film called ‘Inconscious.’ It’s been 14 years since I watched ‘Eighteen’ yet I recognized Sponagle immediately as he played a sassy nurse.
After the screenings I saw him chatting away with attendees, I had to say hello. He was pleasant, and asked what I do. I told him I was trying to build my career as a writer, and asked if he’d like to be my first interview. To my disbelief, he accepted and we met for coffee the following week. I first asked him what drove him to become an actor.
“The Disney film, ‘Pinocchio’ and my best friend Lorena Wood,” he said. “Seeing Pinocchio run off with an acting troupe was so exciting for me as a kid, even though the troupe he was with wasn’t very nice. In high school, Lorena made me audition for the school play, ‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker. I was cast as the father. Lorena was a very big part of why I continued on to train as an actor, and we both moved to Vancouver to start our careers in acting together in 1995.”
Sponagle studied at the acclaimed theatre school: Studio 58. It is a conservatory style training program where actors not only learned their craft, but familiarize themselves with production as well, including lighting, costumes, props, etc before finally performing on stage in front of an audience.
“In doing this style of training, I was able to understand my body, voice, and technique in a way that no other form of training would have allowed me to learn,” Sponagle states. “The training at Studio 58 is still, in my opinion, the highest caliber of training in this country when it comes to theatre. You learn who you are and how far you can push yourself and allow yourself to be pushed.”
Sponagle’s first big acting job was in the world premiere of a play called ‘The Shooting Stage’ by Michael Lewis McLennan. Sponagle was cast in the lead role as Elliott.
“The experience was very surreal,” he says. “I was 23 years old, my face was on all the promotional material all over Vancouver, the playwright was in the rehearsal hall with us. I was about to play an extremely innocent and vulnerable 16 year old. It was fantastic!”
This role lead to Sponagle winning the highly acclaimed Vancouver Jessie Richardson Theatre Award.
“I felt I finally belonged,” Sponagle recalls. “I was finally being taken seriously. I worked hard as a young actor, I worked hard as an actor in training, that Jessie made it all feel worth it.”
Sponagle was later nominated for a Dora Mavor Moore Award, the acclaimed Toronto theatre award, for his role as Gogo in the play ‘Two Weeks, Twice A Year.’ He then toured as an actor, performing in plays across Canada and the United States. This led into his foray as a screen-actor, a completely different skill set than he was accustomed. However, not long after filming his lead role in ‘Eighteen,’ Sponagle hit a crossroads and decided to leave acting.
“It wasn’t an easy decision at all, and in many regards, it was kind of like acting left me a little as well,” he says. “Auditioning is tough, hearing no is hard and being on hold for a ‘what if’ outcome is exciting at first then extremely disappointing to hear that they went in a different direction. I was also ready for a shift in my personal life and taking a step away was the right choice at the time.”
Sometimes you and your passions need a break. Time away from something you love will inevitably open to whether you truly loved it or not. Nearly a decade after leaving the craft he so solemnly loved, Sponagle is ready to perform once again.
“I’ve missed it terribly but tried to convince myself that I had my time,” he states. “‘That now I’m too old to go back into it, I didn’t like it as much as I did.’ Those little demons that pop in all our minds when we feel nervous or when you second-guess yourself, you know? When I finally looked in the mirror and really saw myself, I had no more excuses as to why not to jump back in. I felt ready to take the risk and go back to class, be vulnerable and see what it was like for me as a grown man. I’m very happy I did. I hope to bring maturity, a new understanding of who I am and an entirely different awareness of confidence into this. I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens. There is never a guarantee for any of us no matter what we seek out to do but I’m excited, oddly enough, about the ‘what if’”
Sponagle concludes with a life-changing piece of advice he received from the late Ellen Albertini Dow, who famously played Adam Sandler’s rapping grandmother in ‘The Wedding Singer.’ Something he hopes will guide the rebirth of his acting career.
“‘Always be honest, sincere and always remember Clarence, you’re very, very good at this!’ Those words I’ve held very dear to my heart.”