While most of us would admit there haven’t been a lot of silver linings during the Coronavirus pandemic, Camera Assistant Penny Sprague has found a few.
Among them: the opportunity to take a COVID-19 Contact Tracing course from Johns Hopkins University; time to think about going back to school for her Masters degree and, perhaps, eventually teaching; the fact that her two dogs have never been happier; and getting to work with Ryan Murphy again on Prom back in July when the film was one of the early productions to go back to work.
“I went through periods of really enjoying being off, reconnecting with my family, my dogs and my house, to being down, then hopeful, a whole slew of emotions that I’m sure everyone had,” the 32-year union veteran noted. “Now I’m just kind of anxious to get back to working full time. There are always things you can pull from a negative, and I tried to do that because being off work for months can be daunting.”
In a career that began in the late 1980s, Sprague hasn’t had much downtime. Moving between features and TV, she has worked on CSI, Mad Men, Boston Public and multiple shows with Murphy. A Tennessee native, Sprague followed in the footsteps of her father, John, a gaffer who had his own production company. Sprague first got her hands on a camera at age 12. By the time she was a junior in high school, she was already a union member in Chicago. She was a member of Locals 666, 659 and 644 before the merger.
Sprague earned a degree in Geography at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville but went immediately into the “family business.” She came to California to work on the HBO movie Tyson. More projects followed and she stayed.
Among her career highlights are working on What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, her first project after giving birth to her son. She also had a blast working on the entire run of Glee and for producer David E. Kelley’s Boston Public.
“David E. Kelly and Ryan Murphy are both amazing people to work for,” Sprague said. “I’ve been very lucky.”
She expects production to ramp up in December on the 10th season of Murphy’s American Horror Story. Having experienced a taste of what the work environment will be like during the pandemic, Sprague knows adaptations will have to be made.
Penny back on set with her PPE
“I’m one of the last remaining assistants who actually pull focus standing next to their operator, so for me, that’s been the hardest transition,” said Sprague. “Working during COVID, they want to keep the number of people on set as small as possible. So for me, that’s meant moving away from the way I normally pull focus.”
“I’ve adapted, even for an old dog,” she added with a laugh. “You have to be able to adapt because things change in this business all the time.”
The downtime also got her finally thinking about teaching and sharing what she’s learned during her years in the industry, a “bucket list” item for Sprague. Her father taught film in Nashville, and the thought of connecting with the next generation of filmmakers is very appealing.
“I believe that in order to succeed in this industry you need to have some knowledge about your job and what it’s like being on set and it would be nice to share my years of experience with people who are interested, eager and excited about working in this business,” Sprague said.