Editor’s Note: Five years ago we had an idea. Being a woman-owned publication, it made sense to celebrate women who were making a difference in the industries we cover. So, we started a feature for Women’s History Month called “Reel Women.” Over the last four years, we have gotten to know leaders, mentors and visionaries from a variety of creative industries. This is our 5th Annual REEL WOMEN. For the month of March, let us introduce you to some very special women like actor, and founder/publisher of the Chicago Talent Directory, Nanci Ponné.
Nanci Ponné, international entertainer, actor, and Miss Chicago 1981, is the founder/publisher of the Chicago Talent Directory.
Officially recognized by the Illinois Film Office in 1991, the Chicago Talent Directory was founded in 1985 as a compendium of profiles of professional actors, models, voiceovers and entertainers exclusively based in the Chicago/Midwest region and was dedicated to promoting and assisting in developing their careers through information and connections. It included a centralized wealth of talent resources regarding events, talent agents, casting directors and related services such as photographers and schools.
The Chicago Talent Directory hosted many seminars and panels that discuss and train talent on how to market themselves, the most influential having been the “Progress Forums”, where union, film office, production and talent professionals met to discuss the future of our local industry, particularly how to attract productions to our city and keep our exceptional talent here. Many of those innovations conceived at the Progress Forums are now a reality.
As you read Nanci’s responses you will see how valuable this resource was in the promotion of the talent pool we have right here in Chicago. Read on. Nanci has an announcement to make!
Let’s meet Nanci.
What’s your origin story?
I began training as a dancer at age 3. While attending Bowen and Jones Commercial High Schools, I became a member with the Loretto Rozak dance company in Chicago while taking evening classes in singing at the Chicago Conservatory of Music and acting at the Goodman School of Drama at the Art institute. I was invited to train to become a member of Hubbard Street dancers in 1978 by owner and director Lou Conte but I had already enrolled in the Goodman School of Drama acting program for its initial year at DePaul University where I received a partial scholarship. I graduated from DePaul with a BA in Theater Arts in 1980. I had launched my professional career as an actress in 1978 working in local theater and industrials. I discovered a monologue I had seen presented by actress Cloris Leachman, titled I Am An Actress that I very much wanted to perform and entered the 1981 Miss Chicago Pageant for that reason. I unexpectedly won the title and with Cloris, Miss Chicago 1946, currently in Chicago, we were photographed for People Magazine. At the time I was really gaining traction as an actress but made the choice to stay with the title and compete at Miss Illinois winning a Special Judges Award. Pageant directors then informed me that my “crown would sit around collecting dust the rest of the year”. Instead of accepting that situation I got going and made the title work to my advantage by developing a marketing and PR campaign that reintroduced the title and myself as the new titleholder to Chicago, booking appearances at civic, corporate and charity events, learning skills and creating a network that would benefit me the rest of my life. I negotiated a barter agreement with PR powerhouse Steve Simon (Steve Simon Public Relations, now Next PR) who signed me into engagements with some of his top stars in the beauty industry (Tweezerman, John Amico), relations that I have maintained and worked with for years and still have as friends. This initiative I orchestrated created the foundation of my own acting, modeling and future publishing careers but also launched the boom that the local pageant enjoyed throughout the 1980s.
How did you get into Film Industry?
Following my year as Miss Chicago 1981, I worked in the modeling industry doing trade shows including the Chicago Auto Show and as an actress doing local theater and industrials. The AIDS epidemic required me to be more careful as I was caring for my aging mother, 40 years my senior. So, I moved over to the film industry which was just getting started in the city then and worked as an extra on many projects for TV and film such as Poltergeist 3, Nothing in Common, Ferris Bueller and Lady Blue. I quickly became deeply frustrated by the lack of information and news about the acting industry in Chicago and access to the people who had the real power to hire actors. I read extensively about how actors on the coasts were getting the attention of talent buyers and learned that was the ‘Academy Players Directory’. Concluding that we needed such a resource for talent in Chicago, I realized I was going to be the one to make it happen. In 1985 I launched the Chicago Talent Directory with the endorsement and voice of legendary Chicago Casting Director, Jane Alderman, who spoke at a seminar for the publication’s launch. Multiple editions later, the Chicago Talent ‘Spotlight’ newsmagazine was added which featured articles and how-to’s by, for and about Chicago talent professionals and services accented with highlight articles with Hollywood icons like makeup artist, Bud Westmore and casting director, Mike Fenton. As publisher, I also produced and hosted seminars on marketing and professionalism for local talent featuring panels of Chicago production industry professionals.
Who were your mentors?
• Legendary Chicago casting director, Jane Alderman: I’ve tried to emulate her devotion to and elevation of Chicago film talent;
• 2nd Illinois Film Office Director, Suzy Kellett: I think she was a powerhouse and pivotal in opening the doors that built the foundation of the film industry in Chicago and the State of Illinois;
• Ray Van Steen, Chicago voiceover and owner of Studio One: While not a woman, Ray taught me everything about voiceover and how to best serve their promotional and developmental needs and was an exceptional supporter of the Chicago Talent Directory; And of course,
• Screen/Reel Chicago pioneering publisher Ruth Ratny: Who once told me “Don’t underestimate who you are in this industry.” Till this day her words both haunt and propel me. She was a groundbreaker in Chicago’s film/tv production reporting and I tried to do the same for the talent side, making our publications bookends of the industry.
While there will be others, what do you consider your biggest achievement to date?
That the “Chicago Talent Directory is Officially Recognized by the Illinois Film Office.” It was conferred in June 1991 by Suzy Kellett, legendary director of the Illinois Film Office in the 1980s and 90s. I donated copies of the Chicago Talent Directory to her and the Chicago Film Office to distribute at the location expos in Hollywood. She reported to me that it was the first time talent buyers on the coasts got an ‘in hand look’ at Chicago’s talent pool, the infrastructure we had to support it and that the Chicago Talent Directory had helped in attracting new film projects to our city and state. I’m still so proud of this accolade. I’m not aware of any other product or service having any similar acknowledgment from the Illinois Film Office.
What drives you to create?
The exploding film and TV production industry in Chicago and Illinois has made the need for a single, independent, casting and news resource exclusively for Chicago film talent even more urgent and necessary. We have got to elevate the city’s film talent infrastructure, resources and information into a readily available, searchable platform to support our growth. This resource is no longer an option for Chicago – it is a necessity to advantage us in attracting film and tv production to our city and state, creating more work for our talent and moving us another step closer to being the ‘Hollywood of the Midwest’, one of my goals since 1985. To achieve this, I am relaunching the Chicago Talent Directory as a digital platform to make this necessity a reality as soon as possible. I am currently laying the groundwork and seeking software engineers and funding resources as the digital project moves forward which will be based off of the original purposes and structure of our print editions. I encourage Chicago’s talent and our film production industry partners to sign up and participate in the Chicago Talent Directory at chicagotalentdirectory.net/join-us-.html to stay informed of its development and launch.
Award you crave, but haven’t won?
I hope that before my life ends that I can be considered one of the individuals that helped move our industry forward to achieving our goal of Chicago – my home town – of being the ‘Hollywood of the Midwest’ and that my contribution further elevated and empowered our outstanding film talent.
What movies are doing the best job of portraying strong women on TV?
I love seeing actresses who are enduring and bucking the barriers — those that are working late in their years, 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond — in an industry that often kicks them to the curb because we aged. I applaud the older actresses in ’80 for Brady’ but hope that there can be features that have more substantive stories and can convey higher expressions of their talents.
Is there still a boys club in your industry?
Oh, sadly yes. Next time you watch any episodic or feature, count the men in it — including those in the background. They far outweigh the women. Until that balances out, women have a lot of work to do.
Coffee, Lunch or Happy Hour. Name a famous woman (living or dead) you would like to attend each function with?
Coffee: Ginger Rogers
Lunch: Ann Reinking
Happy Hour: Helen Mirren
Last year, the Supreme Court ruled against Roe v Wade. If you oppose the decision, what can women in your industry do to defend a woman’s rights?
Specifically speaking of women in our industry — they need to start producing documentaries in the most objective manner possible that exposes the damage this ruling is doing to the health of women, the deterrent it creates to starting a family and how it will affect women advancing and staying in and perhaps, even entering, the workplace. This decision can destroy futures and lives not only by affecting women directly but everything we are a part of including our own families. It is already happening and we, as chroniclers of subjects, need to produce projects that get this message across to policymakers and voters to codify Roe.
What keeps you up at night?
Too much light and fond memories.
What’s up with Beyoncé being nominated for 4 Best Albums of the year but never winning?
Opinions. It’s all malleable opinions in the moment and not a result that is calculated by an accumulation of points of achieved execution and artistry.
The new and improved Creative Directory website will be here: chicagotalentdirectory.net
Reel Chicago will announce its launch.
ALSO READ: MORE REEL WOMEN
ALSO READ: REEL 360 — REEL WOMEN
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