A classic children’s tale about the power of imagination hooked Grayslake native Josh Pennington on acting back in high school.
He was a track and cross-country athlete at Grayslake Central High School. But things changed rather quickly after he attended his school’s theatrical production of “Peter Pan.”
“I thought it was so magical that I wanted to get involved and I auditioned for the next show,” Pennington said during a phone interview.
Now, he’s made acting his career. And his latest role springs from another imaginative tale for kids.
The 26-year-old actor can be seen in the new production of “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins,” running Dec. 7-29 at Chicago’s Strawdog Theatre Company. Based on the award-winning children’s book by Eric Kimmel, the show is about Hershel the wanderer, who comes across a darkened village overrun by a band of goblins who won’t allow residents to light candles and celebrate Hanukkah. The story depicts how Hershel helps the villagers defeat the goblins over the eight days of Hanukkah and restore the holiday spirit.
The play offers a twist on this Jewish holiday tale.
“It’s about a group of traveling actors who go to towns and perform stories,” Pennington said, explaining that they offer to tell the story of “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” in exchange for food and shelter.
“The play is the same story from the book, so those who are familiar with the book will see that same story.”
Pennington plays a couple of roles, including that of Max, King of the Goblins. So, he gets to showcase his versatility.
“I am drawn to imaginative storytelling,” he explained. “The magical aspect of theater is what continues to excite me. I have loved working with this cast and production team on this play because of their creativity!”
To get to this point in his acting career, Pennington has worked hard at gaining stage experience while clearing a few hurdles along the way. After high school, he studied acting at Illinois State University, where he encountered some challenging feedback.
“I had teachers in college tell me to think about a different career path, but I just kept going. I would say that no matter what anyone tells you, like you may not be good enough or you should look at a different career, to just keep going with it.”
After college, he followed his own advice and moved to Chicago in 2016. His acting credits include productions of “Twelfth Night,” as well as “The Tempest,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Julius Caesar.”
“I’m really drawn to Shakespeare because it’s timeless, it’s been around for ages, but it’s produced so often and accessible to a lot of people,” Pennington said. “I like it when you get to play multiple characters; it breaks down the reality of theater and you know you are watching a play. Shakespeare can be daunting, with people getting caught up in the old language, but it’s more enjoyable when people perform the story for you.”
Last spring, he acted with a traveling theater company that performed Shakespeare in parks in rural Midwestern communities. He described the plays as “queer-centered” and said that many young audience members got to see someone like them for the first time performing in front of others. It was an experience that also struck a personal chord with Pennington.
“I talked to mostly young people who had never seen themselves represented in any way. I remember talking to a boy who was 15 who said he’d never seen a queer actor before. As I met these kids, I felt that I was very fulfilled, that what I was doing in this world is correct.”
Pennington admitted to struggling when he was growing up. “I remember being young and queer and made fun of in school,” he said. “Had I seen someone like myself, it would have made a huge impact on me.”
Pennington said he would consider forming his own theater company in a few years, and he has a good idea about where he’d like to take his next act.
“I really want to move out west to Colorado, Oregon, somewhere out west and work out there,” he explained. “There’s actually a lot of great theater out west.”
When Pennington refers to “out west,” he does not mean Hollywood.
“No, nothing really draws me to film and it’s not something I want to pursue,” he said. “It’s the theater for me. It’s something about the suspension of disbelief and the ‘magicalness’ of it all that really inspires me.”
• • •
“Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins”
Location: Strawdog Theatre Company, 1802 W. Berenice Ave., Chicago, (773) 644-1380 or strawdog.org
Performances: Various showtimes from Saturday, Dec. 7, through Sunday, Dec. 29
Tickets: Previews: $20 adults, $15 children/seniors. Regular run: $25 adults, $20 children/seniors. Family discount features 10% off a purchase of four tickets.