Nourish inspiration.

Travel. Watch things. Read things. Appreciate other talented artists. Fall head over heels in love with your craft again and again and again. This is the fire in your belly, and without it nothing else even matters.

As a part of our series about creating a successful career in theatre, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Sonia Sayani.

Sonia Sayani is an international writer and actress who is deeply immersed in the comedy theater and entertainment industry. She was born in Canada to Polish and Pakistani parents, got her MA in Theatre at the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin, Ireland, and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She is an advocate for immigration reform as well as just a very silly person in work and in life.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I had a pretty unique childhood because I moved around a lot, so it took a long time to call anything home and really feel it deeply. I was born in Toronto, Canada, but I barely lived there. My family kept moving around Canada in search of new job opportunities, and when I was 9 we moved to the U.S. The place I call home now is the Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, where I spent most of my formative years. You might have heard of the Cumberland Gap if you’ve heard the song “Wagon Wheel,” because it’s got the directions backwards from the Cumberland Gap to Johnson City (it’s West, not East!). People back home love making fun of that. Growing up in the deepest pocket of Appalachia was such a contrast to the rest of my life, though, especially because my parents are older immigrants from Poland and Pakistan. So all these contradictory cultures were simultaneously becoming home to me as I grew into an adult. Plus I was an immigrant myself — I didn’t feel like one, but technically I was what is now called a “Documented Dreamer.” My parents owned a motel in our small town (I know, how very Schitt’s Creek) and had a long term business visa for that. But because of the way long-term visas are set up in our current immigration system, the kids that grow up as dependents under their parents lose all visa status when they turn 21. So what ends up happening is that kids will be brought to the U.S. as extremely young children or even infants, grow up here, then turn 21 and realize they’ve got no legal right to be in their home anymore. So they scramble to find another temporary solution, or they’ve got to go. That’s what happened to me. I grew up feeling like an Appalachian, but with a Polish mother, a Pakistani father, and on top of that had the constant instability of maybe having to move away at any time in the near future. Then put that in the brain of an emotional, artsy kid? That’ll mess anyone up enough to compel them towards a career in comedy and theatre.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

I don’t know if there’s a specific story of being led into this career path so much as I wasn’t meant to do anything but what I do now. It was just so clear, even back when I was trying to deny it. I always wanted to be an actor as a kid, but growing up with immigrant parents you get a bit of that classic pressure to go towards medicine or technology or something — and for a second there I tried that as a very young undergrad, over 10 years ago now. I remember trying to fight my way through a bio major, and my English professor — this genius man who got his PhD at Harvard and thought I was one of his best students — kept me after class one day and was like “kid, what are you doing?” It didn’t take long after for me to go full steam ahead into writing and the dramatic arts. I do tend to think creatives are often just born with an inclination towards the arts for whatever reason. I don’t know, I’m not a brain scientist!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I could make a long list of people who have helped me along the way. Mentors and teachers have been so inspiring to me over the years and I could not be more grateful to those people. My first ever theatre director was one of them. He really brought all the fun of theatre to me and just nestled it deep into my heart, and now it’s there to stay. He’s not around anymore, but I’ll never forget his influence. I remember we did the show “The Three Musketeers” — the nostalgia for that show still lasts to this day and it was all because of him. He first introduced me to stage combat, he taught me to use a hundred different scary looking saws during set work days, and, most importantly, he brought that standing-on-the-edge-of-a-cliff excitement to the run of a theater production — where everything is, as the Three Musketeers would say, “all for one and one for all.”

You probably have a lot of fascinating experiences. Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

There have certainly been a million interesting stories, especially with my unique and very international life. The first thing that came to mind is when I was living in Ireland, going to the Gaiety School of Acting. I lived in Dublin, but I had to Galway for a job, which is on the other side of the little country. I took the train the night before, got there late, and tried to check into a hostel — but it turned out every single hotel, hostel, or inn was booked. There was also no train back to Dublin until the morning, so I was out of luck. I went to the last hostel available in this little city to check — and course they were booked, but…the receptionist took out a sketchy looking card with a phone number written on it in pen and said “call this.” So in my desperation, I did, and an older man came in his little car to “pick me up.” My American brain was screaming stranger danger, but I got in anyway — something I would have never done in America. He took me out into the country, where it turned out he and his wife rented out rooms in their cute old country home to tourists and travelers. I spent a very cozy night and the couple even cooked me breakfast the next day. It was like a reverse crime story. Only in Ireland, I guess.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It’s hard to remember mistakes — is that because there are so many of them? Yes, yes it is. One sticks in my mind, though. I have a huge obsession for Late Night comedy TV. I love the topical humor, the variety show style, the host that you come to love like they’re your friend — all of it. My all-time favorite late night host, though I love almost all of them, is Stephen Colbert. He’s such a wacky, hilarious little nerd who loves Tolkien more than anyone should and always sets his object work aside off camera when he’s finished doing a bit. Anyway, it became kind of a well known thing among my friends that Sonia loves Stephen Colbert, and nobody would shut up about him (by nobody I mean me). Well, a few years ago was my first time applying for the NBC Late Night Writer’s program — and I got a finalist interview, which was huge. I mean, it was the biggest opportunity available at the time funnelyou into NBC’s late night world and to learn firsthand how to be ready for a job in it. So I went to the finalist interview, and I was really nervous. And the more I talked, the more I couldn’t stop talking about Stephen Colbert. He was just floating out of my mouth every few minutes and, once again, I found myself unable to shut up about Stephen Colbert. But that’s the thing — the workshop was clearly being used for NBC to hire potential talent for NBC, and Stephen Colbert’s show aired on a competitor network — and yes, I knew that, but my mouth just had the major Colbert crazies. On the bright side, this honestly was the best learning experience. Artists can get so caught up in their passion for the art of what we do that we forget that things like networks and broadcasting companies exist — we forget that, whether we like it or not, TV is a business as well as an art.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m always working on something new, especially in comedy. Comedy is the kind of thing you have to work on forever and test on so many audiences before it’s truly great. One thing I’m still working on that I’ll be working on until I feel like it’s really leveled up is my TV pilot, “How To America.” It’s a 30 min drama comedy about a young woman who is both a multicultural American with a hilarious family of nut jobs, as well as an immigrant herself on paper — inspired by my own experience as a Documented Dreamer. The pilot has done pretty well so far. It placed as a semi-finalist twice in two film festival script competitions, a quarter-finalist at Shore Scripts, and a second rounder at Austin. If anyone out there is interested in writing for TV, I always suggest submitting to festivals. It really help gauge where your pilot is at, because you can get script feedback both on the artistry of it as well as the marketability of your story for the time you’re telling it. Plus, there are a lot of great stories out there, and it can be so hard to write something personal in a way that will also entertain people and sell itself to networks. It’s a big balancing act to get exactly right.

You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of rejection, lack of support, or failure?

Failure and rejection can be so painful when you’re putting your own personal work out into the world. I have honestly failed more times than I can count. Failing isn’t new, and it is guaranteed to happen again — and there’s a comfort to that. You can decide to start to see failure as part of your journey to your next success, and when you love what you do, that success will come. Successes come in different sizes, so recognize and appreciate them when they do come. There was also a certain point when I had to ask myself, “if I could see the future for a moment and knew that I would never succeed at what I do, would I still do it?” The answer was yes. At that point, what can stop someone who is willing to fail? Pretty much nothing.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the live performance industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Burn out is so real. To me, the solution is to remember to be a human. Remember that there are things in life more important than success — people you love, traveling, spending joyful time with friends that remind you what life is about. That’s where the best stories and best work comes from anyway — inspiration from the things that actually matter, not from spinning yourself in a circle within the mental confines of your “industry.” Life is out there, take a break and live it.

Thank you for all that. This is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in Broadway, Theater or Live Performances” and why?

1. Do what you’re scared of.

If there’s something I’m scared to do, I always wind up thinking about it to the point where I know I have to try it. Being scared of doing something can be an indication that it’s something you need to work on. This can be big or small. You might be a terrific actor who is nervous about singing, even if you don’t even necessarily need to sing in your day to day work. If you’re scared to do it, take a vocal class! Sing karaoke a couple times a month. In the end you will have tried that thing you were most scared of, and it becomes this thing you’ve got in your pocket now. You’re like “yeah, I did that, and I’m not the best but I’m slightly more rounded now, or at least not as terrified.” I personally had that experience with comedy writing. I had tried every form of comedy writing in the world other than stand up — late night, sketch, plays, TV, film, improv — but stand up was the hold up, and I knew I had to do it. And I did, and now I feel like it’s a format I can turn to if I want to in the future.

2. Get out there where the people are.

You can work on your craft in the confines of your home or class forever — but nothing compares to the knowledge you gain from getting yourself out there and doing it. Do the short film, write the sketch, audition for the play. And if you’re in the comedy business — this is triply important. You have got to be out there testing your material on audiences and staying connected with what society laughs at or what challenges them. There is simply no way to exceed at comedy in a vacuum. You can go ahead and try it, but it won’t work.

3. Give credit where it’s due and don’t let jealousy get to you.

Things can get so competitive in certain circles of the entertainment world that it can be frankly destructive. If you’re someone who’s motivated by this kind of thing, fine (but also I don’t get you). Focus on why you love what you do, and on being a human being — that’s where your best work is going to come from anyway. Plus, there are always going to be artists who have skills that are different or further along than yours. To me that’s joyful knowledge — it’s like when you visit the Grand Canyon and remember you’re just one small squishy person caught in the beautiful storm of life. When you respect an artist for what they do — give them credit. Let them know if you want to. They might feel the same about you — and who knows, it could be the start of a friendship or even just a professional connection. At the very least: just don’t be an asshole.

4. Focus and prioritize: you don’t have to say yes to everything.

Opportunities can sometimes feel rare in the creative world, and that can make us feel like we have to say yes to anything that comes our way. To a certain degree, it is helpful to say yes and try things, even if you’re going to be writing or performing for an audience of 6 people (this will happen). But it is simply impossible to do everything. Especially as an adult in the creative world, there is only so much time you have and you have to end up being choosy with what you use it for. If writing that VoiceOver script on top of your current productions is going to emotionally shut you down — say no. Keep focused.

Another element to staying focused for me is managing health and anxiety and staying away from doom scrolling. In both acting and writing, keeping your brain healthy and on track keeps you present and focused in your work.

5. Nourish inspiration.

Travel. Watch things. Read things. Appreciate other talented artists. Fall head over heels in love with your craft again and again and again. This is the fire in your belly, and without it nothing else even matters.

For the benefit of our readers, could you describe how the skill-sets you need in a theater performance are different than the skill-sets you need for TV or Film?

There are a lot of very specific skill set differences for an actor between TV and film vs the stage, like eye-line or projection. Those are all things to dig into in detail when you’re doing either, but there are more interesting elements to the difference between TV and film in my opinion. An actor who works hard on their craft can adapt to either, I really believe that. But it can be hard and very different. I started in theater for years before I ever got in front of a camera, and it is a whole different kind of pressure to have once chance to say your line, to get to an emotion, in front of a packed audience. On set there is pressure, yes — there’s money on the line, a tight filming schedule, and an audience of crew members whose jobs it is to stay silent while you’re crying or making a joke or whatever it is you’re doing. But I recommend everyone do theater a few times in their acting journeys — because to me it’s where the hottest, toughest battles happen, and you’ll come out on the other side a hundred times better than you were before.

The differences between the two mediums for a writer are also interesting. There are specific time slots that you generally have to fill for television and film, for example, although that has changed a little because of streaming. There are rules and act structures to most films and TV shows — think of the 30 minute comedy sitcom for example: you’ll usually have a cold open, about 4 or 5 acts, you’ll set up a B plot, you’ll introduce stakes for your main character, and so on. Plus, the pilot of any show is a hold different animal entirely; you know you’re going to be introducing characters and setting up enough plot and dilemmas to get the audience interested in 10 more episodes of that story. On the opposite side, while theater does have a structure, particularly mainstream theater or a classic Broadway show, theater is so variable and open that you can use it to truly experiment. For certain theater, an audience is understanding in a different way. There’s an understanding that if my character is on stage as a teacup and everyone in the room agrees I’m a teacup — I don’t need a special effect or even a costume. All that stuff is fun, we don’t need them because the audience has suspended their disbelief in a different way than they would have for TV or a film. That kind of flexibility leads to an eternity of possibility with theater, and it all certainly does exist — you could go out and find everything from immersive theater, to site-specific, to shows that break the fourth wall 90% of the time, and the list goes on forever.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could, I’d want Americans to put even more pressure on the American immigration system so we can finally make some real changes. There are things going on that most citizens don’t even know about, and that would require a whole separate article to address. But just for now: for those who are interested in helping Documented Dreamers find a way to stay in the country they call home, there is a way you can show your support by filling out a letter to your senator at

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Great people do things before they are ready.” I think about this Amy Poehler quote at least once a week. It reminds me that perfection is the enemy of good, and to do things I’m afraid of. So many times in my quest to create beautiful, perfect things, I get an opportunity to do something and my brain will think “ooh, you’re not ready for that.” But I remind myself, so what? Sometimes you never feel ready. No one is ready until they are.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’d like to spend 24 hours just talking to Trevor Noah about everything under the sun. He’s such a smart, hilarious dude with some terrific stories and outlooks on life that I’d like to compare mine to.

One dinner would be fine too, I guess (she says, disappointedly).

How can our readers continue to follow your work online?

You can follow me on Instagram at @soniapaulinka!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!


  • Savio P. Clemente

    TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor

    Savio P. Clemente, TEDx speaker and Stage 3 cancer survivor, infuses transformative insights into every article. His journey battling cancer fuels a mission to empower survivors and industry leaders towards living a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle. As a Board-Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), Savio guides readers to embrace self-discovery and rewrite narratives by loving their inner stranger, as outlined in his acclaimed TEDx talk: "7 Minutes to Wellness: How to Love Your Inner Stranger." Through his best-selling book and impactful work as a media journalist — covering inspirational stories of resilience and exploring wellness trends — Savio has collaborated with notable celebrities and TV personalities, bringing his insights to diverse audiences and touching countless lives. His philosophy, "to know thyself is to heal thyself," resonates in every piece.