Today I am so excited to introduce my mentor and friend: Erika Lee Sengstack!
Erika is an actor who recent
worked on a one-woman show called The Crossword Play. We’ll look at her process with this piece as well as
how she balances her life as a theatre artist throughout the year.
Erika remembers her first theatre production at six years old when she played a skunk in Winnie the Pooh. This started her acting journey, and she went on to earn her BFA in Santa Barbara and her MFA at the New School in New York City. She spent eleven years performing in New York. During thiime she met Robby Henson, the artistic director at Pioneer Playhouse. She has now traveled to Kentucky for eight back-to-back summers to perform with the playhouse. Once the pandemic hit, she decided to make the move from NY to her summer home in Danville, KY. This is where she is currently based.
Scarlet Cup Theater
Erika has continued to make connections in Danville, and this fall she was asked to work with Scarlet Cup. This company produces two site-specific plays a year in non-traditional performance spaces: a bar, library, airport, etc. For this show, they produced The Crossword Play at Dry Stack, a coffee shop in downtown Danville.
The Crossword Play
The Crossword Play (Or Ezmeranda’s Gift) by Donna Hoke is a one-woman show that is currently pre-publication. Erika played the Puzzlemaker, who leads a workshop for the audience on how to create a crossword puzzle. However, the Puzzlemaker takes liberties to share about her personal life and is prone to going on tangents. The twist here, Erika shares: “…We learn in the play that the puzzle she is creating in the workshop is actually being created for her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend”. The play is funny and clever, but towards the very end takes a more heavy shift.
A part of this play that audiences really enjoyed was the interactive aspect. Erika explains: “In the play I ask people to submit questions on how to make a crossword puzzle and I field them during the show”. The script even has an appendix of how to answer frequently asked questions and Erika learned this information as well as the text. The audience appreciated this and felt like they were being included as part of this “workshop”.
Working on a One-Woman Show
For Erika, the most daunting part of this process was memorization. She shared that the play ended up being seventy-five minutes, which is a lot to take on solo. In the months leading up to the performance, she would spend a few hours a day working on text and making personal connections.
Advice for Solo Performers
If you’re looking to tackle a one-person play, Erika’s advice is to give yourself way more time than you think you need. For a solo performance, the focus of a lot of your time will be memorization. “The more time someone has to really know the text back and forth, up and down, a lot of the other stuff will come naturally.” In other performances, you have other actors to rely on and to help you out, but not when you’re solo! It helps to know the text extremely well so that if you get mixed up, you can figure it out.
Outside of Theatre
Erika wears many hats, two of these being her private practice called Essential Energy NYC and her job as a managing partner for Tree Riders NYC. Essential Energy NYC is her private practice as a craniosacral therapist. She works at her home studio and aims to help people “alleviate unnecessary tension through full-body practice”. Tree Riders NYC is a company that harvests Christmas trees and sells them in the East Village along with handcrafted wreaths.
Erika breaks up her year in an interesting way that allows her to find balance as a theatre artist and a person,. In the summers, she is working at Pioneer Playhouse in Danville, KY. In the winter, she is working with Tree Riders NYC. Both the summer and the winter are Erika’s busiest seasons of the year and she is working a lot of the time. This is something that she tries to balance out: “The spring and the fall are the times of year where I try to give myself as much personal time as possible. So whether that’s spending time with my loved ones or spending as much time as possible outside to connect with nature or traveling, even just road trips or short trips or camping or visiting family”. Of course, the spring and fall also involve work and other projects such as The Crossword Play, but Erika makes a point to focus on herself as well.
Erika shares that a lot the ideas in The Crossword Play actually paralleled what she was dealing with in her own life this year. As it was produced in a small town and she knows many people personally who came out to see it, she was often asked if it was difficult to work on the material given these parallels. She shares that sometimes it was difficult, but she chooses to look at it from this angle: “Art is therapy and life is art, and what a beautiful thing for a performer or an artist to be able to utilize their craft to work through whatever’s going on in your personal life. I’d say for artists to look for opportunities where their life is reflected in their art. I’d use that as an opportunity to move through it, to process it, to see it through a different light.”
Keep Up with Erika
Photo credit for Pioneer Playhouse production photos: Kirk Schlea