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Conversations with Erika Jenko

Today we’d like to introduce you to Erika Jenko.

Hi Erika, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
I’m a playwright and director who has been writing and producing my work for the past 15 years. I recently moved back to Los Angeles after having been away for ten years. With the move back to California, I relaunched my theatrical production company, Windy Hallows. I produce original plays with themes of mental health awareness that typically tell the stories of children. I live for the magical realism genre. My newest play, “The Firefly Web,” will be presented as part of the 2022 SheLA Theater Festival in July at the Zephyr Theatre. My journey to get to where I am started with a Broadcast Journalism degree and a longing to have theatre in my life again. I missed doing community theatre and performing on the speech team and I wanted to write my own story. I had never written a play before and started off by writing and producing a 3-woman show based on my family. I wrote the play to give myself a voice and had no idea that it would lead to a path where I would get to write plays on mental health awareness to give a voice to others. Producing that first play was a sort of theatre school for me. I learned how to produce, raise money, direct and location scout. I loved the risk of telling your own story and building it on your own. It was thrilling.

For the ten years I was away from California, I wrote new plays and produced them as both readings and full productions in Idaho, Illinois and New York. I continued to learn from everyone I could and in any way that I could. I’ve cleaned toilets on Broadway. I’ve been an infrared rep for Broadway. I’ve been an Assistant House Manager for “Hamilton.” I’ve stage-managed cabaret to off-off-Broadway. I’ve location scouted Victorian mansions. I’ve rummaged through junk yards to design props and set pieces. I love theatre. And for me, loving theatre includes learning everything I can. When I sit behind the rehearsal table and watch a rehearsal for one of my plays unfold, I’m watching and thinking of everything. I think of the experience the audience will have. The conversations they might have after the show. I think of the journey of the actors. But most of all, I’m thinking of the people we have the opportunity to help by telling this story.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
It’s the best heartbreak there is. There are some scripts that I’ve worked on writing for years and they haven’t gotten past the staged reading phase. Raising funds for production is endlessly stressful. The first play I wrote had a month-long run in New York and there was an evening that the Red Line was down and no one in the audience showed up. There was no audience. And we ran the show anyway. I was mortified. I truly felt like I had failed and that I have no business producing my own work. Now, I’m incredibly proud of that moment. Producing and writing your own plays is not for the faint of heart. It’s brutally difficult. But the joy it brings to me is worth every second of it and always has been.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I’m the creator behind the theatrical production company Windy Hallows (windyhallows.com). I’m a playwright, and I produce and direct my own work. I create imaginative and whimsical theatre that is made for children of all ages. My plays focus on themes of mental health awareness and live in the world of magical realism.

I grew up on Steven Spielberg movies listening to John Williams, and I love stories that focus on children. I create theatre that explores the whimsy of childhood along with the complex themes that children navigate. I draw a lot of inspiration from my own experience with mental health and my plays have discussed a wide range of topics including OCD, generational trauma, anxiety, depression, grief and suicide. I’m a big kid who has the lore of Peter Pan embedded in my soul. There’s always traces of Neverland in my work.

I’m self-made and self-taught. Everything I know comes from real-world experience and taking on every role in a professional theatre that I can get my hands on. I didn’t study loads of famous scripts before writing my first play. I loved doing Reader’s Theatre on the speech team and was inspired by the format. I write while listening to John Williams and Danny Elfman on a loop. I write the stories that I wish were there to comfort me when I was 12.

What does success mean to you?
Every night before I fall asleep, I think about the life I want. It includes writing every morning, attending rehearsal in the afternoon and watching a performance at night. It is a life that is living and breathing theatre. It’s difficult to have this standard when you have a day job. I’ve started focusing on what I’m doing right now to carve out a life of theatre. I take baby steps to implement the ‘dream life’ right now. For me, success is now based on creating every day and being true to the stories I want to tell.

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Image Credits
Jenny Rae Gibson (Photographer – Firefly Images only) Matthew Baltzell (Graphic Design – Poster only)

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