Eric Svendsen is an actor and founding member of the Where Are They Going Theatre Co. He recently starred in the role of Max Emerson in WATG’s critically acclaimed production of Extinction by Gabe McKinley at Guild Hall. Eric returned to Guild Hall to perform in a staged reading of Are You Now or Have You Ever Been by Eric Bentley, directed by Harris Yulin and starring James Earl Jones, Matthew Broderick and a slew of other legends of the stage and screen. He is also coming off a successful debut production of Spectacle BMX by Ian Gould,produced by The Powers Collective. In addition to his work with WATG, Eric is a member of Barefoot Theatre Co and has been involved with productions at Rogue Machine Theater Company in Los Angeles and Naked Angels in New York. His credits include starring roles in Auto Parts by Steve Stajich as well as A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas and the award-winning original performance of Sailorboy by Neville Elder. He is a graduate of Northwestern University where he majored in theatre.
WATG: You and Sawyer were in another WATG play called “Extinction” last year along with fellow “Leviticus” co-stars Sawyer and Raye. Can you tell us a little more about the play? What was it about?
Eric: “Extinction” was an incredible experience start to finish. The play is about two best friends from college - Finn (played by Sawyer) and Max (played by me) who get together every year post-college for a weekend of debauchery. The play takes place ten years after college at the Borgata in Atlantic City. Max still wants to party like they always have but Finn has moved on and grown up. It’s about that tension in their friendship.
The play was so much fun and brought Sawyer and me incredibly close as friends during the process. We all shared a house together in East Hampton and put the play up at Guild Hall. Brynne Kraynak and Raye Levine were spectacular in it and it got some really amazing reviews. From there, we decided we should do more plays together.
WATG: You’re from Minnesota. The Land of 10,000 Lakes. Do you ever miss being back home. What do you miss most? What drew you to move to the Big Apple?
Eric: I actually grew up on a little lake in Minnesota called Sunfish Lake. It was a really peaceful setting to grow up in. Sometimes I miss northern Minnesota in the fall on the shores of Lake Superior, sitting around a fire and listening to the waves crashing on the rocks. I miss the Minnesota State Fair. It's a real institution in Minnesota, and I spent a couple summers working at Andy's Grille in the beer garden there. We all had to dance to "Greased Lightning" every hour on the hour. Then after work, we'd drink beers and walk around the fairgrounds after closing. It was a blast.
After college, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. My survival job was working as a video editor. That sort of ended up consuming me, and toward the end I was editing videos for trial lawyers - short form documentaries on people who'd suffered terrible traumatic accidents. I enjoyed the people I worked with, but after two and half years, I realized that I'd gotten pretty far afield from the reason I moved to Tinseltown, and I wanted to re-assert myself as an actor. My good friend Ed Tournier was going on tour with a play and needed someone to sublet his place in Williamsburg, so I made the move.
WATG: “Leviticus” takes place in the 90’s. Oh, how we miss that grunge look. What is one of your favorite things from that era you wish you could bring back? Favorite band? TV show? Trend?
Eric: I honestly feel like I've never left the 90's. That was definitely the decade I felt most at home in. The music, the clothing, wearing Doc Martens or combat boots with shorts, the angst and depression, that's all kind of still were I live. I think I'd bring it all back except maybe white guys wearing Cross Colors. It's hard to pick a favorite band because I really loved so many of them, but I think at the time it was probably Jane's Addiction. I wasn't really allowed to watch TV, but my favorite show of that era was "The Kids in the Hall." They definitely had a formative influence on me. My favorite trend was probably bad poetry readings in coffee shops. Or people who pretended to like free-form jazz.
WATG: Rumor has it that you were once in a kick-ass rock band and had a festival called SvendStock was it? This sounds amazing! Wish we could’ve been there. Tell us more about it! Any chance the band is going to get back together?
Eric: I was in a couple bands that I certainly thought at the time kicked ass. Smokin' Joe and Joygirl. I'd love to get both of those bands back together. It's hard to get everyone together at the same time, but I'll make time whenever. Hear that guys?
The festival was Svenstock - but I suppose the SvendStockspelling is a more accurate representation of the semi-silent "D" in my last name. It was a festival with eight or so bands that I hosted in my parents backyard twice - my freshman and senior years of high school. There were around 300 attendees for both shows. A lot of the musicians who played there are either staples of the local scene in Minneapolis now or national touring acts.
WATG: You met Sawyer, Raye and our amazing playwright Mandi Riggi when you were in Lyle Kessler’s class. How did you stumble upon this little gem? What is your favorite part about the class and how does it strengthen you as an actor?
Eric: In my experience, Lyle Kessler's master scene study class has always been stacked with amazingly talented actors, and Lyle is a phenomenal teacher. I found the class through an actor Patrick Williams who played basketball with my roommate. We started talking acting and he told me there was an outstanding class I had to take. I sat in for one class and was blown away by the level of the work people were bringing in, so I decided to take the class. My favorite part of the class was that, while everyone's ability level intimidated me initially, they were all so welcoming and supportive. It made me feel like I had to bring, if not my A game, at least work that I had truly put time in on. Lyle is very gifted at breaking down who the character is and in what direction you need to go in order to get all the way there. It helped me to make strong choices and commit to the world of the scene. I learned not just from him, but from everyone in that class. And the class really served as an incubator as well as that's how I met Sawyer, Raye, Brynne and Mandi - incredibly talented people that I've had the pleasure of working with outside of class as well.
WATG: Speaking of working your acting muscles, you’re also a member of Naked Angels who meet every Tuesday, right? How’d you get involved with this crew? How long have you worked with them?
Eric: The Tuesdays@9 cold reading series is put on by Naked Angels. When I first moved to NYC in 2013, I had no idea how to get involved with the theater community. My friend Ed Tournier put me in touch with a genius actor named Ned Van Zandt. Ned brought me to Tuesdays and I found an incredibly supportive community there. It's been an awesome way to break up the week and celebrate or commiserate with other actors and playwrights. I've gained some wonderful friends through that program, and it is so helpful to condition the skill set that is cold reading. It also a damn good time.
WATG: Your character Robert talks a lot about his “strong childhood history” with the character Austin in this play. Those early tween years are especially formative. Any particular events or stories that you can remember that shaped you are today?
Eric: I would say those tween to teen years were incredibly important in shaping who I am today. It was really that 90's grunge music that, in a way, got me into acting. I decided I wanted to quit playing sports and play in a band. From there, I took an interest in theater and that's who I am today. I guess it isn't really a tween experience, but when I was a freshman in high school, a senior named Kermit Carter took my friend Shaun and me under his wing and gave us the confidence to start a band. His mantra was, "Hey man, do what you feel." I still try to live that way.
WATG: Robert faces a lot of different temptations in this play. When taunted by these desires, he often turns to his faith to keep him from giving in. As humans, we’re all tempted at one time or another to stray from the straight and narrow path. How do you relate to Robert in this way? Any deep desires that you struggle with that help inform your performance of Robert?
Eric: I suppose there are always struggles as to why we are compelled to do things, especially when they might be self-destructive. I think my fear has always been that of keeping to the straight and narrow. My biggest worry is living a life that's just like everyone else, so I'm not sure exactly what my "straight and narrow" would be, although I have a whole lot of really fantastic friends that I trust to keep me in line.
WATG: So what’s going on for you after the Edinburgh Fringe is over? You think you’ll just stay in Scotland? Maybe travel the world?
Eric: In my mind, I've built the Fringe up to be a monumental, life-altering experience, so there's no way I could possibly predict where I'll be afterward. I'm just trying to stay open right now and see where I end up. I do have Sawyer and Raye's wedding, though. I'll be around for that.
Where can people keep up with your latest news online?
Eric: Please track me down on: Instagram: @ericsvendsenTwitter: @ericsvendsen Facebook: Eric Svendsen
“Leviticus” opens TODAY in New York City at 59E59 before we head across the pond. Only three performances - July 17, 18, 19 at 6:30pm.
Come see us in Scotland at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival Aug 3-27 at 12pm (except for Tuesdays). Buy tickets here: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/leviticus
Sawyer Spielberg studied acting at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York City and is now a Founding Member of the Where Are They Going Theatre Company based in New York. Sawyers theatre full production credits include Herman Howard in the production of Hello Herman at Edgemar theatre in Venice Beach, California. Peter Van Daan in Bay Street Theatre of Sag Harbor 2013 production of Ann Frank and Bay Streets 2015 production of Of Mice and Men playing Whit. Sawyer performed in Guild Hall of East Hampton's 2014 production of Hamlet playing Guildenstern and Fransisco and in 2017 returned to Guild Hall to play Finn in a production of Extinction. Charles Darwin in The Parrish Art Museum Production of Galapagos. Memory Angel and the Evil Burgomaster in The Neo-Political Cowgirls production of the Greek Tragedy Andromeda at Montauk County Park. Off Broadway Sawyer has performed at the East 4th St Theatre playing Micha in a production of the Belgrade Trilogy. Kostya in a Production of The Seagull at TheatreLab. Kill The Bid Production playing Taylor at TheatreRow. Played Wallace in a production of Woman and Wallace at 2nd Stage Atlantic Theatre. Played Philip in a production of Safe at the 14th St. Y. Van in a production of Clover by Erik Ehn at La Mama. Will in a production of Freeway by Jennifer Rudin at Theatre 54. Sawyer Spielberg's Film Credits include War Protestor in 2017 film The Post, Jet in Eli Linnetz Film Afterglow, Lisa Robertson Film Commerce playing Peter and Guest Stared in the Network TV show Red Band Society playing Dave. Sawyer Spielberg is also a proud board member of the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.
WATG: You are one of the founding members of Where Are They Going Theatre Company. Can you tell us a little about how this little but mighty theatre company come to be? How did you meet your partners in crime Raye Levine (playing Jessica), Eric Svendsen (playing Robert) and Brynne Kraynak? What kind of work does WATG produce?
Sawyer: I was taking a Monday night acting class in the basement of a small off-Broadway theatre in downtown Manhattan, which seemed to me at the time a hidden gem filled with a small group of some of the most talented hard working actors and playwrights I've met here in New York. It was a master class on scene study run by the playwright Lyle Kessler and his trusty right hand man Mike Keller. Eric Svendsen, who was a member of the class, came up to me after an evening of fun and asked if we could get together, read some plays and work on a scene. We became best friends in this process and discovered a play called “Extinction” written by Gabe McKinley. After working on it in the class for a few months we then put her up as a full production at Guild Hall of East Hampton with Raye Levine and Brynne Kraynak playing opposite Eric and me. It was an opportunity to work behind the scenes of the theatre too and learn other trades. Raye did a beautiful job designing the set, Eric mastered the sound and Brynne worked on the wardrobe. Our friend Josh Gladstone, who is the Artistic Director of Guild Hall, directed and his team at Guild Hall really helped us make this happen. Out of this production the Where Are They Going Theatre Company organically developed with a simple mission statement of producing raw, dangerous and challenging new plays!! Now a year later we are onto Mandi Riggi’s wild new play “Leviticus” with three shows in Manhattan and over 24 shows in Scotland. Having this company really is an amazing privilege, because we are meeting so many new artists here in New York that we are working with in developing these plays. Scotland is going to be fucking mental!!
WATG: You were born and raised in Southern California, but now you’re an actor based out of New York City. What drew you to the Big Apple? Do you miss LA? What excites you about the acting scene in NYC?
Sawyer: I’ve been acting in New York for the past 8 years now. I moved here in 2010 and enrolled into the Atlantic School of Acting. I wanted a change from California. I became so used to it over there and I wanted more experience. New York felt like the right move and now I live full time in Brooklyn, NY.
WATG: You’ve got a black belt in Jiu-Jitsu, right? How long have you been practicing? What drew you to it? Also, word on the street is you had to use this training in real life on a guy who threw a Christmas Tree at your car and then took a swing at you. OMG - We need details. Spill!
I’ve got a white belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. I’ve been studying the art for a few years now and it’s a long journey to Black belt. Jiu-jistu to me is a lifestyle no different then surfing, yoga or rock-climbing. I do it because I love it and I can't imagine my life without it. I just joined a new gym that I'm very happy with in midtown called Unity. I have a gym in California and in London that I go to when I travel there as well. Jiu-jitsu is also a form of self-defense and yes I had to use it. It was an unfortunate event here in New York and I’m happy I had the right training to help deescalate the situation.
WATG: In addition to being a martial arts bad ass, you like to challenge yourself in other ways too. You, Raye and Bryan Hamilton (playing Sinead) will be participating in the Long Island Tough Mudder this July. For those who don’t know about the Tough Mudder, it’s an intense obstacle course full of mud, ice, fire and electric shocks - OH MY! Give us all the dirty details about what you're looking forward to about this adventure.
Sawyer: It’s 13 miles of 30 obstacles. I did it last summer and wanted to do it again. It’s not as tough as I thought. More fun with the right friends. At the end of it all they give you a beer and a bandanna. Then you just sit back and do nothing. Just smile covered in sweat and Mud!!
WATG: You took a Clowning Class recently. Was the class a real barrel of laughs or did you have to tap into some more vulnerable parts of yourself? What were your favorite takeaways from class?
Sawyer: Raye and I took a clown class led by a very intelligent teacher named Christopher Bayes. I took this course about 5 years ago and wanted to take it again, curious to see what I would take from it this time around and to see how my perspectives have changed. It turns out I haven't changed a bit. It’s just as fun as I remembered!! We did an exercise where someone comes up to you and then compliments you and all your allowed to say is "thanks." This was the most important lesson that I took from this course, because it is hard for me to take compliments. I tend to want to give back. There’s a lot of rejection in this business, so you might as well take the compliments when they come your way. It’s also a craft that helps free you from your mind and helps get you into your physicality. I look forward to taking the course again soon. Definitely don't want to wait 5 years.
WATG: Speaking of tapping into your vulnerability, the character you play in the show (Austin) is confronted with a lot of tough issues such as shame, denial, deceit, and faith. He’s pretty good at keeping secrets too. Can you share with us a little about your process of how you tackle these deep emotions throughout the play? And don't worry, your secrets are safe with us ;)
Sawyer: There are so many layers to Austin and it’s been very challenging for me to find these moments, but we are getting there little by little. One layer at a time with help from our team and director Abigail Zealey Bess. Each scene gets broken up into many different beats. I play one beat at a time and pay attention to the details of what my character needs in each beat and who my character is communicating these needs to. I’m finding more and more of Austin’s needs now that we are almost off-book and how he goes about getting what he wants. When you ask about secrets I find that there’s a lot going on in him that he doesn't show but expresses in other ways. It’s been a pleasure playing around with this character and I am finding so much joy in discovering him every day. I would find it so boring if I had to play an uncomplicated person with nothing at stake or I’d hate to play a "Nice Guy." Austin allows me to be the nightmare that I am. I was afraid of him at first to tell you the truth but now I just love him.
WATG: Austin plays a lot of games in the show. Games that often get him into trouble. You're a bit of a prankster yourself. Have any of your games ended badly like Austin's? How have you used that experience to inform your performance?
Sawyer: I love games. I love playing sports, but even more I love to instigate. I’ve tamed myself a lot over the years because I’ve caused people to get wound up in the past and had to calm down on the instigating. Sometimes I can't help myself I just love getting reactions out of people. With Austin he gets to do this with almost every line so I'm having the time of my life playing this guy!! He's a riot. Underneath all this instigating is love and a pure heart of course and there’s moments in the play where he shows this honesty. Finding the moments of where he's being sincerer and where he's not has been a rewarding challenge.
WATG: As soon as you get back from Scotland, you’re starting rehearsal for a new film project. Can you tell us a few details about it?
Sawyer: I'm starring in a really clever horror movie/physiological thriller this September. I can't give too much away just yet, but I read the latest draft the other day and it’s terrifying. It’s a real mind fuck. I may not be able to watch it. My sister Sasha Loves these kinds of movies, so I’d be curious to hear what she thinks...
Keep up with Sawyer online:
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram - @watgnyc
Performances July 17-19 of “Leviticus” in New York City at 59E59 are SOLD OUT, but keep an eye on our Facebook page for possible opening tickets.
But come see us in Scotland at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival Aug 3-27 at 12pm (except for Tuesdays). Buy tickets here: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/leviticus