In 2015, less than a year after graduating from the University of Michigan’s Musical Theater program, performer Erika Henningsen made her Broadway debut as the youngest Fantine to date in Les Miserables. Two years later she landed the lead role of Cady Heron in Tina Fey’s adaptation of the movie Mean Girls, which earned a Tony nomination, and Henningsen held that role until early this year where she transitioned to a new Broadway production— Flying Over Sunset— just as COVID-19 reached New York City, causing a prompt and indeterminate pause in the play’s launch. We recently caught up with Henningsen and discussed life during a pandemic, which has given her and her boyfriend, former co-star Kyle Selig, plenty of time to play with their recently adopted pup, Lennox.
DROOL: What keeps you busy and sane while Broadway is on hiatus?
ERIKA: Teaching has always been really helpful for me. I love working with young students. It’s funny though … teaching has always been that “second thing,” and right now it’s becoming my predominant way of making a living, of having a schedule during the day. I’ve also really enjoyed getting to learn how to take care of my dog and be a dog owner in New York City. Those are two things that tend to bring variety, but I still miss what I do.
D: Tell us a little bit about your dog, Lennox.
E: We fostered her with Muddy Paws Rescue. They ask that if you are fostering to let them know as soon as possible if you’re interested in adopting, so when we got her it was just one of those things where I tried to take my heart out of the situation, which is hard when you’re looking at the dog’s face. Ultimately I think my heart won out anyway, but practically, you know, we never have time as actors. We’re always going, always having to travel for work, but I just thought this is one of the few moments in my life where I might really be homebound to New York City for upwards of six months. It felt like the best time to train and get a dog acclimated to us would be now. She was already fully grown pretty much, and there’s something kind of cool about that because you feel like she has her own way of existing, and it’s our job to figure it out. It’s been a journey of trial-and error-and getting to know her, and training Lennox is really training us to keep her happy and well-adjusted in the midst of a very chaotic city.
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D: Has Lennox helped you explore your new neighborhood?
E: I think any dog owner would say that it’s like your dog opened up a whole new community of people that you talk to and see. Now maybe you only know them by their dog’s name, but you still know that. I feel like New York can kind of be one of those places where even though we’re all on top of one another, you can put your headphones in and tune out, but having a dog sort of negates that practice. It’s been nice to check in with the people who live right next door to us far more than we ever had before because of her.
D: Is she making a lot of doggy friends?
E: Yeah, she is. We moved up to the Harlem area in January, so everybody was inside, and there wasn’t a lot of neighborly contact. When coronavirus hit, there was even less human contact. This summer — perhaps because things have been going well in New York — more people are outside, our neighborhood has started to feel more like home, and we feel like we’re part of a community as opposed to the apartments that I’ve lived in without a dog in the past, where I paid rent but had no sense of roots.
D: You and your boyfriend met at a tryout for Mean Girls, and you’ve been through a lot together in the past few years. Has it been a smooth transition from working together to essentially being stuck in the house together all the time?
E: He and I talked about that the other day. We did not live together until this January, partially because we were in the show together. I was about to partake in another project, and he was about to be in a TV show in North Carolina, and that really would have sent us into new spheres, but then the coronavirus hit, and now we’re back in the same sphere. We’re honestly really excited because we love being together, and Lennox has been a really incredible addition to our lives.
D: What’s been the hardest part of transitioning to life with a dog?
E: About a year ago Kyle started the process of allergy shots — 27 in total — to build up his immunity, because in a true testament of love he is allergic to dogs! I love dogs, and soon after we started dating I think Kyle realized, “Oh, if I’m going to stick around for a while in this person’s life, I’m going to have to figure something out.” And lo and behold, the shots work, which is fantastic!
D: In addition to performing and dog training, you do quite a bit for charity and volunteer with a focus on expanding access to acting and theater. What inspired you to get involved?
E: A lot of it came from me reckoning with the opportunities and the privilege that I was given based on not just what I look like, but where I was born and what my family was able to provide to me growing up and wanting to do theater. We see it reflected in the representation in the entertainment industry, so a big thing for me has been, “How can we teach at the level when students are still just students and still learning, and just need to be in classrooms and have somebody sparking their curiosity and their joy and their individual artistry?” I really think that if you can catch people at that young age and if you can uphold them and clear some space for them, then hopefully the entertainment industry will be more reflective of our national population. One thing that has really been taking a lot of my time, which I’ve always been passionate about, is voter registration. Through Mean Girls I had a lot of reach to young people, and talking to them during election season made me realize that voter registration is such a very complicated experience, especially if you are a young person doing it for the first time. It’s important to me to inform young voters and get them registered, with the ticking clock that’s going on until November. It brings me as much joy and feeling of purpose as performing does.
D: Are you still working with Broadway Barks?
E: Broadway Barks has always been one of my favorite traditions of our theatre community: essentially, the great Bernadette Peters and company block off Shubert Alley for one weekend every summer in support of adopting dogs who need homes, and the shelters and rescue organizations that provide temporary relief. The past two summers I have gotten matched with a pooch and shared their story with potential fur-ever homes, and so far my personal adoption success rate with Broadway Barks is 100 percent. Ultimately, it is what made me decide to rescue when the time came to add a pup to my own household.
D: Any challenges adapting Lennox to city life?
E: Well, she tends to pick her moments to go, and it’s right in the middle of the crosswalk … that’s her favorite spot. We’re getting into the swing of things now, though
Keep posted on Erika’s adventures with Lennox!
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