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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 4, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 18
A First Date with Eric Ankrim
Arts & Entertainment
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A First Date with Eric Ankrim

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

First Date
5th Avenue Theatre
Through May 20


Eric Ankrim is not your typical actor. It's not only his professional life that singles this man out; it's his personal success, as well. From his role as 'Curly' in Oklahoma to directing (for a second time) Spring Awakening to the nebbish lead in the debut performance of the musical First Date, Eric has shown he can achieve whatever he sets his mind to.

Eric Andrews-Katz: Who were your earliest influences in becoming a performer?

Eric Ankrim: I would say my first influences were members of my immediate family - my mom, dad, and sister. We'd take road trips in the car and one of the family traditions was to turn the radio up and sing aloud and have fun. We'd start to harmonize and be silly. I'd start to imitate people on the radio and developed my voice from the backseat of the car.

Andrews-Katz: What was the first professional show you were in?

Ankrim: The 5th Avenue's Magical Theater, AMT Northwest Bookshelf. It was staging children's books written by Northwest authors and adapted into songs, one song for each book. Right after school, the fall after I graduated, I was in the 5th Avenue's production of The Rocky Horror Show. It's such a zany show, but fun. Then I was in Annie with The Village Theater, and The Time of Your Life at the Seattle Rep.

Andrews-Katz: How did you first hear about Spring Awakening?

Ankrim: My dad saw it right after its Broadway opening. He said, 'It blew my mind' - with the taboo subjects, he was a little blown back. I looked up the score and fell head over heels in love with the music. It was so unbelievable and beautiful. I've been a fan of the show for years when Jake Groshong [of the Balagan Theatre] and I went out to lunch. He brought it up and I bugged him and pressured him about it, then we got to work.

Andrews-Katz: What is it about Spring Awakening that appeals to the populace more than 100 years after its debut?

Ankrim: I think society still has trouble dealing with teenagers. We don't know how tightly to squeeze adolescents. It's a lesson on how to deal (or not deal) with an organism that is growing at an astounding rate. Kids are exploding - literally. Their bodies and hormones are just exploding. Teachers and parents are still struggling with finding a way to help them grow, and how society thinks what is right. How to raise a child is a universal topic and this setting that Duncan Sheik has set with the rock music feels right with teenage angst.

Andrews-Katz: You were diagnosed with a rare disease, Guillain-Barre Syndrome. How did it first start to manifest?

Ankrim: I woke up one day and my feet were tingling, like they were asleep. I had a performance that night for Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. The next morning my hands were tingly. I went to draw a bath, thinking it was bad circulation or something. I dropped to do a pushup to get my blood flowing and I hit the ground. I woke up my wife and by day two I couldn't walk, by that night I couldn't move my legs at all. It took five days from when my feet started tingling to where nothing was moving below my neck and I couldn't breathe on my own. My diaphragm was the last thing to go, they told me that would happen. The nurses, doctors, and therapists I had were amazing and made it bearable for my wife and friends. I was in the hospital for three months and got out on New Year's Eve 2010. I woke up in my own bed on 01/01/11. I started off with a wheelchair, then a walker, then a cane, and then was walking on my own. I was performing on stage by the summer of 2011.

Andrews-Katz: What is the recovery process normally like for Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Ankrim: My case was relatively extreme. The severity of my case was that 90-95% of my body was affected. My recovery was strong, not miraculously faster than others. While incredibly scary, it's a physical therapist's dream. The disease runs its own course and heals itself to a 90-100% healing rate. The disease breaks down the myelin sheaths on the nerves so that all muscle connectivity is severed. As long as the muscles are intact, the sheath will regenerate itself quickly and fully. I began to gain muscle control as well as my body healing itself quickly. Each day I'd see improvements. After a month of hitting rock bottom, I was living minute-to-minute to get off the respirator. The next two months I spent in rehab and worked hard each day so that recovery was steady. My doctor said, 'It'll break you down, but you will get back to normal.'

Andrews-Katz: How did you get interested in the premiere musical First Date?

Ankrim: I was working at the 5th Avenue Theatre's office when I got out of the hospital. I was still in recovery when I was offered the job. The casting associate called to see if I was interested in working at the office and I took the job. When the script came across the desk, I started reading it and fell in love with the show. I saw that Aaron was a relatively good fit for me, if I was able to perform it. I auditioned for the workshop and the writers came into town. I was cast for the three-week workshop. We had a performance every week in front of a house of 60-80 people. It was the first performance after my illness, so it helped to reengage the active part of my brain and my voice. As they signed up for the season, I had to audition again, and so I came in and sang the material and got the part.

Andrews-Katz: How much influence do you have on your character's development?

Ankrim: I would say a large amount. Not over the material itself, but as an actor I definitely bring myself to the character. I'm a pretty geeky guy, so it was in my character to play it more in context. I think if people saw me play Curly [Oklahoma] and Aaron [First Date], they'd see I'm not playing the same person at all. People often manipulate their own body and voice so to not play moment-to-moment. The character has to pull you in a certain direction and not have you fit into a mold of someone else. For a world premiere, I have the words, and so don't have to imitate anyone else. They kind of put us in a room and said, 'Go for it!' There's a lot of joy in the rehearsal process. It's a great security blanket knowing that if something didn't work, the writing team was there to come up with something else. We'd also try to find ways to make it work by changing a line or setting it up in a different way. A lot of that playful silliness is still in the show now. We created it.

Andrews-Katz: Regardless of gender, what roles would you like to play?

Ankrim: I'm desperate to work on Little Shop of Horrors, playing Seymour. I'd like to play Finch in How to Succeed& I'd love to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret but doubt that will ever happen. I'm totally fascinated with Hedwig, but wouldn't cast myself as a director. I'm pumped to be in the 5th Avenue production of Rent, playing any of the roles in the show: Mark, Roger, Mimi, Maureen. It's a 'bucket list' show that I've dedicated so many hours of my life to.

Eric Ankrim is currently appearing in the musical premiere of First Date (www.5thavenue.org/show/external/first-date), a collaboration between the 5th Avenue and ACT theaters.

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