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CultureMob Exclusive: 'Oklahoma's' Eric Ankrim overcomes paralysis to sing again!

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Alexandra Zorn and Eric Ankrim in Oklahoma at The 5th Avenue Theatre. Photo by Chris Bennion.

Those who have already seen 5th Avenue‘s new mounting of Oklahoma and experienced Eric Ankrim’s aw-shucks adorable Curly would never guess that just over a year ago he wasn’t able to breathe on his own, and faced a months-long rehab to be able to even walk again!

This native-born talent spoke to CultureMob about his illness, his life, and his plans after opening on the most prestigious stage in his life.

Born and raised in Tacoma, Washington, Eric has had relatively little schooling in music or musical theater, making his abilities almost completely self-taught. He says he had a vocal class, “in 7th grade and a voice class in college. I was naturally good at singing to the radio.”

He relates that his family used to go on car trips and they’d all have fun, “singing at the top of our lungs  and then in 6th grade I sang in the school choir. I took piano lessons for about a year and a half. In sophomore year (in high school), I auditioned for the high school musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and I totally got hooked.

“I always had a strong ear and I’m good at imitation. As a kid I would try to sing exactly like whoever was on the radio, so I did a bunch of different styles like that and altered my voice in different directions: pop, country, Andrew Lloyd Webber, I would imitate whatever I heard.

“I started doing Adventure Musical Theater which is 5th Avenue’s touring musicals that tour to elementary and junior highs in my senior year of college (Fall 2002). At University of Puget Sound, I majored in theater in a small program with about 15 of us. I would say that Oklahoma with Ian (Eisendrath, music director) as my vocal coach is the most concentrated vocal training I’ve received.

“When I graduated I didn’t know for sure what I was going to do, but theater kept pulling me along. I loved it and loved to get paid for it and was validated with a lot of opportunities. I did the Rocky Horror Show at the 5th Avenue as ensemble, and Annie at Village Theatre in the ensemble, and The Time of Your Life at Seattle Rep. I was working back to back and once you know people here it’s relatively a small town. After those three shows, I was confident in my ability to continue.”

When Eric was in the ensemble of Annie, he met his wife Michele Gray, also in the ensemble. He relates that it took awhile to turn from friendship into a romance, but they married and now have two young children.

Eric continued to get cast in larger and larger roles and finally was featured in Girl of My Dreams at Village, in 2006. But a quirk of fate intervened during the production. Eric relates, “A video a friend and I made got attention from a Hollywood agent and I got eight commercials all for the same project (Mobizzo web site) in Los Angeles and that caused a three year detour. My alter ego Paul Brogan is still more famous than Eric Ankrim. He was a nerdy sports fan that made web raps on MySpace about sports players. I would dress as a college age nerdy sports fan and rap. Village wasn’t happy about my leaving the show to go to Los Angeles.”

However, Eric still was able to get work in Seattle and came back to play Jack in Into the Woods at the 5th Avenue. A musical being developed at Village, through the Village Originals program, was The Gypsy King, directed by Richard Gray. “Rich told (writer) Randy Rogel that I might be good for the show and he should have lunch with me (Rogel was in Los Angeles). So, I did the Village Originals reading which was a big success and Village wanted to bring it to the main stage.” This turned out to be a great opportunity for Eric to repair his good relations with Village.

The show was a fun romp similar to the prince and pauper idea, where Eric played both the bratty prince role and the young gypsy boy who looks like him. Eric says he liked the role because, “I always get cast as young hapless romantics and never get to play the bratty mean prince, so it was an opportunity to sink my teeth into something I rarely get to do.”

In the fall of 2010, Eric expanded his talents yet again as director of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog at Balagan Theatre. He played the lead and as director, he actually created the stage show where none had yet existed! He and music director, Kim Dare, got permission from the Whedon brothers who created a 45 minute internet sensation, and combined it with material from the 45 minute dvd extra, and wrote music for and staging for an ensemble to support the story.

“We combined them and wrote a ton of background vocals to enlarge and theatricalize the musical they wrote, and made real uses for an ensemble. It was a magical experience. (However,) closing weekend, I got sick and we didn’t even get to finish the run.”

Eric was diagnosed with Guillian-Barre… an auto-immune disease that causes your antibodies to attack your nerves and severs the connections between your nerves and your muscles. “I was paralyzed from the neck down and couldn’t breathe for myself fully for four weeks and then spent months in rehab to get my muscle control back. I was in rehearsal for Three Tall Women at Seattle Rep and couldn’t go on.”

It was an awful time for Eric to get sick. The disease has a range of severity, and he’d been struck by about the most severe symptomology! They predicted it would take a year for him to get to 90% of normal. And his wife was pregnant with their second child and they needed to move from one apartment to another.

“Then something happened that just amazes me about this theater community in Seattle. The cast of A Christmas Story at the 5th Avenue, led by Ian Eisendrath, got together to pay for professional movers to move our home for us! My wife didn’t have to manage the move by herself.”

Everything in Eric’s life refocused on just survival. He describes, “There was pure shock and fear that transitioned to despair and then a single-minded determination. I had to focus on a minute to minute basis. Another miracle was that Ian called asking if I would take a job at 5th Avenue when I was feeling better as casting associate and artistic projects manager. In February of last year, I started that and did that for eight or nine months while regaining my strength. They’ve been incredibly understanding and supportive.”

Life seems to be speeding ahead with clear sailing. Recently, Eric directed Spring Awakening at Balagan Theatre, while also performing A Christmas Carol at ACT Theatre. He reports, “I’ll be directing a Village Kidstage performance while in (5th Avenue/ACT Theatre’s world premiere) First Date and then I start rehearsing Rent (at 5th Avenue) in June. I’m in the ensemble and covering (understudying) Mark.”

Asked about what he sees for the future, Eric says, “I want to continue to develop my skills every day, and grow as a performer, director, producer, and eventually as a writer. I want to eventually be able to have a large amount of influence over the specific artistic projects I choose to be involved in, and to be involved in as many creative processes as possible. I want to help theater thrive in Seattle, and I want to create new art with my friends here for as long as I possibly can.

“If Broadway comes calling, I wouldn’t say no, but my priority is continuing to plant myself in Seattle as firmly as I can, and to nurture my collaborative relationships here. I am blessed to be a part of it.”

So how did it feel last Thursday, to step out on the 5th Avenue stage in the biggest role of his relatively short career? “I was freaking out, nervous, and scatterbrained, but then I read a card that (fight choreographer) Geoff Alm gave me that ended with the phrase ‘it’s so great to see you back.’ A wave of perspective washed over me. I thought about what I went through to get to that specific moment, and a huge smile came onto my face. All my nerves went away, and I was ready to have fun and I did. Opening night was magical; one of my favorite moments of theater ever!”

Alexandra Zorn and Eric Ankrim in Oklahoma. Photo by Chris Bennion.