A Fiendish Conversation with Eric Ankrim
Few moments are as rewarding for music fans as discovering hidden gems. It’s why people freak out at the unearthing of each unheard Kurt Cobain demo and what made Searching for Sugar Man so exciting. The hit musical revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris has lit that feeling of discovery in audiences for decades by giving the songs of the titular Belgian singer-songwriter—who influenced artists like David Bowie and Leonard Cohen—a proper moment in the spotlight. The show hits the 5th Avenue Theatre stage for an extended run (March 7–May 17) starting this Saturday. The cast includes 5th Ave favorite Eric Ankrim, fresh off his role as Jigger in Carousel. In addition to starring roles in musicals like Oklahoma and First Date (which took him to Broadway), Ankrim has also taken up directing at 5th Ave, including for last winter's Elf: The Musical and this summer's production of Grease.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Ankrim about the showstopping emotion of Jacques Brel, what he learned from his time on Broadway, and making hip-hop beats.
What’s your favorite part about Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris?
In a lot of shows, when you play a principal role, you normally have one moment that you kind of identify as, “Well, you know…once I get past that moment, I’ve climbed the mountain. I’ve reached the climax.” And you feel like you’re building towards that. I just did Carousel and when Brandon O’Neill sang “Soliloquy” at the end of Act I…. I mean jeez, you have to pace yourself for this song. It’s such a huge accomplishment to get through that specific moment. And that’s the case with a lot of principal roles. You think, “Man, I just have to get through this one big thing and I’ll feel like I’ve gotten past the real challenge.”
In this show, every song feels like it would be that song in any other show. It’s 27 songs and they all are hitting as hard as they possibly can—emotionally, lyrically, musically—in a way that would normally only be saved for that climactic eleven o’clock number or that big, marathon-style song. But it feels like all we’re doing is one of those after another, after another, and that challenge is really one of endurance and kind of emotional availability unlike anything I’ve ever gone through, and all five of us in the cast talk about how it scares us to death. I think that’s clearly the reason why it’s exactly what I should be doing, because it’s almost like grad school in one show. There are so many different journeys to go on, because each song is its own full story. So we do 27 stories in a row, rather than one story that builds on itself.
What is it about Brel’s music that makes it so timeless?
One of the sentences you hear a lot about writers is “Write what you know,” and Jacques Brel was a very self-aware artist who connected very deeply with what he thought was good, bad, and otherwise in the world. He clearly was writing from a place that was directly connected to his heart and his soul and how he understood life, as opposed to trying to write something that other people would like. When people do that, that type of art withstands different genres of music or generational gaps of musical style. Because he was so authentic as an artist, we have no choice but to just try to be as authentic as we can as we tell these stories.
What are the major creative differences for you when approaching a show as an actor or as a director?
Directing comes with the convenient ability to say whatever you’re thinking at all times. I tend to like to have lots of thoughts and sometimes will share them appropriately or inappropriately when I’m in the position of actor. But in the director position, you can say whatever you’re thinking and you can allow your passion to rev you up to a speed that is strictly determined by your own passion. Whereas, if you are acting, you are going to tap in to other peoples’ energy and try to facilitate their energy, which is also very freeing and amazing.
As a director, I take my problems home to my family, which is a real stress. As I get home, I’m continuing to think. And the wonderful thing about acting is that, other than working on memorization, it is really your job to not go home with other peoples’ problems, but to decompress and show up the next day with a totally open mind. That I love, because when I’m in a long-running show I can really be present with my wife and children at home. And that actually serves my work as an actor, because I’m just practicing being present. But as a director, I go into a big, big journey of problem solving and trying to inspire myself and make things better nearly 24 hours a day, and that has its pros and its cons.
Are there any up-and-comers in the Seattle theater scene who you think people should check out?
I think an incredible group of that type of artist—and people definitely know who these people are [locally], but as far as on a national level—what’s going on at the Seattle Rep in Lizard Boy with Justin Huertas, Bill Williams, Kirsten Helland, R. J. Tancioco, and Brandon Ivie, that’s a group of human beings that are relatively young still in their careers, but are veterans. I love all those people. And I think they’re going to be making something pretty special over there.
If you weren’t working in theater, is there another line of work you’d want to pursue?
I always, and still secretly—and not so secretly—want to live in a recording studio making hip-hop beats. That’s what I’d want to do.
Do you have any experience?
Yeah, I’ve made a lot of songs.
Do you have your own outlet or is it a private thing?
[Laughs] No, this is me and my friends getting together, recording things. I’ve probably made—over the years—over 30 songs. It’s usually like three songs in a week, and then no songs for two years, and then we get back together and just get in a room and mess around. Thankfully, I seem to be working enough that I don’t have that much time on my hands, and when I get home from shows, I pass out in about 10 minutes. But if I ever do find time on my hands, that would be totally free and wouldn’t be a disservice to my family to commit to that, I would do that in a heartbeat.
How do you feel Seattle has influenced your art?
Everything that I know about my professional theater outlook is a direct result of my experience in Seattle. Bill Berry [the producing artistic director] of the 5thAvenue was my first professional director my senior year of college. He hired me to do the adventure musical theater program, and we traveled from elementary school to elementary school putting on 45-minute musicals. They still do it today. It’s an incredible outreach educational program; 5th Avenue uses it to get to know young actors, but pays them a decent wage to get up really early and go do morning musicals. And that was my first professional experience. Getting to know Bill, he became a friend, a mentor, a director; I called him my agent, jokingly, all the time. He’s looked out for me since day one. And there are so many people in this community that actually do that. We look out for each other.
I only spent seven months in New York and would never try to generalize it with blanket statements, but in such a cutthroat world with so many amazing, talented performers, it’s hard sometimes to wish goodwill for others because you’re working so hard to try to succeed yourself. And I think that’s a justifiable attitude in New York. In this city, it’s just big enough so that we can actually work, but it’s small enough to feel like a really big community theater rather than some cutthroat, kill-or-be-killed society. This is a family in Seattle. I’ve felt that since the first day I worked here. I think the best work is done when you all care about each other and you hit things like a family. We can do that here pretty consistently, and that’s a really, really special thing.
You seem to have a fairly negative opinion of it, but were there any positive lessons you’ve taken away from your time in New York?
Absolutely. Contentment can be an attractive thing, but it can also be a dangerous thing for artists. And it is hard to be content in New York, and that is because living there is a grind. But, that can be a motivational tool. I felt kind of awakened while I was there for what I was being asked to do on a daily basis just to live. When a trip to Target turns into a three-hour epic saga getting your three children onto and off of the subway and up three flights of stairs to your apartment just to get some milk and eggs, versus hopping in our minivan in our garage and driving to the front door of Target and going shopping. You just have to work so hard, and I think that’s why people love New York. There’s that sentence: “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” Because it’s just harder. But I think so often, and maybe too often, we as artists are attracted to things that are not harder; that are easier. We wait for opportunities, we think that someone will discover us, or we just make excuses why we can’t make things happen for ourselves. And New York forces you to make things happen for yourself or you won’t make anything happen at all. That’s a really, really valuable lesson to apply to anything you do.
Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
Mar 7–May 17, 5th Avenue Theatre, $29–$79