Janet Ulrich Brooks | Performer of the week

Janet Ulrich Brooks in 33 Variations at TimeLine Theatre Company

Janet Ulrich Brooks in 33 Variations at TimeLine Theatre Company Photograph: Lara Goetsch

In Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations, a musicologist diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (“Lou Gehrig’s disease”) travels across the globe to uncover the musical mystery behind Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Janet Ulrich Brooks takes on the role of Dr. Katherine Brandt with intense passion and remarkable depth in Timeline Theatre’s production, flawlessly navigating the character’s increasingly difficult journey as her health declines. Born in Hamburg, New York, Brooks grew up in Missouri, where her parents were both teachers. She attended University of Central Missouri for her undergraduate degree, working in Branson’s Silver Dollar City as a saloon performer over the summer while doing dinner-theater productions in various other Midwest towns. After moving to Chicago, she spent a considerable amount of time in children’s theater, working in both artistic and administrative capacities before getting back to the adult stage in 2003. Since then, Brooks has won a Non-Equity Jeff Award and been nominated for four Equity Jeffs, the latter of which she received while working with Timeline, where she is now a company member. Brooks speaks to us about what her experiences in Branson and children’s theater have taught her, how she prepared for the challenging role, and the ways that the play has helped her cope with her own personal loss.

You spent much of your early professional career working in Branson. What did you learn from that experience? 

I learned a lot about being in front of an audience all day long, because we did 8, 10 shows a day, and just watching the other entertainers and how they work a crowd, it was as much of an education as my education. (Laughs.) And just the practical experience of being in front of an audience and trying different things. Being brave, just trying different stuff because you knew you were going to have another audience in 40 minutes. We spiced it up, we probably did a thing or two that I would not be proud of, that today I would frown upon. (Laughs.) Nothing too horrible, we ripped each others wigs off our heads, things like that. Some days it got grueling and grinding, and I think what I probably learned there was that as much as it’s fun to entertain, it’s a job. It is a job, and you do have a responsibility.

Crowd controlling was really fascinating, I did that one summer. Two days a week, I would be in front of one of the shows where there are people waiting in line in the heat, there’s hundreds of them, for an hour, and there you are making sure nobody cuts the line, nobody faints. And you’re entertaining them. I remember when I was in junior high we went to Disneyland when we were travelling one summer, and the thing that I remember the most, out of all the rides and everything we went on, was the guy who made us laugh so hard while we were waiting to go on The Pirates of the Caribbean. And when I got to Silver Dollar City and saw these people that did that, I was like, “Oh my god.” Basically you’re there entertaining these hundreds of people who are waiting in a line for over an hour to get on a ride or get in to see a show, they’re hot, they’re tired, they spent a lot of money to get in there, kid just dropped a sandwich on the ground and you paid $8 for it, on an on. That was really challenging, but I learned so, so much from watching those people and getting to do it.

It sounds like that was good preparation for children’s theater, which you also spent a lot of time doing.

It’s learning what’s really entertaining, what’s really funny, what’s really going to work as opposed to just throwing anything out there. There’s good laughs and bad laughs. And in children’s theater I think it’s really important to respect your audience, I learned this from [the late Child’s Play Touring Theatre artistic director] Victor Podagrosi, to respect the sophistication of your audience. Yeah, you can do something goofy to make a funny face and they’ll laugh, but there’s also a skill in really holding and capturing their attention, and then being able to take them on a journey, and have them grasp the moral and themes and have them understand it.

I respect children’s theater actors so much. It must be so difficult.

It is difficult, but it’s important, and I think that’s what we sometimes forget. It really is the red-headed stepchild of theater. When I came back to acting in ’03, my resume was filled with children’s theater and working at a theme park. People are looking at it like, “But do you have any experience?” Yeah, I’ve kind of been working in this field for a long time. I’m honing my skills and craft. “Yeah, but do you have any experience? Have you ever been in front of a big audience?” [Sighs.] And I was a character actor. When I was in Kansas City, I had people tell me, “Janet, you’re too old for the young roles and too young for the old roles.” And I was never an ingénue. I had a low voice and angular features, and I’ve fluctuated in weight. I’ve spent some years as a larger woman. [Laughs.] Children’s theater was a great place for a character actor to age, because you’re constantly working, you’re honing your skills, you’re playing every kind of character there is. It was just a great place for me to be able to play anything and be anybody and keep working those skills so that when I got to the right age, I was actually marketable. And now I’m an old lady. [Laughs.] I used to paint lines on my face when I was in college because I always played the older role. Now, the lines are there.

Moving on to 33 Variations, what kind of research did you have to do for the role? It seems like with Katherine’s ALS and her knowledge of Beethoven’s music, you had a lot to prepare for.

The ALS was tough. The first day that I really sat down to research that, it was so depressing and frustrating, finding out that there really isn’t a lot of research or anything being done for it. In the show there’s a line about there not being enough cases to interest the pharmaceutical companies to come up with some kind of treatment. That was frustrating because we’ve been doing the show for two weeks, and every time, someone comes up to me and says, “Oh, I had a friend who died of ALS” or “I had an uncle die of ALS.” I hear this all the time, and I’m like, “There are a lot of people! This is touching a lot of people!” And then reading about, I became convinced I had it. [Laughs.] Oh my god, I feel that! An aching, my hand is tingling. [Laughs.] I watched some film footage of people with different levels of the disease, different people because it is pretty individual as the disease comes on. And I always talk with my hands, so to not be able to do that, I found it more difficult to learn my lines.

The music is so glorious, and to have the great honor to do a play with a concert pianist center stage, it’s so enriching and it’s such a character of the play. The music is my scene partner so much of the time, and the music is my journey. It’s such a gift, a really unique experience that I just love.

What do you appreciate about having Timeline as your artistic home?

To be a part of Timeline, it just fits my upbringing and my past experience. I wrote a paper one time in college about my theory for acting, why we thought this was important, and mine was very much about social and political issues and the educational aspects. My parents were educators, my whole family, everybody’s a teacher. So how the arts can teach, how the arts are so important in educating minds and in broadening minds. Sundays I’m oftentimes at work or rehearsal, so I’m not a churchgoer. The theater is my church, that’s where I go to explore the human experience, to learn about what is and what was and what could possibly be. I actually told this to a Jehovah’s Witness who came to my door one day and he just looked at me and said, “You’re a very interesting person.” [Laughs.] It’s a social science to me, so to do these plays steeped in history that resonate with today’s social and political issues, what we give people is food for thought. It’s a nourishing thing, and it’s nourishing to me as well.

Every time I do a play there I learn so much. I learn anytime I do a play anywhere; you do your research, you do your dramaturgical work, certainly you learn, but there’s this depth to that aspect of Timeline’s work and the importance placed upon that that is so enriching. I feel very lucky to be a part of this incredible organization. I was really blown away by how intelligently they grew that organization. I am probably the most fiscally irresponsible person you will ever meet, I owe a lot of money and, of course, I’m an actor so I work for next to nothing. So outside of the plays I’m learning a lot about managing things and looking at other aspects of how to put things together and make something happen. They’re a group of wonderful, bright people who are driven and passionate and so understanding. They’re such good people. They’re human beings.

Timeline Theatre’s
33 Variations runs through October 21 at Stage 773 (1225 W Belmont Ave, 773-327-5252). Read our review of 33 Variations.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)