Janet Ulrich Brooks is the first to admit that she’s a “late bloomer.” It wasn’t until her mid-40s that the actress returned to the stage full time after spending many years focusing on children’s theater. She knew it was time to really give herself over to acting; it was now or never.
When: To Nov. 12
Where: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington
“I was scared to death,” Brooks says followed by a hearty laugh. “I hadn’t done a monologue in 14 years. But I wanted to get back to what I really wanted to do. After I got that first call offering me a part, I felt one with the universe. That I was doing the right thing.”
Since that first 2003 role (in Israel Horovitz’s “Today I Am a Fountain Pen”), Brooks has performed in a wide array of roles on stage, television and the big screen. She has been a company member at TimeLine Theatre since 2007.
A few of her roles have included portraying historically significant women on stage — Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (a Jeff Award-wining performance) and playwright Lillian Hellman. Now Brooks is facing what is perhaps her most challenging role in TimeLine’s season opener — Peter Morgan’s “The Audience” — where she will play Queen Elizabeth II from age 25 to today.
“Yes, it is rather daunting to play an iconic character that everyone feels they know,” Brooks says. “The Queen is just so visible and there are expectations.
“I’m really working on getting the movement and the dialect down,” Brooks adds, slipping into a queenly British accent. “After rehearsal, I’m very tired. If I’d been dancing for six hours I wouldn’t be as tired as I am after holding my body upright in this very proper way. ”
Director Nick Bowling, who also directed Brooks in the critically acclaimed “33 Variations” at TimeLine, says of Brooks: “Janet possesses a kind of natural power on stage which people always notice. She is sort of chameleon like in her process. In rehearsal watching her break down the character while also sort of breaking herself down and then putting all the pieces back together is fascinating to see and also a little scary.”
“The Audience,” in which Morgan reimagines the weekly meetings the Queen has had with her many prime ministers, also features Matt DeCaro, Carmen Roman, Mark Ulrich, David Lively, Sophie Ackerman and Audrey Edwards.
Brooks has taken an interesting route to the Chicago stage. Her father was passionate about music and her mother loved theater and wanted to be an actress. Together they combined their talents in local community theater with Brooks often tagging along.
“I wasn’t one of those kids who had to be told to sit down and be quiet,” she says. “I was just riveted by what I was watching.”
In her high school in Warrensburg, Mo., there was only one drama class but Brooks wasn’t deterred. She acted in her parent’s community theater productions of “Guys and Dolls” and “Bye Bye Birdie” but knew she “had a long road ahead to figure out how to act.”
Brooks studied acting at Central Missouri State University and Western Illinois University. Her first professional job was in Branson, Mo., as a saloon girl at Silver Dollar City. For 10 years, it was her summer job — singing and dancing. The job also included a lot of improv as the performers had to stay in character wherever they went at the theme park. The entire experience was invaluable, she says.
“I think what working there did was embolden me with my own voice in many ways,” Brooks, 60, says. “You had to be on all the time. It helped me build confidence in my own creative work.”
In her early 30s, Brooks relocated to Chicago to work with Child’s Play Touring Theatre where she was as an actor, director and teacher. In 2003 she began concentrating her efforts on auditioning and acting. She began meeting people, landing more roles and getting consistently good reviews.
“I was a middle-aged women and it seemed every theater in town wanted a middle-aged woman,” Brooks says of those early years. “I was able to work very quickly and get to know people. Right up today, I’ve been very lucky to get a wide variety of challenging and interesting roles.”
And as if portraying Queen Elizabeth as an adult isn’t tough enough, Brooks also must find the 25-year-old Elizabeth. She’s confident the audience is smart enough to see that “I’m an actor not a mimic.”
“I can give as much as I can to the technical aspects but I’m still going to be a 60-year-old woman saying the words of a 25-year-old. But the important thing is to tell the story and if we’re true to that it will be a satisfying experience all around.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.