The scene from the rafters was organized chaos. A cast of more than 20 actors fluttered about, hugging and exchanging hellos. The shuffle of dance steps rose from the concrete floors of a warehouse rehearsal space in Woodstock, and the resonation of vibratos floated through the quaint warehouse, stacked floor-to-ceiling with props, as singers tried to hit that note just right. A small space packed with immense personality – a thespian’s safe haven.
At the center of it all sat 72-year-old Char Ulanowski of Woodstock, rolling up the sleeves of her red blouse, wearing a steady smile. Ulanowski is happy to be a part of it, however small.
“A director once told me there are no small parts,” Ulanowski said. “If there’s a part in a show, then it’s important to the story. Someone has to fill it.”
Ulanowski has often filled those small roles but is no stranger to taking the lead either. With a resume that boasts nearly 40 years of experience, Ulanowski is a veteran actor of the TownSquare Players.
“She’s truly an unsung hero,” said Betsy Wolfe Stemple, a friend and president of TownSquare Players. “She’s always present. She does the small jobs, the thankless jobs and doesn’t ask for anything. She truly embodies the spirit of community theater.”
Even after recent radiation treatment for pancreatic cancer, Ulanowski makes it a point to stay involved in the world she loves, whether it be on or off the stage.
“Everyone who performs should work backstage,” Ulanowski said. “They need to understand how hard these people work and all that they do and that without ‘em, nothing happens. They don’t get a bow.”
In between run-throughs, fellow cast members stop to say hello and see how Ulanowski is doing, to which she coolly replies, “I’m hangin’ in there.”
Ulanowski is part of the ensemble of TownSquare Players’ upcoming show “The Wedding Singer,” which debuts March 7 at the Woodstock Opera House.
Ulanowski wasn’t always so well-known in the local theater groups, getting a later start on the stage. In her late 30s, she debuted with the Chicago Park District’s rendition of “The Butler Did It,” in which she played the role of the mistress of the house.
“When I was young, I was too scared,” Ulanowski admitted.
“The first time I went out on stage I was like, ‘Wow, this is something!’ It was the first time I was able to express myself and really felt important. It’s fun to not be me, and sometimes people are shocked.”
After her first role, Ulanowski never looked back and has since taken on rolls both in the front of the house and at the back of the stage. Ulanowski said one of her more challenging rolls was Miss Cratchitt in “Gypsy.”
“I had a scene where I was out on the stage alone with no one there to feed me a line if I messed up. If I forgot I knew I’d be in deep doo doo,” Ulanowski said.
She’s also no stranger to freezing up on stage. In “Annie,” Ulanowski had a singing part and at one point forgot the words.
“I thought if I sang softer maybe they wouldn’t hear me as well and wouldn’t know I was making up the words. The conductor sure gave me a look and Daddy Warbucks came to me after and asked ‘What the hell was that?’” she remembered.
Ulanowski has worked with many different characters, both on and off the stage in the theater world.
“I’ve met a few choreographers that think you can teach anyone to dance. I don’t know,” she said. “We had one guy in our troop we used to call Tanglefoot.”
Ulanowski thinks talent should reign supreme and said she’s noticed a positive shift in the casting of today’s shows compared to years ago.
“They don’t just cast the cutesy, cutesy model types any more,” she said. “Now more on stage you see how life really is. That’s how people are, and that’s how they look.”
While this is refreshing, she said she has noticed the younger crowds don’t want the “old-timey shows” anymore, and many of the shows today are much more suggestive to attract a younger audience.
Ulanowski still approaches every show with the same excitement and enthusiasm as the first time, but like most actors, she will always have that dream role that got away.
“I would have loved to play Dorothy in the ‘Wizard of Oz’,” she said. “To wear the costume and have all of those little creatures flying around me. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
For now, Ulanowski enjoys being a part of her theater family and has geared up for “The Wedding Singer.”
If you Go
TownSquare Players has worked to stay true to both 1998’s “The Wedding Singer” and the spirit of the 80s in their musical production of the film.
The group incorporated authentic clothing from the era for costumes, including the wedding dress of TownSquare Players President Betsy Wolfe Stemple.
The show features a vintage 1980s vehicle and a true-to-age “Rosie” character played by 78-year-old Harriet Thompson.
Some ‘80s icons will make appearances as well. No Billy Idol, as was featured in the film, but Wolfe Stemple promised a surprise or two.
WHEN: March 7-23
WHERE: Woodstock Opera House, 121 W. Van Buren St., Woodstock
COST & INFO: Presented by the TownSquare Players, the oldest community theater company in McHenry County, “The Wedding Singer” is based on the 1996 film of the same name. It’s 1985 and rock-star wannabe Robbie Hart is New Jersey’s favorite wedding singer. He’s the life of the party, until his own fiancée leaves him at the altar. Shot through the heart, Robbie makes every wedding as disastrous as his own. Enter Julia, a waitress who wins his affection. As luck would have it, Julia is about to be married to a Wall Street shark, and unless Robbie can pull off the performance of a decade, the girl of his dreams will be gone forever. Schedule: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $23 adults, $20 seniors, $13 students. Tickets and information: 815-338-5300 or www.woodstockoperahouse.com.By LINDSAY WEBER firstname.lastname@example.org