Before she even knew what it meant, Janet Piercy was a performer.
“I wrote plays as a kid and organized the neighborhood kids doing shows,” she says. “I’d also play ‘priest,’ giving communion or marrying other kids. When we weren’t putting on a show or doing cheers, we would do ‘gymnastics’ on the swing set – hanging upside down, doing flips over the bars, jumping off the swings. It seems like I was always performing.”
When she wasn’t faking her way through gymnastics or the functions of a Catholic priest, young Janet Ankenbruck was singing along to show tune record albums. “I loved Julie Andrews,” she says. “I learned every song from Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma!, all the classics.”
It wasn’t until her eighth grade year that she took the next step and made it real. “A neighbor girl took me to see Sing Out, Fort Wayne [a local subgroup of Up with People] perform at the outdoor Foellinger Theatre at Franke Park,” she says. “I wanted to sing and dance like those kids did, so I joined that summer. We learned all the songs and choreography, made our costumes. I eventually got to sing some solo numbers with the group.”
Then her parents took her to see My Fair Lady at the Wagon Wheel Playhouse, and that opened her up to a whole new aspect of performance.
Shortly thereafter, she used one of the show’s signature songs, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” at her first community theater audition.
“My sister Margaret took me,” she says. “We auditioned at the Jefferson Center for the park board’s summer production of Mame at the Foellinger Theatre. I really had no idea what to expect. I sang my audition piece a cappella. The show starred Ann Colone, a local TV celebrity. Margaret and I were cast in the chorus. I loved every minute of that experience. I met wonderful people who I later did other shows with.”
Her experience in Mame got her hooked for life. Two years later she was appearing in North Side High School’s production of Oklahoma! She was cast in the chorus, but she was also asked to understudy Laurey, the female lead, who was played by an upperclassman. A pretty big deal for one of only a few sophomores in the cast.
She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in music at Indiana University and a master of science in secondary education from IPFW. While in school, she performed extensively in theatrical productions, recitals and summer community theatre. She sings professionally for weddings, funerals, concerts and in musical revues. Overall, she has performed in over 50 stage productions to date, mainly in ingénue roles.
“Doing theatre takes a big commitment of time and energy,” she says. “Juggling your job and family commitments and still finding time for yourself is not easy.”
She did manage to find time for herself after the birth of her first child, playing Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance. “That role was very special to me,” she says. “I have also been blessed to get to do several shows with my husband or children, such as Lily in The Secret Garden, Marian in The Music Man and Edith in Never Too Late.”
Her entire family appeared together in the 1999 Civic Theatre production of State Fair, for which Piercy won an Anthony Award.
Piercy has been a music educator for the past 37 years, teaching kids kindergarten to high school and directing choir concerts and mini musical productions. Her three children are grown now, and her oldest daughter, Elizabeth, has followed in her footsteps, having performed professionally for Disney Entertainment and Celebrity Cruise Lines and teaching voice in her own music studio.
Onstage, Piercy has graduated from ingénue roles to comic roles. “It seems like these days I’m [playing] everybody’s mom,” she says.
She has enjoyed her most recent acting challenge, Marlee in Touch & Go by Rebecca Cameron with the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre’s 6th annual Northeast Indiana Playwright Festival this summer. It was the “most serious and dramatic role” she’d ever played, she says.
As an accomplished musician and singer, she said she enjoyed stretching her acting muscles as Marlee. “What is always fun is taking words from a page and bringing them to life,” she says, “communicating with the other actors and with the audience through action and voice and facial expressions.”
Characters in musicals can sometimes be a bit over-the-top. But no matter what role she is performing, Piercy says she puts a lot of focus on genuineness. “No matter whether it’s a big musical or a small, personal play, I want the character I play to be a real person,” she says. “There has to be an honesty to them.”
Piercy also appreciates the opportunity to perform, acknowledging the wide range of competition in this city. “There are many talented actresses in Fort Wayne,” she says. “I would love to see more great roles for mature women written and performed.”
Nevertheless, she says, “I’m grateful that Fort Wayne has such a vibrant arts community. While I don’t get into every show I try out for, I am still able to enjoy performing on stage with some regularity.”
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July 11 • Foellinger Theatre