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Actor Gabrielle Brooks: ‘To change in theatre, black representation needs to change in society’

Gabrielle Brooks Gabrielle Brooks

Gabrielle Brooks is no stranger to big musicals, having made her West End debut in Whistle Down the Wind aged seven. She tells Giverny Masso why her latest role is special, marking her first lead in a musical…

How did you become interested in performing?

When I was very small my parents got me into an after-school theatre class. That teacher then opened an agency – and I got my first musical theatre role aged seven in Whistle Down the Wind in the West End. From that point on, I didn’t want to do anything else. I attended a drama club and did amateur dramatics and professional stuff along with normal school. It was very difficult [to balance it with school] but I’m eternally grateful to my parents for making me keep up with school work. I went to a normal college and then drama school.

Have you enjoyed playing the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz at Sheffield Theatres?

This really is so special because it is the first leading role I have had in a musical. I’m a bit devastated that it is coming towards the end, I’m going to miss this job as it’s been so incredible. It was such a living, organic process that there was not much mention of productions that had happened before, or the film. We were all allowed to create something from scratch. We sat around the table and focused on the script first and foremost, and I naturally built up my Dorothy.

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How does it feel to see the positive reviews of the show?

I have seen the stars, but I have kept away from the reviews – I am going to treat myself at the end. I find if I read a review it has the potential to detract from my performance.

What have some of your other career highlights been so far?

In 2011, I was in the ensemble for Avenue Q, then, in 2013, I was in the UK tour of Hairspray. In 2016, I was in Red Snapper at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and I’ve also been a swing in The Book of Mormon. I was the understudy for Abigail Hill in Queen Anne with the Royal Shakespeare Company last year, and I got to go on twice – it was one of the best experiences of my life. It’s always been a dream to perform with the RSC.

What are your aims for the future?

I want to continue to tell stories that mean something to me. I have been put in a privileged position to be placed in the spotlight as a young black actress playing such an iconic role. This has been quite a challenge because you have to get past what other people might think or assume they are going to see. I think [a lack of representation in casting] continues to be a massive issue, but slowly we are changing things. In order to change in theatre, things need to change in society. That is why it is important for me to be in this role – it’s about changing people’s perceptions so that everything becomes normal.

CV: Gabrielle Brooks

Training: BA in performing arts, Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (2008-11)
First professional role: Ensemble in Whistle Down the Wind, Aldwych Theatre, London (1997)
Agent: Rachael Swanston at Conway Van Gelder Grant

The Wizard of Oz runs at Sheffield Theatres until January 20