By Sherida Mock
The talented Jill Blackwood has made a career of gracing Austin stages in plays and musicals. Now, this mother to two boys (Thomas is 13, and Joseph is 8) stars in Zach Theatre’s production of “Mary Poppins” starting July 20.
In the title role, she brings to life the nanny famous for magic and common sense. She spoke with us recently about her family, her career and the allure of theater.
AFM: Do you come from a musical family?
Jill: Not particularly. My parents loved music, and we always had music playing, but I don’t come from a family of performers. My mom didn’t get a lot of opportunities when she was young. She wanted us to try anything we wanted to do.
AFM: What did you try?
Jill: She put me in dance, and I cried. I played the saxophone for years. That was my first dream: to be the first woman to play saxophone on The Late Show. I auditioned for the cheerleading squad, and I did not get it—which is good, in the long run. I have friends who ruined their voices doing that.
I think like a lot of teenagers, I was trying to find my place. So on a whim, I auditioned for my high school’s production of “Bye, Bye, Birdie.” I started to discover that maybe I could sing. I’d never sung before. I didn’t really know how to use my “instrument,” so to speak.
Then in college [at Southwestern University in Georgetown] I had more formal training, and I was surprised at how much that can really do. A lot of people think either you’re born with it or you’re not. But if you’re exposed to music when you’re young and then you have that formal training later, it’s amazing.
AFM: And you made a career of it here in Austin?
Jill: When I was younger, I wanted to go to New York. But my husband, Tim, owned a company with a couple of people here. And as a business owner, he said, “I can’t get up and go, but I’ll support you in any opportunity you want to pursue here.” He certainly made good on that. We’ve been married 17 years.
I was doing shows while I was nursing babies. It’s not every spouse who would be okay with you being gone all these evenings and weekends, but he knows how important it is to me.
And I feel like you’re a better parent when you’re doing something for yourself. When your cup is full, you have more to give your family. As any parent knows, it’s always hard. Your life changes, and you just have to drink more coffee and find a way to work it out.
AFM: That’s a very Mary Poppins thing to say. Do you find that elements of your character creep into your role as a mom?
Jill: I joke with my kids at home. I’m like, “Spit spot [claps hands]!” But I wish I were more like Mary Poppins. She would probably keep a cleaner house [laughs].
AFM: Tell us about the people you’re working with.
Jill: Bert is played by Matthew Redden. He is a sweetheart, and he’s definitely got fans among the Zach theater crowd. The Banks family is played by Tyler Jones—he was recently in A Christmas Carol—and Jennifer Young—she directs the kids’ program here. The kids who play Jane and Michael Banks are just wonderful and adorable. I think everybody will fall in love with them.
The play is actually based on the books by P. L. Travers. Some of the scenes that are in the books, but not in the movie, are in the stage play. So there are some characters who aren’t in the movie, like Mrs. Corry, who runs the sweet shop. And Mrs. Andrews! She’s George Banks’s former nanny, and she comes back when Mary Poppins leaves. She’s this larger than life, sort of evil, funny villain.
AFM: Have you got a favorite song?
Jill: There are all those big numbers: Supercalifragilistic, Spoonful of Sugar and Feed the Birds. There’s a huge tap number with Step in Time. Matt Shields can tap! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better live performance in tap. He’s really amazing.
There’s going to be a lot of fun theater magic. People ask me, “How are they going to do all those animated cartoon penguins?” Well, they’re not. We do theater magic, not film magic. So, instead of all of those animated characters, they pull a scene where all the marble statues in the park come to life and dance with us.
AFM: Do your kids have any interest in theater?
Jill: My oldest has such an appreciation for theater. I remember taking him to Shakespeare in the Park when he was 3 years old. He was just mesmerized. He reads a lot to his little brother, and he’s got a wonderful singing voice and he can do all the characters.
But when it comes to performing, he doesn’t want to be up in front of people. He’s very outgoing, but I don’t think he’ll be following in my footsteps. It makes my heart swell that he’s my biggest fan.
The jury is still out on my youngest, but he’s got a very musical ear, and he’s done some of the camps here at Zach. I would never push them, but if they did choose it, I would be their biggest supporter.