BWW Interviews: Jill Blackwood Dishes on ZACH Theatre's XANADU
I recently had a chance to speak with the gregarious and bubbly Jill Blackwood, star of ZACH Theatre's current production of XANADU. Ms. Blackwood is somewhat of a fixture in the Austin theatre community. At the ZACH, Jill's appeared in HAIRSPRAY, THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, URINETOWN, AIDA, CABARET, MASTER CLASS, and THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW. She's also starred in various productions with Austin Shakespeare, Austin Playhouse, Austin Musical Theatre, Zilker Theatre Productions, The State Theatre, TexArts, and Mississippi's New Stage Theatre. Jill gave me the scoop on the ZACH's vivacious new production of XANADU plus some great information about future projects at the ZACH, including next season's production of RAGTIME and the opening of the new Topfer Theater.
More information on XANADU at the ZACH Theatre is available here.
JD: Thanks once again for taking the time to talk to BroadwayWorld. I want to ask you a bunch of questions about XANADU. I'm kind of fascinated by this show, particularly because while the film is a cult classic, there are still a lot of people who haven't seen the movie before.
JB: Right. Well, it came out over 30 years ago, so even a lot of people in our cast weren't even born when the movie came out.
JD: So how would you describe the show to someone who's never seen the film or the stage version before?
JB: Well, they're two pretty different shows in my opinion. It's not simply the film put on the stage. The very basic premise is the same, which is that a Greek muse, the daughter of Zeus, comes down to inspire this California artist who eventually opens his own roller disco. So, I mean, it's completely ridiculous.
JD: [Laughs] Sounds like it, but it sounds like a lot of fun.
JB: Oh, yes.
JD: I know it's not a big secret that the film version of XANADU was not a big commercial hit-
JB: Some people called it one of the worst movies of all time.
JD: [Laughs] So why do you think the musical version even came about or is so popular?
JB: Well, like I said they're two different shows. I mean, the basic premise is the same, but the film, first of all is poorly written and directed and not structured well. It's just kind of goofy, but it tries to present that story sort of with a straight face. And so the musical version takes that story and just spoofs it and is very tongue-in-cheek. It's self-aware and kind of revels in the ridiculousness of it. It knows it's ridiculous and sort of takes it even further. In the movie you also never really get what Olivia Newton-John's character is or why she's there or why she keeps appearing to this guy until towards the end. She sort of mentions that she has these sisters, but they're not part of the film. But in our show, that part of the story is much more developed and to comical effect. The muse sisters are a vital part of the show and appear in all of the scenes and introduce silly plot twists that aren't in the movie. And also, the soundtrack of the movie actually was a commercial success so there's a lot of really fun music that will bring a lot of memories for people, just of that time period and everything. The music is really highlighted in the show, and it's a lot of fun.
JD: Speaking of the music, I wanted to ask you because the show is filled with some big, popular 80s hits, what is your favorite song to sing in the show?
JB: Well, they're all so much fun. The title song is a lot of fun because it's just so high energy and it's the finale, but I also really like to sing "Magic," maybe because that's a song I've always liked, you know, hearing Olivia Newton-John sing, so it's really fun to sing that one.
JD: You mentioned Olivia Newton-John, and you play Kira, the role originated by Olivia in the film and then by Tony nominee Kerry Butler in the Broadway version. Were you intimidated at all about taking on this role?
JB: You know, I always feel a little bit intimidated to take on any role because any time you do a published show, especially if it's a musical that was a hit, people can't help but compare you to what they hear on their cast album or who they've seen do it elsewhere. But, um, it's always something I'm a little bit nervous about, but once you see the show you realize that it's something different. You know, I'm not trying to be Olivia Newton-John because the character's much different than what it was in the movie. The show sort of gives her some friendly nods, if you know what I mean, so it's fun. I'm always a little nervous at first, but the show allows you to put some of your own flare in there.
JD: So what's the best part about playing Kira?
JB: Well, I just love comedies like this, these self-aware type of comedies, because it really allows you to interact with the audience in ways that you don't get to in other shows where you're almost breaking that fourth wall to say, "Hey, this is goofy, and we know it's goofy, and join the laugh with us." That's always a lot of fun. And the roller skating, although it's really hard, it's a lot of fun to roll around and sing and roller skate.
JD: You know, I was going to ask about the skating. XANADU I know is a very roller-skate heavy show--
JB: Well, I'm actually the only character that's on roller skates almost the whole time. Most of the cast are not with the exception of one number, but for me it's a very roller-skate heavy show.
JD: So were you a good skater before the show?
JB: I don't know. I had skated when I was in school and roller bladed, you know, stuff like that, so I was comfortable rolling around a skating rink, but I realized right away that what I had to do in the show was completely different. For example, when they brought me in to take publicity photos, where I just had to stand still in roller skates and pose and gesture for these photos, I was having a really hard time just keeping my footing and I finally had to sit down so they could get those pictures so I thought, "Hmm, I really had better work on this." You really have to be so controlled and be able to start and stop and turn and do all of that in time with dialogue or music or whatever. It just takes a lot of muscle, and so it's much harder than just skating around a roller rink, if you know what I mean.
JD: I bet, yeah.
JB: Even though I'm not really doing anything real fancy, but it's just having that control to not, you know, topple over into the people in the front row while you're singing and moving around.
JD: So let's get back to the character for a second. How does Kira compare to other characters you've played in your career?
JB: Well, I would consider her to be sort of a wacky, quirky ingénue, and I seem to have played a lot of those. I mean, at ZACH for example I played Hope in URINETOWN and Janet in THE DROWSY CHAPERONE. I used to think of myself when I was younger as this serious actress, but after being cast in all these goofball roles, I guess I should take a hit. But anyway, it's similar in that way in that it's, you know, kind of quirky and tongue-in-cheek, and I've done some of that kind of stuff before and I really enjoy it.
JD: So aside from Kira, what are some of the other roles you've done that are really standouts and favorites to you?
JB: I did really enjoy playing Janet in THE DROWSY CHAPERONE. I just felt that it was a really special production. All the elements were there, and Nick Demos, who directed it is also directing XANADU. So that was a lot of fun, but I've also done some Shakespeare that I really enjoyed, like Viola in TWELFTH NIGHT and Rosalind in AS YOU LIKE IT, so I'm lucky that I've been able to do a bit of a range.
JD: Are there any roles that you've really been dying to play at some point in your career?
JB: You know, I remember seeing RAGTIME on Broadway which I thought was such a beautiful show, and I thought it would be such a really great challenge to play the Mother one day. I don't know if I'm supposed to say that, but I'm going to be involved in that in the ZACH production at the Topfer Theater, and so I'm really excited about that.
JD: Awesome! So are there any actresses on Broadway that you're a fan of?
JB: Oh gosh. Well, if I was to pick a certain person, I really like Marin Mazzie. Um, oh gosh, I don't know. Whenever I'm asked this I can't think of it but I'll think of it later.
JD: No problem. So another thing I wanted to ask, and I know my readers will kill me if I don't ask this, is that I remember when the Original Broadway Cast of XANADU performed on the Tony Awards and there were some really pleasant images of Cheyenne Jackson who played Sonny in the original cast wearing some very short shorts. So can the ladies and some of the men expect to see the same kind of thing in your production?
JB: They absolutely can. Our Sonny Malone, Matthew Redden, is beautiful. He's very easy on the eyes, and of course his shorts are representative of the kind of running shorts that were worn in the early 80s, so yes.
JD: Good. You just made some women and men very happy.
JB: Yes. He's very easy on the eyes so you won't be disappointed there.
JD: [Laughs] So I'm sure with a show as silly and slapsticky as XANADU, there must be some interesting stories about the rehearsal process. Do you have any stories to share about your cast mates?
JB: I mean, we did laugh a lot, you know. It was just funny the challenges that we ran into. There were always these unexpected challenges. For example, in one scene we had one character with roller skates on and the other people are not so we navigate the set differently and so the director has to take that into account when he's staging things. But a specific funny story, I don't know. I will tell you, though this isn't funny, but we did have a cast member actually dislocate their elbow and get a small fracture in their arm from falling on the roller skates.
JD: Ouch! So being in XANADU is hazardous to your health.
JB: Seriously, the show is so silly, but it just kind of reminded us that it is kind of risky some of the things that we're doing and you really have to just stay focused and make sure that you're engaged and aware at all times. As silly as it is, it is tricky.
JD: So how long was the rehearsal process?
JB: Well, a lot of us knew we were cast far in advance and the Musical Director had sent out rehearsal tracks for us so we could prepare, and I was practicing the roller skating in advance, but the official rehearsals where we all meet at the theater and started rehearsing was about three-and-a-half weeks.
JD: Oh wow! That seems like a quick rehearsal time for a show like this.
JB: Yeah! It's pretty short, but while we're there it's a pretty full schedule. It's almost like a full-time job because we're usually rehearsing I think about 36 to 40 hours per week.
JD: And you did mention that the ZACH Theatre is moving into a new space after this show. How was that going into XANADU knowing that this is the last mainstage show in the Kleberg Stage?
JB: You know, it's such an exciting time for us, and I think we're just all sort of sharing that excitement. It's not actually the last show that will be performed in the Kleberg. It will probably be the last mainstage show, but the Kleberg still will be utilized for special Holiday events or long-running shows. Also, the ZACH is trying to develop its professional children's theater which will utilize that space so it will still be used, but everyone's really excited about the new space.
JD: Yeah, I recently read some information about the new space at the Topfer Theater, and it just sounds gorgeous. I'm really excited to see it.
JB: Yeah, it's kind of like if you took a big space like The Long Center or Bass Concert Hall and just cut out the Orchestra section and made that a theater. That's kind of what it is. Everyone will have an amazing view of this big stage.
JD: Great! That sounds fantastic. So in terms of XANADU, are there any final messages that you want to give fans of the film or the show?
JB: Well, this show is just plain fun. You will come, you will laugh, you will have a good time, and there's humor in it for everybody of every age. Older people will get certain references and younger people will find other things funny. The music is fun, and our Director, Nick Demos, he approached it like this is a party and the audience is invited. That's kind of how we approached this, and on Friday and Saturday nights, the audience will be invited to come down on the stage and continue the party and dance. The bar will stay open, so it's a party, and you're invited.
JD: Wow! Sounds fun. Well thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed speaking with you and I hope the run of XANADU is a huge success.
JB: Well thank you so much for doing this. It was great speaking with you as well.
Photo credit: Kirk R. Tuck