Brush away the dirt and soot and get ready to go over the rooftops with Toby’s veteran performer Jeffrey Shankle as he gives the readers of TheatreBloom an exclusive interview on what it’s like playing one of the most magical roles of his performing career. Shankle, currently involved in Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia regional premier of Mary Poppins the Disney musical, is playing Bert, the loveable jack-of-all-trades chimney sweep who reminds us anything can happen if we let it as he narrates the tale of the Banks family and their involvement with the infamous flying nanny title character.
Amanda: Thank you for taking time to come down off the rooftops and speak with me and the readers of TheatreBloom! Can you give us a little background history of how you got to Bert in Mary Poppins from here?
Jeffrey Shankle: Should I work backwards or forwards this time? Let’s see…before Bert, I had a spot in Memphis, I was an ensemble member with a featured few lines a radio DJ. In the summer I reprised Samuel in The Pirates of Penzance, and before that I played Lord Farquaad in Shrek and we started off the year with Patsy in Spamalot. I don’t think anyone wants to go back any further than that, right?
Alright, sounds great! Tell us a little about Mary Poppins!
Jeffrey: What would you like to know, exactly?
Why don’t we start with who are you and what the draw was to be a part of the big Disney show?
Jeffrey: I play Bert, who everyone knows as the chimney sweep. I can’t actually— I mean, I watched Mary Poppins the movie when I was little, but I hadn’t seen the film since then. I did see the show on Broadway, and then I saw the tour, and I enjoyed it. I think it’s a nice story. I like the music and I like the dancing and I haven’t danced in a long time so I wanted to take on another dance role before it’s too late. I think the only dancing I did this year was back in Spamalot and that’s nowhere near as much dancing as this role is. Now when I was on tour with Spamalot I danced a lot, but when I did it at Toby’s not so much because Patsy doesn’t dance. Well, he has “Bright Side” but that’s it. So I really wanted to do a dance role again before I lose all of that, you know, legs? Knees? Ankles? Feet? I wanted to get one more good dancer role in, and actually it hasn’t bothered me. I thought it was going to be harder on me than it is but it’s not, so I’m glad for that.
Since you’re so excited about the dance aspect of the role, let’s start there. What’s so exciting about all the dancing you get to do in this show and how is it different from other dancing you’ve done?
Jeffrey: Of course I like “Step in Time” because it’s the most fun. I love tap dancing and that’s the big tap number. Oh, and I also get to fly! Now, I didn’t know until after I was cast that I was going to get to fly. They told me once I had the part “Oh, yeah, you’re going to get to fly.” And I was really excited.
Flying? Isn’t Mary Poppins the one that’s supposed to fly? What was that experience like?
Jeffrey: She flies too. But my flying is a little different. And I actually had only two days to learn the flying. During tech week I had Monday and Tuesday for just flying, and we did tech on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday and opened that Saturday. Actually now that I think about it— half of that third day was flying. It’s actually not that hard, well for me. It’s more about teaching the people who are pulling the ropes to make me fly, and then me having to learn how to be in the harness so they can pull me right.
I did it so many times the first night— and they kept feeding me water. I kept drinking all this water and I kept flipping and flipping, and I finally said “I need to go outside!” and they let me down, and I ran outside and threw up in the bushes! I had to, but then I came back in and I was fine, I kept on rolling and haven’t gotten sick since.
I do flips, like I mentioned. Bert goes “over the rooftops” so in our production he’s flipping in the air. It’s a different feeling from trying to do an actual flip. Normally in gymnastics you have to throw yourself into doing a flip but with this you can’t. You just arch your back and go backward. It’s a lot easier but it’s hard too because you want to force yourself to do it. Your first instinct is to push yourself back and force your way through the flip but you can’t do that.
The flying section, that’s the big playground section for you because you get to really play with the dialogue and the action up in the air, right?
Jeffrey: Oh yeah. Bert can ad-lib as much as he wants. I mean the timing is pretty pre-set for what has to happen when and the lines of the song and all, but Larry (Director Lawrence B. Munsey) said to pretty much do whatever I wanted with it and have fun with it. I do some neat stuff up there. I’ve been a dog, a cat, a gorilla, I make a fish face, I just let loose up there and play around. It’s usually something a little different every night but I have a bunch that I go through. The audience really seems to like all the faces and gestures I make up there. And I switch up what I say from night to night, but I was told to have fun with it, and that’s a really great thing, to get to be able to play with that section of the show, it helps keep it fresh and exciting.
I think my personal favorite line in that segment that I’ve heard so far is “Top of the morning to you,”
Jeffrey: Yeah…I borrowed that from the Australian tour. I’ve done my research just to see what all is out there. You have to remember that I’m flying very differently from the other productions because it’s only ever been staged on a proscenium stage, so Bert on Broadway and Bert on the tour, walks up and around the frame of the proscenium and tap-dances up on the proscenium. There’s no proscenium in the round, so there’s no tapping on the ceiling at Toby’s. I fly over the rooftops, which matches the lyrics of the song. It never says anything about tap-dancing on the ceiling— it says “over the rooftops.” And I love it every night.
What about the other gravity-based dancing that you do on the ground?
Jeffrey: The other big dance routine is “Jolly Holiday” and that’s just basic musical theatre dancing. I get to ride a carousel horse around and that’s a lot of fun. I don’t think they had the horses on Broadway, now I can’t remember, they might have done it on the tour. But Toby had these carousel horses that she wanted to use and I think— there are carousel horses in the movie, right? I don’t remember. I think so, but I think they’re animated in the movie. But anyway, I think it’s a fun way to really enhance that number. It’s a great moment because it really reads well to the children and young at heart in our audiences— the magic that Mary Poppins is bringing them and then out come these carousel horses.
Bert is essentially the narrator for the show. Most people recognize that it is a story about Mary Poppins but it’s really Bert who is telling the story, what’s that been like for you?
Jeffrey: The way I see it is really that it’s Mr. Banks’ story and the children’s journey. Bert and Mary are just sort of the ones who facilitate the story and push it all around. I mean as Bert I get all the narrative. All of the “Chim-Chim-Cheree” numbers cover all the narration. They are all different yet they are all the same. Musically different, lyrically different, they’re all completely different and learning them was not easy. Actually I’m not so sure even ten weeks later that I even know them to be completely honest with you. It is a nightly struggle. I guess in that regard I’m just like Mary Poppins and only “practically-perfect.” Haha!
Do you have a musical number that you think really speaks to you as Bert?
Jeffrey: Definitely “Step in Time.” Definitely. Because he does all these different things, he’s an artist and he’s also the chimney sweep but he has all these different trades. I think that’s probably the one that he loves the most. It’s the trade he sticks with the longest. He becomes a chimney sweep at the end of Act I and then he is for the rest of the show. I don’t know if it’s the profession he likes the most or what, in the books he’s all different things. And in the movie he does that one thing— what is that squeezebox thing? I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s some sort of thing with all those instruments he’s like a one-man band. I think that’s supposed to be in this but that got cut somehow. I was blocked in at some point with some sort of musical cart or something. There were bunches of instruments, but that got cut. So he spends all this time as a chimney sweep and “Step in Time” is the big chimney sweep number. I love it. The tapping, the flying, what’s not to love?
Talk to us a little bit about the big word song.
Jeffrey: Which big word? Oh! You mean “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”? That’s probably my second favorite number. It was hard to learn. I get to make a lot of funny faces. It’s hard because you have to think about all these different letters and how am I going to spell this one out? Each letter has a different move. For one of the ‘C’ letters I’m doing a gesture with my hand over my eyes like I’m “seeing” something instead of just trying to create the shape of the letter ‘C.’
That was hard to learn because it’s 26 different letters— well, almost 26 different letters we do skip over a few of them here and there. There’s that one part— I forget— it’s near the end where we just take our hands and chop through like four letters. So we get most of the letters having all their own moves and that was crazy hard to remember. I like doing that number a lot. It’s bright. It’s definitely the brightest costume number in the show. Have you seen those wigs? Orange…purple…bright green. It’s colorful!
You get quite a few colorful costumes yourself, don’t you?
Jeffrey: Actually no, it’s only three— the exact same number I had for Spamalot, remember? Patsy, wedding Patsy and the gibbering guard? Well for this show it’s Bert as the street artist, then I under-dress the “Jolly Holiday” costume, I go back to the artist again and then I go to the chimney sweep. I know it probably seems like a lot more because I take a coat off, I add a scarf, I change a hat. The magic of costumes and how a character can look completely different with a simple accessory or lack of one and a little smudge on his face. Backstage burning the cork to get that perfect chimney sweep soot look for my face.
We all know— and if the fans didn’t know before they certainly do now— that you’re a huge Disney buff. But you did just tell us that you hadn’t seen the movie since you were little, but had recently seen the Broadway and tour productions. So what are you doing with this big iconic character that already exists in a few different formats in the minds of the masses— like Dick Van Dyke— to make him your own?
Jeffrey: When I first got the part I was determined that I didn’t want to watch the movie because I knew I didn’t want to do what he does. I don’t want to be Dick Van Dyke. First of all, Dick Van Dyke is what, 6’2? 6’3? I’m 5’8. It’s clearly not going to be the same kind of character. And I had heard, now I don’t know because I don’t remember noticing accents when I was a kid, but everyone said he was criticized for having the worst cockney accent ever. So I said “you know what? I’m not going to watch it. I don’t want to copy, I just want to do it myself.” This is Jeffrey Shankle as Bert not a copy of whatever was done in the movie or on Broadway. This is a new show under Toby and Larry (Directors Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey) and it’s a process to find the character and tell his story. And I think that’s what we’ve done here.
Do you share things in common with Bert? You, as a multi-talented singing, dancing actor are like a jack-of-all trades in a sense.
Jeffrey: This is the thing about Bert. He is there in the story to soften Mary Poppins’ rough edges. She has rough edges and his job is to come in and soften them. We were talking about this when we were blocking the show, Bert goes with her. When she needs him, she calls him and he appears. He’s magical as well and he goes with her. Bert is magical the way Mary Poppins is. I think because she does say goodbye to him at the end, he is magical all on his own and he goes here and there helping people like Mary where and when he is needed. She helps the children, he helps her. Maybe he’s the magic nanny for adults and magic nannies. I think they definitely have been on journeys together before they encounter the Banks’ family, though. I think, especially at Toby’s, I’m a little bit like that. I go where the director thinks they need me.
Bert is there with the children to help put the fun into the experience because Mary is so rigid. And isn’t that what acting is all about? Putting the fun into the experience for the audience? Maybe not for shows like Les Mis, but in a sense he’s there to put the magic into their path and that’s what I do as a performer. I put magic into the path of the audience.
Was there anything that you struggled to relate to with Bert?
Jeffrey: No. Nothing with the character was difficult to relate to. I never struggled with being Bert ever. All of my struggles were technical things and musical things. It’s very strange. It doesn’t sound strange, the music, but when you’re learning it— even when I first heard it I thought it wasn’t going to be a big deal— but learning it and doing it with the actual music it’s very strange and really difficult. For me it was not the easiest. It was a bit of a shock. I had done Sweeney Todd a few years back and I was sitting here trying to learn this music and saying to myself “Are you serious? I did Sweeney Todd and is Mary Poppins music really harder for me to learn and understand than Sweeney Todd? Come on!” I couldn’t believe it. I really struggled with it, but I’m in a good place with it now.
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious means something different for each of these characters. What does it mean for Bert, and what does it mean for you, Jeffrey?
Jeffrey: Hmm. I don’t know. I haven’t thought of it that way. I’ve always just thought of it as a made-up word that she created for the children and he just goes along with it. I think she made it up for the children. They’re all spelling out words. “I see dog, I see cat,” you know. Then Coby (Coby Kay Callahan, playing Mrs. Corry) makes up a word and then I make up a word. And then Mary says “this is the word I’m making up” and she uses all the letters. I think even though it has a big song with its meaning attached to it, it’s just her nonsense and her fun side showing through. That this is the first we see of that “anything can happen if you let it” mantra that follows us throughout the story. I think it’s part of the fun.
Bert says if he needs luck he shakes hands with himself. What do you do for luck?
Jeffrey: It’s weird, but I always do everything exactly the same. I don’t know if it’s for luck or if just over the years I’ve developed this repetitive habit and it works, but it’s always the same. I get dressed the same, I preset the same, everything is exactly the same every show. There’s one tap step that I go over before I go on for “Step in Time” and I always go over that one little tap step every show. I have a routine, a definite routine.
Anything funny from behind the scenes that you can share with us? People love reading that actors are in fact human too and mess up just like the rest of us do. Tell us your “practically perfect” moments.
Jeffrey: I’ve definitely flubbed up. That goes without saying. All actors do! There was one time— actually it’s been a couple of times now, you know there is that big parachute tent thing that goes up for Mrs. Corry’s shop, which is the “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” number. One time the two sides were down so the whole of center stage was covered and blocked. Half of the audience could see one side of us and half the audience could only see the tent. So we had to hurry up and figure out how to do the number around this half-hanging patchwork multi-colored tent thing. That was a flub, and it was hilarious. I just picked the tent cloth up and did all sorts of funny things around it. We figured out what to do if that happens again, you just pick the tent up and tuck it up high. Those crazy things happen in live theatre, that’s the beauty of the craft.
The other day we had a live theatre incident, you know the heirloom vase where the gingerbread stars fall out? It fell, it broke, and there were no stars in it! That actually wasn’t really my problem; it was David Reynolds’ (David Bosley-Reynolds, Mr. Banks) problem. But other than me having to not pick them up, it was one of those moments where you’re silently thinking “Well, good luck!” I mean it worked out fine, he scooped up an invisible star and mimed around it and it was fine. You have to go on in those moments. And I’m very fortunate that I work with a bunch of seasoned actors who really know how to keep the show moving when things like that happen. They don’t happen often, but when they do it’s great to know we all trust each other and can depend on each other, because as they say, the show must go on!
This is a real Disney magic experience for you, isn’t it?
Jeffrey: You know, other than working on the Disney cruise line I’ve never done a Disney show. I was on the cruise line back in 2005 or maybe 2006, somewhere back then. I was a main stage performer for all the shows. We did Disney Dreams, Twice Charmed, Golden Mickeys, it was a dream come true to get to be a part of that, I really liked it and it was a lot of fun but it was very hard work. Performing on a cruise ship is a little different from Toby’s I wasn’t waiting table on the ship, all you do is the show. Oh! And we did have to escort the characters around five hours a week. It doesn’t sound too bad but you do it every week and you’ll find out exactly how long five hours is. But this show is a first, my first Disney show on land. And yes, it is magic.
Anything can happen if you let it, why do you want people to experience the magic here at Toby’s?
Jeffrey: It’s a nice story. I think it’s a nice story and it has a nice message. It’s entertaining. It’s not the movie, but people think it’s the movie. It’s not the movie, but it’s magical. It’s great for families, it’s great for everyone, really. It’s wonderful, and like you said “anything can happen if you let it” and that’s the message, be open minded and proactive and enjoy life. You know, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!