Pippa Grandison: Stepping in as Mrs Banks
Pippa Grandison took over the role of Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins from Marina Prior in October. Neil Litchfield caught up with Pippa in her dressing room at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, before a recent performance.
Pippa Grandison is no stranger to taking over roles at the Capitol. She took over the role of Elphaba in Wicked from Amanda Harrison, and shared it for six months last year.
How have you found stepping into the role of Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins?
“I’m becoming the take-over queen. It was odd at first, coming back in here, but it’s a totally different role, and a totally different cast. Elphaba was quite huge - not that Mrs Banks isn’t a challenging role - but she’s a lot closer to my age, which means I get to sit down every now and then.
“Take-overs are all quick. There’s only a certain amount of time they give you, and there’s a lot of homework, but you’re on your own and quite isolated, then you’re thrown on to the stage, and pretty much your first audience is your first full run through the show. Your first dress rehearsal, your first tech run, and all of that happens on one night in front of a full-paying audience, so I feel the weight of responsibility to be up to scratch straight away. So I do find it tricky, but by the same token, that’s quite exhilarating, as long as you manage to pull it off.”
Did you find yourself building your relationships with the other characters on stage as well?
“I had quite a bit of time with Phillip (Quast), because there’s a lot of emotional work going on in the relationship between George and Winifred. We wanted to get that right, and he very generously gave a lot of his time, and we worked together as if we were in the rehearsal room for the first time. We played, we moved things around, and that was a godsend. So, when I got out there with him, I felt quite comfortable. I was really nervous before I stepped on, but then I managed to lose myself in my character husband.
“It was different with Elphaba, because she’s got quite a lonely track anyway, so yes, I was meeting people for the first time.
“I like to have a variety - I don’t mind if the performance changes when I get on stage. It’s quite nice, as long as there’s not anything really dramatically different that can stop the flow of the scenes.
“I like to think that I can grow in a role anyway, even if I’ve had it right from the start. Especially if you’re doing a long run, it’s nice to find fresh things, and with Winifred, there’s a lot of scope to play with.”
So you’ve been able to bring out your own spin on the character?
“I have, and I’ve been allowed to do that, and I’ve even been encouraged to do that, which is a dream. It’s another huge musical that’s begun overseas and come to Australia, so a lot of things need to be the same, the lighting design, the music, and some of the blocking needs to remain the way it is, but to be able to play this much is really quite a treat.”
“There’s a lot of pressure, and a lot of expectation on whoever plays the role of Elphaba. Wicked is a big machine, and quite rightly they would like it to be sung and played in a very specific way. Being a performer who’s been around for a long time, I’ve got certain quirks about me that were quite hard to squash.
“I enjoyed the challenge of Elphaba, and I really appreciated having had the gig. (Now that) I finally have the green make-up out of my ears, there’s something about Mrs Banks which seems to sit easily – it might be the age – and it might be just the right time, with me becoming a mum. I guess as you get older in theatre the roles reflect it in how much time you get to sit down. A bit less running around back stage. A bit less running around on stage. Not that I mind that – I don’t mind a challenge.”
What have you found about Winifred Banks since you’ve been playing her?
“I believe, and this is what I was also told on the first day by our resident director, that she is the heart of the piece. It’s through her love of George that you can see that there’s a good man in there. She’s quite an amazing woman, I think, because she tries to see the best in every situation. She comes from a place of love, forgiveness and compassion all the time. No matter what gets thrown at her she’s seeing the bright side. It’s quite an interesting character to play like that, and I’ve found out that she’s quite – not like anyone I know – she doesn’t dwell on things.
“She has a nice journey – a nice arc. There’s a kind of a free thinker in there somewhere, but she’s stuck in this situation. She doesn’t want to do the charity work and entertain, or to have the nanny – she wants to be a mother and she gave up her career on the stage to marry this man who she loves and have a family
“She’s kind of a fish out of water, so obviously with the introduction of Mary things get set in motion with her family, but it needs to get worse before it gets better.
“Playing her as she grows through all that is a really good journey, and she’s quite funny too.”
Has being a relatively new mum influenced the way you see the role of Mrs Banks?
“Ironically I was looking for a nanny right up to the last minute when I started rehearsing. I thought, this is ridiculous, the first thing I say when I get onto the stage as Mrs. Banks is, ‘George, I’m feeling so bereft. Another Nanny has left.’ And here am I desperately trying to find one before rehearsals start.”
“It’s the first time I’ve had a nanny. There’s a certain amount of guilt for me, and a lot of parents I’ve spoken to, leaving your child for what could be seen as a selfish pursuit; although it’s who I am, it’s my job, and I need one to pay the bills.
“I miss Charlie a lot, but I do think it’s made me a better actor having a child, and it’s allowed me to relate to the children and obviously as a mother on stage, a lot more naturally than I might have. I have more compassion and an understanding for children. I didn’t know much about kids before I had one. I didn’t really have any friends who had one, I didn’t really like babies, I hadn’t held one, ever in my life until I held mine. So it’s definitely helped me in terms of understanding kids, and enjoying them, and being constantly amazed by them.”
For viewers of television’s Underbelly Razor, Mrs Banks will be quite a contrast with Pippa’s recent performance as a nightclub singer.
Mary Poppins concludes its Sydney season at the Capitol Theatre on December 17, 2011, playing at QPAC, Brisbane from December 30.