“This is something that I have always wanted,” Gardiner said. “I feel humbled and grateful.” He invoked the words of Signature’s lodestar composer-lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, to help encapsulate his feelings.
“ ‘Excited and scared,’ ” Gardner said, quoting Little Red Riding Hood from Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.” “But mostly excited.”
Gardiner takes over the 32-year-old company, which operates two performance spaces in Arlington’s Village at Shirlington, at a tumultuous inflection point. The pandemic was only one of Signature’s trials of late, forcing it to shutter live productions for what ultimately will be 20 months. The company was also reeling from the sudden departure in June 2020 of its founding artistic director, Eric Schaeffer. He retired after two actors accused him of sexual assault — allegations that a lawyer hired by Signature to investigate found “not credible.”
“He had a mission to make a theater for the advancement of this art form that we love — musical theater,” Gardiner said of Schaeffer, who founded the troupe in 1989 with actress Donna Migliaccio, later a company star. “I am passionate about carrying that mission forward.”
Gardiner, who with his twin brother, James, a filmmaker and company communications staffer, began careers in Washington theater as child actors, was the unanimous choice of both the 13-person search committee and the full Signature board, according to Kathie Ross, a member of both. Of the 100 initial candidates, three were selected as finalists and interviewed in person, she said.
“It takes a certain amount of courage to hire the internal candidate,” said Ross, a veteran human resources executive. “You know that people are going to, you know, roll their eyes and say, ‘Well, what was that all about that?’ And you know, I just feel really good that we really were rigorous, and we came to this decision both open-minded and openhearted.”
Adam Gwon, a New York-based composer and lyricist, whose musical “Ordinary Days” was staged by Gardiner at Round House Theatre in 2014, was also on the search panel, chaired by Russell J. Schriefer, a Signature board member and leading political strategist.
“The two most important qualities that Matt brought to the table were expansiveness and accessibility,” said Gwon, who has developed work via Signature’s workshop initiatives. “His vision for how Signature could be involved in creating and promoting new musicals was so expansive in addressing every generation of people that is making musicals today. That diversity of thought really spoke to me in terms of a healthy ecosystem for theater and musical theater to thrive.”
In the more than a decade that Gardiner has been Signature’s associate artistic director, he has revealed a vivacious talent for both existing and original musicals: His stagings, for instance, of “Sunday in the Park With George” (2014), “West Side Story” (2015) and “A Chorus Line” (2019) put sensitive yet vigorous stamps on beloved pieces.
The shows also all proved to be financial successes for a company with special logistical hurdles. Signature’s main stage, the Max, can seat only about 270. Even though it can be thrilling to see and hear big musicals in a small space, the shows’ personnel and physical requirements present sizable challenges to the bottom line. During the pandemic, Gardiner shifted to digital performance, offering, among other shows, a revue in February, “Simply Sondheim,” that proved a palpable hit and provided the company with a new, global profile.
Like many companies, Signature, with a staff of more than 50, had to scale back during the pandemic. According to longtime Managing Director Maggie Boland, its annual budget was reduced from $11 million to between $8 million and $9 million for the coming season. A recent disbursement of $1.9 million from the federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program has helped shore up its short-term financial portfolio.
But the pressure on a new artistic director to sustain the company’s artistic health will be formidable, especially in a market as competitive as Washington. Such companies as Arena Stage, Round House Theatre and even Shakespeare Theatre Company look to musicals to bolster their revenue; the era of larger theaters with narrowly defined identities seems to be waning. Signature, in fact, has with ever more energy been spotlighting nonmusical plays in its smaller space, the Ark.
“I’m envisioning the evolution of Signature Theatre in terms of our commitment to the development of new work, what it means in terms of accessibility on all fronts — whether it is accessibility to our art through different mediums, whether it is accessibility for artists to get into our space who feel that there is no gate that is keeping them out,” Gardiner said.
One feature of Gardiner’s programming since Schaeffer’s exit has been digital work with strong representation by artists of color. Last month’s online production of “After Midnight,” directed and choreographed by Jared Grimes, was a case in point.
Gardiner has started to assemble his team: Mark G. Meadows becomes director of Signature Cabarets; Jorge Acevedo moves up to casting director and manager of artistic programs; and Chelsea Pace has been hired as resident intimacy consultant. Gardiner and Boland are commencing a nationwide search for a new associate artistic director and a director of artistic development, who will oversee new plays.
In addition to “Rent” and “KPOP,” Signature’s 2021-22 season will include revivals of the musicals “She Loves Me” and “The Color Purple”; “Daphne’s Dive,” a play by Quiara Alegría Hudes; and the world premieres of Lauren M. Gunderson and Ari Afsar’s “We Won’t Sleep”; and Chelsea Marcantel’s “The Upstairs Department.”
The new artistic director said he is raring to see all of it onstage — or rather on his stages.
“I think back to my professional career in D.C. starting 30 years ago, when I was in the ensemble of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ at Shakespeare Theatre. And since then I have directed or choreographed at all the major stages,” Gardiner said. “I mean, it doesn’t happen to many people!”