Local curtains are starting to rise again — a little slowly, a little cautiously, but up they go as performers and audiences alike adjust to a new way of producing and enjoying live theatre. It’s a new world for nearly every theater, and even more so for Arlington’s Signature Theatre.
After over a decade as Signature’s associate artistic director and a year as acting artistic director, 37-year-old director, choreographer and producer Matthew Gardiner was named the theater’s artistic director. He succeeds Signature’s founder Eric Schaeffer, who resigned after being accused of sexual assault. It’s not just a new position for Gardiner — it’s a whole new world.
“For the last year, I’ve been managing a theater that can’t produce live art, and we’ve figured out a way to put something into the world,” Gardiner says, mentioning the virtual and streaming productions Signature premiered during the pandemic. “I feel the last year has prepared me for this moment — but as with everything else, there’s still so much uncertainty.”
That uncertainty not only comes from what seems like ever-shifting pandemic policies and procedures, but how (or if) audiences will return to live performances. Signature and the theatre world as a whole are on the precipice of something entirely new.
“It feels like a new chapter, whether there was new leadership or not,” says Maria Rizzo, who will play Ilona in “She Loves Me” in March 2022. “We’re opening back up in a completely new world. It’s never going to fully be the same again. And because of that, we’re all coming in with an appreciation that wasn’t there before.”
Appreciation for the reemergence of live theatre is one thing, but at Signature, it’s even more than that. The pandemic forced theaters to question everything, from their revenue streams to their commitment to diversity and social justice, to issues of physical, social and economic accessibility.
“Over the past year, there have been conversations about how theaters are sort of like closed, gated communities on a hill that only the most elite can reach,” Gardiner says. “We are now asking, ‘How do we stop that?’ I’m constantly asking myself, ‘Is our new play development program as accessible as possible? Are we transparent as possible in how we are making choices?’ You can’t just have a diverse cast and think that’s enough. If the actors are looking across the table and nobody on the other side looks like them, we haven’t done well enough. What happened in the past year gave us a little more time to delve into this work in a way that maybe a year ago we would have pushed off, thinking there’s not enough time for it. Well, it’s imperative we make time for it.”
“Having worked with Matt [Gardiner], it’s so nice knowing there are leaders who lead with an empathy that is so out of their own experience,” Rizzo says. “I know he’s the smartest one in the room, but he’s the last to speak because he wants to hear everyone else’s experience before his own. I think that makes for better leaders, and creates more room for development.”
Audiences could be forgiven for raising eyebrows to Gardiner’s selection for the first in-house live show of the new season: Jonathan Larson’s “RENT.” The production took the theatre world by storm in 1996, winning four Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. The musical spawned a generation of young, enthusiastic Rentheads who could always be counted on to burst into “La Vie Boheme” at every cast party. (Gardiner says he was a proud Renthead when the show came out during his high school years.) But will audiences want to watch a show focused around a deadly disease — in the show’s case, the HIV/AIDS epidemic? And will the Rentheads of yore, most of whom now have real jobs, mortgages, and the burdens and backaches of adulthood, have any sympathy for the ragtag band of idealists who make up the show’s community?
“A year ago, I would have looked at that script and been like, ‘These people just need to pay their rent,’” Gardiner says. “But I’m a different artist than I was a year and a half ago. Now, I look at the script and see things through a very different lens. I see things I should have been awake to a year ago. When you dig into the history of that part of New York City — the squatters in the ‘90s and their attempts to stop gentrification — you recognize how it relates to what is happening in this moment and it just seems so evocative and important.”
Katie Mariko Murray, who will play performance artist Maureen in “RENT,” looks forward to the community the cast will certainly create once rehearsals begin in October.
“Matt creates so much space for people’s needs and comfort levels; he genuinely creates space for others,” she says. “I’m sure it’s going to feel surreal, singing about a pandemic, and I expect it will be a very emotional time — but I have no fear that Matt will be able to guide the ship and navigate through this new territory.”
“I feel in this moment, this is where I can be useful,” Gardiner says. “This is where I can continue to push theatre forward, at least in this little pocket of the world. I know what I want to see more of on the stages of American theatre, and now I have the potential to make connections with playwrights and directors and artists and say, ‘This is the space in which to tell your story.’ This is work that will continue for the rest of my life.”
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