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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Erin Driscoll Gardiner

The award winning DC theatre artist on directing a lesser known Broadway musical with her students in pandemic times

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Erin Driscoll Gardiner
Erin Driscoll Gardiner.
Photo by Christopher Mueller.

You most likely know today's subject Erin Driscoll Gardiner as a superb performer. Some of her most memorable performances over the years include the title role in Violet and Cinderella in Into the Woods at Ford's Theatre, many productions at Signature Theatre including a Helen Hayes Award winning performance as Hope Cladwell in Urinetown, and of course her solo cabarets where her angelic voice always rings like a band of angels.

When not performing, Erin can be found shaping the next generation of musical theatre performers as a private voice teacher and on the staff of George Mason University where she is an Assistant Professor of Musical Theatre.

She is currently living her theatre life directing the almost never produced Broadway musical Runaways at Mason which will perform outdoors at the campus' A. Linwood Holton Jr. Plaza. The production plays on April 30th at 8:00pm and May 1st at 2:00 and 8:00pm.

Read on to see how Erin and her team (including musical director Joe Walsh) are able to stage a full-blown musical in the middle of a pandemic.

Erin Driscoll Gardiner is and always will be one of my favorite artists of the DC theatre community. The fact that students at George Mason University are able to have the experience of working with her on a production makes them extremely lucky.

As you can imagine, seating for Runaways is very limited so grab your seats as soon as you can.

It's a chance to see a little produced Broadway musical as performed by some very talented young performers, and to witness the fine directorial work of Erin Driscoll Gardiner.

How did your position in the theatre department at Mason come about?

My husband James became an adjunct faculty member of Theater at Mason almost 9 years ago. Back then, he asked me to substitute teach one of his classes. I remember calling him after and trying to explain the high I felt when working with the students. When he started working full time at Signature, I took over his Music Theater Workshop class. That expanded to Musical Theater Workshop and Musical Theater History, plus James and I were co-directing shows for Mason. Last spring (right before COVID struck) the theater department hired me as full-time faculty and I could not have been more thrilled.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Erin Driscoll Gardiner
Erin Driscoll Gardiner (on ground right front) in rehearsal with her cast for the upcoming George Mason University production of Runaways.
Photo by Amelia McGinnis.

Musical theatre junkies know that the musical Runaways is hardly ever performed. (The Encores! Off-Center version was an exception.) What was it about this show that made you think it would be a good choice to produce at Mason?

The faculty and I went back and forth about what would be the right show for Mason during this time. We are doing a season of Jubilee to celebrate underrepresented voices in theater. As the book writer, lyricist and composer of Runaways, Elizabeth Swados is definitely one of those voices and the show's documentary quality captured a broad range of diverse perspectives. In addition, the show had multiple opportunities for students. It requires a diverse cast and features English, Spanish and American Sign Language.

Can you please give us a brief overview of the show?

The show is about homeless youth in New York City. All the material is based on real interviews Swados conducted with homeless children in 1978.

Runaways was originally written and performed in the early 1980s. Have you made any updates to the material for today's audiences? Is the show still relevant today?

We didn't need to make many updates. In the front of the script, Swados tells anyone wanting to perform the show that there are no specifics on gender, race, etc when casting the show. No one actor needs to be assigned what they performed in the original. So, we had a lot of freedom to reassign monologues and songs. We needed to do that since we were taking the original 24 person cast down to just 20 students for COVID safety reasons.

The show is absolutely relevant today! When the show was written, the United States had 400,000 homeless youth. The figures today, PRE-COVID, are 2.5 million homeless children in the United States. With the pandemic, those numbers are sure to climb. If we can bring awareness to this monumental issue, then we have done our job. The cast has also picked a local organization that helps the most vulnerable in D.C. and surrounding areas: Casa Ruby. We hope to raise money and awareness for this LGBTQ bilingual and multicultural organization during the run of our show.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Erin Driscoll Gardiner
Erin Driscoll Gardiner in rehearsal with one of her cast members of the upcoming George Mason University production of Runaways.
Photo by Amelia McGinnis.

Producing any kind of live theatre right now presents an abundance of challenges that were not present pre-pandemic. Can you please talk about the process of putting this show together in a pandemic world?

It has been challenging to say the least. Our top priority is keeping the cast and crew safe. We have bi-monthly meetings to keep up to date with all safety regulations. The show was moved to an outside location for safety. All the blocking in the show is six feet apart or more. It has been difficult for the cast to sing and dance in masks, not to mention learn harmonies. However, the students have been amazing at handling all the challenges. The production team has been the backbone in making it all happen but happen safely.

How is the music being handled? Will there be a live band?

We had a live band that came together (physically distant) and recorded all the music ahead of time. The band is filled with Mason students and Mason alumni. We wish they could be joining us live but because of certain COVID restrictions, that was not possible.

When we are able to gather again safely, what are you most looking forward to about the return of indoor live theatre?

I cannot wait to feel the energy that is shared between the performers and the audience again. That closeness and feeding off each other...there is no substitute.

Special thanks to Assistant Director of Marketing and Communications George Mason University - College of Visual and Performing Arts Kirstin M. Franko for her assistance in coordinating this interview.

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