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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Matthew Gardiner

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Matthew Gardiner
Matthew Gardiner

You most likely know today's subject Matthew Gardiner as the Associate Artistic Director of Signature Theatre - one of the area's go-to place for musicals

Some past directorial and/or choreographic credits at Signature include Titanic, Company, Crazy for You, Simply Sondheim, Tender Napalm, and - most recently - Girlfriend.

Right now, however, Matthew is living his theatre life over at Round House Theatre as the choreographer for the dragalicious spectacular, The Legend of Georgia McBride. The production has been extended and now runs through July 8th.

As you will read, this is not Matthew's first time working at Round House. His work was previously seen there with Ordinary Days and Caroline, or Change.

His choreography for The Legend of Georgia McBride features a Judy Garland staging of "Come On Get Happy" from the MGM musical Summer Stock, MacArthur Park, and many more pieces to make you want to get up and dance yourself with the show's drag queens.

He recently traveled to Seoul, South Korea to stage a new production of the short-lived Broadway musical Doctor Zhivago. If that production was like any of Matthew's other stagings, I guarantee you it was an improvement over what American audiences saw on Broadway.

I have often called Matthew Gardiner a wunderkind of DC theatre and The Legend of Georgia McBride really brings that feeling forward. Here is a young man who has staged everything from serious drama and Sondheim, to light and fluffy musicals - and he is only in his very early 30's.

Check out Matthew's work on The Legend of Georgia McBride if get the chance. The cast is killer, Tom Story's direction is great and the design elements kick it. For an unforgettable theatrical experience you need nothing more than a lobby with pink flamingoes, men wearing sequins and high heels, and Matthew Gardiner's name in your program. Yes, that covers everything.

Growing up where would you say your love of the arts came from?

The first experience I had in a theatre was seeing my cousin's high school production of The Wiz. I was maybe five at the time and was just completely overwhelmed. My mother somehow got her hands on a copy of a video of that high school production and I would watch it incessantly. I was obsessed with all things Wizard of Oz, whether it be the original film or The Wiz. I would play the cassette tape of both and dance around in our house with my twin brother acting out all the characters. The love for the Wizard of Oz, led to a love for Judy Garland, which led to a love for Gene Kelly... and so on and so on. I think my parents were overwhelmed by having two little boys so in love with musical theatre. Neither of my parents were artistic. But they saw how much we loved theatre and dance and music. They did everything to make sure we were surrounded by the arts from a very early age.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Matthew Gardiner
Studio Theatre's 2007 production of Reefer Madness. Co- directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner. This was Matthew's first professional show as a choreographer. Photo courtesy of the artist.

You are known as a director/choreographer. At any point did you consider becoming a performer or was directing and choreographing your true passion from the beginning?

I did a lot of acting at when I was young and had some pretty amazing experiences here in Washington, DC. I was in Merry Wives of Windsor at Shakespeare Theatre Company and Christmas Carol at Ford's Theatre. I was in the children's chorus for several Washington Opera productions, and I did The Nutcracker at the Washington Ballet for years. My dad drove me and my brother back and forth to New York for auditions more times than I can count. So I definitely spent my time as a performer.

I spent most of my high school years thinking I was going to be a ballet dancer. I studied at the Washington Ballet since the age of eight and then in high school spent several summers studying with Suzanne Farrell at The Kennedy Center. There was a point, however, in all of this (and I can't really pinpoint when) that I became more interested in what was happening on the other side of the table. In high school I started directing some, mounting productions of Cabaret and Sweet Charity in our drama class room. I then applied for colleges both as a musical theatre major and as a directing major. I spent an incredible afternoon with the heads of the Undergraduate Directing program at Carnegie Mellon and really it was then that I knew direction and choreography was the path for me.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Matthew Gardiner
Rick Hammerly in Round House Theatre's production of The Legend of Georgia McBride. Photo by Kaley Etzkorn.

Can you please tell us a little something about The Legend of Georgia McBride?

I fell in love with The Legend of Georgia McBride when I saw the original production at MCC Theater in New York. The piece just had so much heart and I remember watching it and thinking I'd love to work on a production of this someday. When Ryan Rilette (Round House's Artistic Director) and Tom Story (Director of the show) approached me about the piece I jumped at the chance to choreograph the production at Round House.

Was this the first time some of the actors had performed in high heels?

It wasn't new for Rick Hammerly (who has played a plethora of roles in drag), but it was definitely new for Zack Powell. Zack took to it quickly, but there was definitely a significant amount of time early on spent getting Zack comfortable strutting, stomping, and feeling fabulous in those heels. I'm proud of the whole production, but especially of Zack and the work he's put into making Georgia shine.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Matthew Gardiner
L- The company of Ordianry Days at Round House Theatre. Photo by Danisha Crosby. R- L-R Theresa Cunningham, Nova Y. Payton, Olivia Russell, Kara-Tameika Watkins, and Felicia Curry in Round House Theatre's production of Caroline, Or Change Photo by Grace Toulotte. Both productions directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner.

This is not the first time you have worked at Round House Theatre. Can you please talk about your experiences of putting together Ordinary Days and Caroline or Change for Round House Theatre?

I think Ryan Rilette is one of the best things to not only happen to Round House, but to the DC theatre community. His vision for the theatre is clear and his taste is impeccable. I think he and I have a lot in common in terms of what kinds of theatre and which writers excite us. Ordinary Days was such a lovely experience from beginning to end and one of the first musicals Round House had done in a while. It was a great first experience to have directing at Round House. Ryan then approached me about Caroline, or Change. I jumped at the chance. The piece was a big one for Round House and it certainly tested the limits of the space and the staff (musicals are hard), but it was ultimately so rewarding and a production I was really proud of. Watching Nova Payton pour everything into that [title] role was something I will never forget.

You recently returned from Seoul, South Korea where you directed the musical version of Doctor Zhivago. What did you enjoy the most about being in that country?

It was an incredible experience. I love the people and the city, but most of all the food.

Did you need to have an interpreter to communicate with your Doctor Zhivago cast or did they have a good understanding of our language?

I worked with an amazing interpreter. I learned a lot about myself as a director from that experience and the way I communicate. When you are dealing with actors who don't speak English (or don't feel comfortable speaking it in front of you) everything goes through the interpreter. And I would say I learned a lot about the ways in which I communicate, both positive and negative. I think I've carried those lessons back with me to the States.

What does the 18/19 season hold in store for you both at Signature Theatre and elsewhere?

I'll be directing Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion with the brilliant Natascia Diaz as Fosca. Then I'm directing and choreographing Billy Elliot and choreographing the world premiere of Blackbeard. I'll also be taking our recent production of Girlfriend at Signature to another theatre, to be announced soon.

Special thanks to Round House Theatre's Director of Marketing & Communications Anna Mills Russell for her assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.

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