BWW Interview: Jennifer Buzzell and James Gardiner of Signature Theatre Talk Keeping the Company Vital and Strong Without a Live Audience

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BWW Interview: Jennifer Buzzell and James Gardiner of Signature Theatre Talk Keeping the Company Vital and Strong Without a Live Audience
Jennifer Buzzell and James Gardiner

Many theatres around the world have started engaging their audiences with lots of digital content since the COVID-19 pandemic started back in March.

Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA has taken the idea of digital content and has kicked it up many notches. They were the first area company to stream one of their productions with Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes. The play was shuttered mid-run.

The company has a vast video archive and is constantly releasing new clips from past productions every week. They are also producing a weekly Facebook Live series called Signature Strong-Live! which is hosted by Signature Theatre's Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer and Associate Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner. The two host the show every other week. You can see it every Tuesday night at 8:00 pm on the Signature Theatre Facebook page and then it lives forever on You Tube if you miss the live broadcast.

The two main people in charge of putting out all of Signature Theatre's digital content are Director of Marketing and Sales Jennifer "Jen" Buzzell and Deputy Director, Creative Content and Publicity James Gardiner.

Jen came to Signature Theatre from Strathmore a few years ago and does a superior job in marketing the company. You might remember James from his many performances onstage at Signature Theatre and elsewhere before taking his current job on the other side of the footlights.

Read on to see what some of the challenges are in trying to help keep a major theatre company vital and in the public eye from home. I am sure some of you will be able to identify.

This piece was written to show you how important the marketing department of a theatre is and why they are needed during these tough times. You have to constantly remind your patrons that just because there isn't anything live going on your company doesn't stop.

Stay safe everyone!!

When this pandemic started what did you decide the initial plan of attack would be for keeping Signature Theatre in the spotlight as far as digital community engagement?

Jen- When this all began we had a few main goals, one was to deliver on the promise we had made to audiences who bought tickets to our shows and the other was to supply some way for audiences who could no longer visit our physical building to get a Signature show experience. The very first thing we did when it looked like we would have to cease live performances was hire a crew to come in and get Dani Danger Stoller's Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes on film. We felt the show itself would translate really well on film and wanted to make sure the ticket buyers in the final two weeks of mostly sold out performances got to see this hilarious work by this talented local playwright. Then the team started discussing releasing songs from past performances and that is how Signature Strong started.

James- Signature Theatre has put a tremendous level of importance on our digital content over the past several years. That content is a reflection of the quality of work that we put on our stage. Luckily Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer and Managing Director Maggie Boland understand the importance of that, so there hasn't been a huge learning curve for us in that respect. We have a large digital library to pull from and the tools necessary to navigate the new reality that we find ourselves in.

One of the ways Signature Theatre is keeping people engaged is through a weekly show called Signature Strong- Live!. How did it come into being?

Jen - Signature Strong - Live! was Eric Schaeffer's idea. With the success of the Signature Strong weekly video releases, we'd been talking about how to keep our #SigFam - our name for our artists, staff and audiences - involved and connected to each other. The show is an opportunity to hear some behind the scenes stories, learn more about Signature's history, and have a moment of levity and fun amongst all of the sadder news of the world.

James - We've been working with the artistic team to make the show stronger and more entertaining each week. What I appreciate about Eric and Associate Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner is that they want the show to be fun and an escape for our patrons. While I think there's value as a community in having experts and other talking heads debate and opine about our industry's new reality, I think our audiences are still seeking the escape that they found in our theatres. There's so much great content and art that we can create given our current circumstances and I think we're only starting to scratch the surface of what that looks like.

Jen- What would you say is the hardest part about doing marketing for a theatre that has suspended all live performances because of this pandemic?

I'm a glass half (or more like three-quarters) full kind of person, so I'm choosing to look for the positive outcomes of all of the changes this pandemic has brought on us. Theater is always at its best as a live experience - with artists and audiences in the same room and the energy between them flowing back and forth - but that isn't always possible all the time, or for everyone. Things that seemed insurmountable in the past now seem more feasible and are happening without the world falling down. For example, releasing Dani Danger Stoller's play on video proved to me we can do this, cost effectively, with high quality, and deliver it easily to our audiences. Why wouldn't we continue to do this once we return to "normal" and allow people who can't come to live theater on a regular basis access to the work. We could double or even triple audiences and pay artists more by making the work digitally available simultaneously with the live performances. Don't get me wrong, this pandemic has created a ton of extra work and left us with a lot of hard decisions, but for me this time has given the mental space and permission to throw out all the constraints of doing things because it is "the way it has always been" and think about what could be.

James- Part of your job is to create Signature Theatre's video content which includes all of the Theatre's promotional videos. From beginning to end, how long does it take to create one of Signature's promotional videos?

It depends a lot on the project and what it entails. Prior to the pandemic, my focus was pretty evenly split between publicity and content creation. Now that we're solely relying on digital content to engage with our audiences, content creation has become pretty close to 100% of my job. The live shows take me about two or three days to fully prepare for, so that's about half of my week right there.

With all of us quarantined and having to work from home, can you please tell us if you find it easier or harder to do your jobs via telework?

Jen - Ha! Other than the dream commute and the ability to wear stretchy pants every day this has been much harder for me. I'm a huge collaborator and I like to get lots of opinions on ideas and plans before acting on them. Zoom, and all the other remote working tools, have made doing this remotely easier, but it will never be the same as talking to someone face to face. Just like an important aspect of the theatrical experience that can't be replicated digitally is the energy flowing between the artists and the audiences, for me, an important part of communicating and working with the Signature team is the flow of energy and ideas in our face to face conversations. Adding two school-aged kids on top doesn't make it any easier. For instance, I just found out the other day that my son Myles had been missing assignments for his music, art and gym classes. Imagine the shame that I, a former music teacher, felt when I didn't think to double check assignments and class time for those classes like I do for his math and literacy classes, because those subjects are just as important. So my day is spent flip-flopping between work and making sure my kids are on track with their schoolwork and not spending all day watching tv or playing video games. I will say I am very grateful to live in Montgomery County. I've been really impressed with how the public school system here has handled the situation and communicated with families.

James - I'm with Jen on this. I have two preschoolers at home, which makes home and work life a tricky balance. So I definitely find it more difficult to telework. I also value face-to-face interactions with people. I'd much rather walk into someone's office and have a conversation about something as opposed to discussing it through an email.

BWW Interview: Jennifer Buzzell and James Gardiner of Signature Theatre Talk Keeping the Company Vital and Strong Without a Live Audience
Some of the Signature Theatre staff at the 2019 Sondheim Award Gala.
L-R James Gardiner, Krystle Kline, Erin Shannahan, Emily Adler, Jen Buzzell, and Dominic Mota
Photo by Margot Schulman.

When Signature Theatre is able to reopen, will there be any extra precautions taken to make the audience feel a little more at ease about attending a live show again? Is there any talk about reducing seating etc?

Jen - I really think it depends on when we are allowed to reopen and what the situation is with the virus. All of the early research, including the good work Shugoll Research has done with local audiences, has shown the all audiences won't be truly comfortable returning until we have either a vaccine or a cure. If we are allowed, and think it is wise, to open back up for in-person performances prior to a cure or vaccine, of course we will put precautions in place. Our front of house staff is working on researching the different ways we can re-image audience spaces and experience to reduce any further community spread.

It seems to me that Signature Theatre is putting out more content than any other area theatre. When the madness is over, what do you think the payoff will be for all the hard work the staff at Signature Theatre has put in during this trying time?

James - This goes back to something I said earlier, but I'm lucky that I work for an organization with leaders like Eric, Maggie and Jen who understand the importance of digital content. It's not enough to set up a camera at the back of the house, press record and think that that is any reflection of the work that you're putting on stage. So I'm hopeful that our work now only strengthens our resolve to create content that is engaging, fun and high quality.

Jen - Theaters across the world are putting out all sorts of amazing digital content - it's sort of head spinning to keep up with it actually! For Signature, it is important to us that the quality of the content we release meets the level of anything we would produce on our professional stages, and we are focused on inviting more and more people across the world to experience and enjoy it. I hope that when we do reopen the doors to the theater, people who discovered us during this time come visit for a live show - if their personal situation allows it - and if it doesn't, we have more digital content for them to enjoy!

To view past episodes of Signature Strong-Live! , click here.


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