Matthew Gardiner

Artistic Director of Signature Theatre
Headshot opf a man.

Photo by Christopher Mueller

Music Credits:

“NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of Free Music Archive.

“Into the Woods” words and music by Stephen Sondheim, performed by the cast at Signature Theatre’s 2022-23 production.

Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, This is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed

As we wind up our podcasts for the year, I’m going for the interviews that center on art that brings me joy…and I hope, by extension, will bring joy to you. I’m beginning with Matthew Gardiner—Artistic Director of Signature Theatre in Arlington Virginia and director of its current production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”

I’m going to tell you a little bit about Signature and a little bit about Matthew bwfore we listen to the conversation. Founded in 1989, Signature Theatre, a long-time NEA grantee, is a Tony Award winning regional theater company known for its productions of contemporary musicals and plays, reinventions of classic musicals, and development of new work. Since 1991, Signature has had a long relationship with Stephen Sondheim, producing 30 of his musicals, revues and concerts—more than any other professional theater in the country.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Signature_Theatre_(Arlington,_Virginia) - cite_note-WP-1-3 In fact, in 2009, The theatre established a Sondheim Award as a tribute to the composer with the first award going to Stephen Sondheim. Other awardees have included luminaries like Carol Burnett, Cameron Mackintosh, and Audra McDonald

While Matthew Gardiner was named Signature’s Artistic Director in 2021, his relationship with the theater is long and deep—he began working at Signature in 2006, becoming associate artistic director in 2011 where, aside from directing stage productions, he helped build the theater’s seasons and developed new work initiatives. I spoke with Matthew soon after seeing his production of “Into the Woods” which, as you’ll hear I thought was tremendous—of course, It’s Sondheim, but it was done with the insight, originality, and musical chops we’ve happily come to expect from Signature…Here’s my conversation with Matthew:

Okay, I'm going to begin by being full-out fangirl, which is I saw "Into the Woods" and I'd be here, like, bowing in front of you if we were face to face.

Matthew Gardiner: Oh, my gosh. You're so nice.

Jo Reed: No, I'm not. That was an amazing evening of theater. Truly amazing, so thank you.

Matthew Gardiner: Thank you.

Jo Reed: That's what I have to begin. And "Into the Woods" actually opened Signature Theater's current headquarters back in 2007. So tell me why you wanted to remount it again.

Matthew Gardiner: Sure. You know, "Into the Woods" has long been a really important piece of theater in my life. I remember seeing that “Great Performances” recording of the original production back when I was, like, 6-years-old and it sort of began a love for theater for me. And as I grow up, it takes on new meanings. As a kid, it was this wonderful musical adventure and as an adult, every time I encounter it it speaks to me differently as we sort of grow up and have children in our life. I have nieces and nephews. And as we experience loss in different ways, the play just opens up and becomes more and more important to me. And so, Signature decided about a year ago now, when Stephen Sondheim passed away, that we would dedicate our entire season to his work and "Into the Woods" seems like a no-brainer to sort of begin that commitment to dedicating the season to him.

Jo Reed: And what was your vision for this production of "Into the Woods?"

Matthew Gardiner: Yeah. As you said before, Signature has seen two productions before now. We saw one in 2007 that opened the space we're currently in, and we also saw a production back in our old garage space. So, I knew that if I was going to do "Into the Woods," I had to do it through a slightly different lens, you know. Not because "Into the Woods" needs fixing or because it doesn't work without a director's concept, but just to make it feel new and fresh for our audiences. And so I and the Design Team spent a lot of time exploring the history of fairy tales and specifically The Grimms' Brothers Fairy Tales that James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim based their musical off of. And as I dug into that, the idea of setting our story in a Victorian nursery really took shape and this idea of a space that had been left behind, this space where families would have shared these fairy tales with their young children. And the idea that now the space is being taken back over by nature was something that was really evocative to the designers and I. And so, it just created a lot of excitement for the ways that we could illuminate this story as if we were illuminating it through the eyes of a child.

Jo Reed: Well, you were also the choreographer, Matthew and this is a very busy musical. It has 17 cast members, I think, and they move around and through that stage a lot. The whole production was like a dance.

Matthew Gardiner: Yeah.

Jo Reed: What went into plotting that out?

Matthew Gardiner: Yeah, you know, it's complicated when you have a show with as many actors as we have and a really tiny space in which to tell the story. It's one of the things that excites me. I began my career as a choreographer. Before that I spent many years of my life thinking I would be a ballet dancer. And the thing that excited me about moving into the world of theater and the world of direction was how to tell a story visually. And so, you know, for some the idea of moving 17 people around the stage would be really daunting. For me, it's a really exciting challenge. And so to dive in and sort of figure out how these, as I like to say, the apparitions of all these fairy tale characters would weave and spin around the space was very exciting to me.

Jo Reed: I thought the way you used the stage was so interesting, and the way you moved those actors on, through, and around that set, it was often so unexpected.

Matthew Gardiner: Yeah.

Jo Reed: You have actors making entrances out of a fireplace or a closet or coming out of a trunk!

Matthew Gardiner: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think that was always what was really exciting for the design team and I was to say what are the surprising entrances we can create in this space? And one of the earliest conversations that the designers and I had was about how the story would begin. And one of the first ideas that came to my mind was the idea of Cinderella stumbling out of the fireplace and Jack coming out of a box in the corner of the room and so, the sort of surprises in the way that we could tell this story was very important to me. But then there's just the literal challenges of moving that number of people around the space. And you know, "Into the Woods" has the opening number and the end of Act 1 and the end of Act 2 and they're all slight variations on the same theme. You know, we have those opening lyrics of "Into the Woods," "It's time to go. I hate to leave. I have to, though." And then throughout the story he modifies that and so it's, you know, finding a variety of different movements as well as repetition of movements to help land those lyrics and also not confuse the cast members as we move through this story.

Jo Reed: And a big shout out to the musical director, Jon Kalbfleisch. And to you guys. You have a 15-piece orchestra in a theater that seats, what, 270?

Matthew Gardiner: Yeah. Yep.

Jo Reed: Yeah. That is a big creative choice.

Matthew Gardiner: Yes.

Jo Reed: Let's discuss how you came to that. <laughs>

Matthew Gardiner: Sure. I mean Jon, Jon has been such an invaluable member of the Signature story for the past 30-plus years. Signature's-- the musicality of Signature and our commitment to, you know, really showcasing these musicals as intended is in large part to a commitment made by Jon Kalbfleisch as a frequent music director at Signature Theatre. You know, for me, I think the orchestra is as essential as any part in telling a musical. And it is a big commitment for Signature to <laughs> have a 15-piece orchestra in a 275 seat house. Economically, sometimes that choice doesn't make sense, but artistically, it is something that we are deeply committed to. And so, we find the resources and the funding and we just stay committed to making that happen.

Jo Reed: I do want to talk about resources for a second because we know so many theaters… the emphasis often can be on two handers, things that are inexpensive to produce, and understandably so, especially after a pandemic. And you come in with a big cast, with an orchestra and I'm just curious how in the name of God <laughs> you paid for all of this.

Matthew Gardiner: Yeah. I mean, it was something that we were committed to and I've had a lot of conversations with other artistic leaders around the country who really, they made a decision to scale back and maybe that is the smarter decision. I don't know. For me, the decision to go big and bold, to create events that would make the audiences want to return to the theater, that make theater feel alive and robust and undeniable was really important to me. And so, committing to doing "Into the Woods" with a 15-piece orchestra and committing to doing "Sweeney Todd" with the fully original orchestration was not a choice I took lightly, because I knew the expense that would be. But it was something that I thought was essential, especially in a season celebrating the work of Stephen Sondheim. I didn't really answer your question. How does that happen? We have a really committed audience and we have really committed donors and board and staff that are committed to making that happen. And it takes a lot of work and energy and commitment on the part of every stakeholder at Signature to see that through.

Jo Reed: Many of the actors in the show are returning to Signature. They've been featured in other productions that you've done. And I wonder how you as the director create a community of the players and the creative team as you put a production like this together.

Matthew Gardiner: Sure. You know, when we decided we were going to do a season committed to celebrating the work of Stephen Sondheim, it was important to me that we were also highlighting the artists who have been such an important part in sharing Sondheim's work on our stages in the past. And "Into the Woods," in particular, is a story that's all about community. It's about the importance of community over the individual. And so it only made sense to me that the artists that were going to help tell this story would be an important part of the Signature community. And so, we all as a collective because we've worked together so frequently and know each other so well, that theme of communities carried us forward as we were putting this production on its feet and really was the thing that led us through the process in discovering what was important about sharing the story now and what was so urgent about it.

Jo Reed: I think you might have answered this. But from what I'm hearing, it seems the way you work in rehearsal is that there's a lot of back and forth among the actors and between you and the actors as you make decisions about what this play should look like.

Matthew Gardiner: Oh. Oh, definitely. I am very uninterested the artist as a pawn, right. That I am a director who just sort of is moving people around a stage. I am very much interested in their opinions and their artistic takes and in most every process we begin our journey by discussing why this piece is not just important to me as the director, but important to each of them as artists in telling this story here and now so that we can all collectively be on this journey together.

Jo Reed: I’m wondering if because Signature has done so much of Sondheim's work and you have a Sondheim award, whether you had a relationship with him and whether you would be able to reach out to him when you were staging a play?

Matthew Gardiner: Yeah. You know, I have been afforded many incredible opportunities over the years at Signature to be in Sondheim's presence. People ask me, like, sort of what my favorite memory is over the last decade that I've worked at Signature and it always was for the Sondheim Award I was frequently given the opportunity to go pick Sondheim up from the airport and be, you know, alone with him for 15 minutes and pick his brain and he was always so generous with me. As a director, what's a little bit sad to me is my relationship with him didn't really blossom until the pandemic when a concert production of a piece that we created called "Simply Sondheim" that really showcased his music and that was the one time that I actually got to pick his brain a little bit closer about the material that I was working on and get his feedback about the filmed production and that was, you know, only a few months before he passed away, I still have sort of the email messages and the back and forth between he and I that I hold very, very dearly and feel very lucky that I was able to have that experience with him before he passed away.

Jo Reed: Matthew, you are now the Artistic Director at Signature. You've had that role for a year now. So you put a whole season together, but how do you choose what you want to direct?

Matthew Gardiner: Oh. You know, it's interesting. People always think that, oh, if you become the Artistic Director, then you can do whatever you want and you can pick whatever shows you want. And what's interesting, I have found, is that really the job of the Artistic Director is not so much to pick the stories that you want to tell, but rather to pick the stories that are important to share with your community at that time. I think that for me as an artist what's important is telling stories right now that express joy and heart and community and I know it sounds corny, <laughs> but love. I think the world needs more of that right now and so those are the stories that I am attracted to and lean towards as a director and they're the stories that I'm the most interested in bringing to our stages at this moment in time.

Jo Reed: As we said, Signature is known for producing musicals and especially for producing Stephen Sondheim. So first, bless you for doing that, but then tell me, what was the thinking-- what is the thinking behind it? Why this embrace of the musical?

Matthew Gardiner: Why this embrace of Stephen Sondheim's musicals?

Jo Reed: Musicals in general, Sondheim in particular.

Matthew Gardiner: Yeah. I think musicals in general because I think music has a way of connecting us in a really deep way, in a really meaningful way that we can get across a message in a way that is really going to land. I think that's what makes musicals so special. In terms of Stephen Sondheim, I just think nobody does it better than him. I think that when it comes to musical theater for me, at least, Stephen Sondheim is the pinnacle and I think many artists, whether they recognize it or not, are sort of chasing how to sort of dive into this work in a way as sort of robustly and meaningfully as Stephen Sondheim did. I just find that his work hits me on different levels every time I encounter it. I can never sort of dig deeply enough into what he's done, what he's written and the art that he's left behind in the world for us.

Jo Reed: What's the most challenging part of directing his work?

Matthew Gardiner: You know what? It's interesting because I find that Stephen Sondheim's work is actually the easiest to direct because he puts it all on the page, every subtext, every intention, every idea is all there. There are other musicals that it's really hard to direct because the composer or the writer hasn't been as thoughtful in the way that it's created. And so I would say the hardest part of doing a Sondheim musical is living up to what he's written, <laughs> you know? Sometimes I say, "If it's bad, like if I've done this poorly, it's my fault. It's not his." And with other writers, I'm not going to name any, but with other writers, sometimes you go, "Well, this doesn't work and I'm doing the best I can to try to make it work." And that's just not the case with Stephen Sondheim. He's given us a gift. You know, with every note, with every word, it's all there.

Jo Reed: You've been at Signature since 2004, if I got that right.

Matthew Gardiner: Mm-hmm.

Jo Reed: Tell me about your history there. You came in, what, you know, I don't think in 2004, you thought, "I'll be Artistic Director someday." <laughs>

Matthew Gardiner: No. <laughs> No, not at all. Yeah, you know, my experience at Signature actually began because I my senior year of high school was the Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center. And It was just an unbelievable defining moment in my journey into becoming an artist. I saw every single one of those productions. I saw some of them more than once. And I recognized at the time that the Artistic Director of that wonderful celebration was Eric Schaeffer. And Eric Schaeffer was the Artistic Director of Signature and I, I just became committed to working with this man and working for a theater that was as committed to the work of Stephen Sondheim as I hoped my career would be. And so, I've been at Signature for <laughs> a long while now, as you said, since I've been on staff at Signature, full-time staff at Signature since 2006 and I've stayed as long as I have because the mission of this theater is so closely aligns with my own personal artistic mission, so.

Jo Reed: You know, we've been talking a lot about Stephen Sondheim, as well we should, but I think I'd be remiss in also not pointing out that Signature is also committed to the development of musical theater.

Matthew Gardiner: Yes.

Jo Reed: Not just producing the ones we know and love. And when you were Associate Artistic Director, you actually developed some of these programs. So why don't you talk about them.

Matthew Gardiner: Yeah. So, you know, Signature has, and long before I got there, had a deep commitment to the development of new musical theater. And we've had many programs over the years. The American Musical Voices Project, which was one of the largest commissioning programs in the country at the time for musical theater that was funded by the Shen Family Foundation. We've had the Musical Theater Lab. We've had the Yale Composer Project. So we've had many arms reaching out in terms of the development of new work. And I'm really excited because as we reemerge from the pandemic and as I was building my own artistic team, I was able to bring Anika Chapin into Signature as our Director of Artistic Development. And she and I are really digging into right now and looking at what Signature's development around musical theater is going to look like going forward and how to be thoughtful about that and create opportunities for composers that are emerging as well as for some of the most exciting musical theater composers today. So that will continue to be one of my driving missions for Signature is the advancement of this art form that we love so much.

Jo Reed: Another program you have is “Monday Night New Play Readings” which gives so many opportunities to DC playwrights.

Matthew Gardiner: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So on three Monday nights during the season, we are committed to highlighting the work of D.C. area playwrights. And this has been going on at Signature also for the past I would say for the past 7 or 8 years. I'm not sure exactly what season we're in. And many of these readings that we do end up having full productions on Signature stage. We did Audrey Cefaly's world premiere if "The Gulf;" Dani Stoller's "Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes." So we are very much committed to not only new musical theater but new work in general. And Signature always likes to begin in our own backyard, whether that is writers or designers or actors. As you probably noticed in "Into the Woods," the vast majority, I mean, 95 percent of that cast, are local D.C. actors. So it's really important to me that we look here first and we look at the people that are creating art within our community first. And there are some really remarkable playwrights that are working here. So it's an exciting opportunity on three Monday nights throughout the season to just see what some of the most exciting voices are working on here in the District.

Jo Reed: And we have to talk about your arts education programs because the work that you do in schools is really robust.

Matthew Gardiner: Yes. Yeah. We have so many amazing programs that are led by our incredible Education Team which I have to give a special shout out to David Zobell and Matt Strote, who really lead the charge there. And our flagship program is Signature in the Schools, which commits every year to developing a new play for a group of students that is around a certain theme that is picked by our staff as well as some of the teachers in Arlington County. And we have hundreds of students walking through our door every year to witness this new play that is created for a group of amazing young high school students. And then that, you know, that was the first program that was ever developed that's been going on since our days back in our old garage space. And since we've moved into the new space we've developed many other training programs including Overtures and Stage One and several musical theater training programs. And actually, I started my journey with Signature through the Overtures Musical Theater Summer Intensive back in 2003, 2004.

Jo Reed: As we said, you've been Artistic Director for a year. You came in a very transformative and difficult time in theater, facing the pandemic and what the pandemic wrought and a reckoning with diversity and accessibility in all aspects of theater. So let's begin with the latter and talk about how you and Signature are addressing issues of inclusion.

Matthew Gardiner: Yeah. I mean, I think that is the most important thing that has come out of the last two years is a real reckoning around the ways in which the American Theater has failed and can do better, you know. Signature specifically really made a commitment prior to the pandemic to look at the equity, diversity, inclusion initiatives that we have at our theater and that was only magnified when “We See You White American Theater” and the calls for becoming a more anti-racist theater came to be. And so, Signature has been working with wayfinding partners as well as really trying to ingrain our commitment to diversity and inclusion in everything that we do. I think there was a period of time pre-pandemic where, not everyone, but sort of the woefully unaware, including myself, thought, well, this is one compartment of the work that we do. When,in actuality, it has to be sort of put into everything that we do and everything that we look at, every lens through which we view everything, we have to be looking at how we are addressing diversity, inclusion and belonging and making sure that our space is one that is addressing the needs of all individuals. And, you know, it's interesting. I talk about this a lot, that musical theater was born about stories about outsiders. Whether you're talking about Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof," or Maria in "West Side Story" or any number of the great musical theater stories, it is about the journey of the outsider in a world that doesn't fully recognize them. And I think musical theater, particularly if we are a theater that is all about the advancement of this art form, well, then the stories need to be reflective of a broader swath of people and looking at the ways in which we are bringing stories of those who have been historically marginalized and not included to the forefront. Because that's what musical theater has always been.

Jo Reed: During the pandemic. How did you keep Signature front of mind for patrons?

Matthew Gardiner: You know, it was interesting. I think I remember back in March of 2020, when everybody thought, "Oh, we'll be closed for a week." <laughs> Which is hilarious to me now. And then, you know, a month goes by and we think, "Oh, this might go a little longer than we thought." And then we really had to shift gears to: “This is going to go on way longer than any of us initially thought. And how are we going to remain connected to our audiences in this time when it is unsafe for audiences to share space together?” And so one of the things that we were really lucky with at Signature was Signature had already developed a relationship with Chia Productions and my brother, James Gardiner, who's the Director of Creative Content at Signature is a brilliant video editor. And so we saw the potential to create opportunities to film art and still have artists come together and create something and remind our audiences of what they were missing in this time away as well as build a sort of national recognition for the work that Signature does. So, it was a weird time, a special time, a time that we were, you know, just trying to do something completely new and different to stay connected with our audiences.

Jo Reed: Did you find you were finding new audiences, attracting new audiences by being online?

Matthew Gardiner: Oh, absolutely. And you know, one of the first projects we did was "Simply Sondheim" which was a concert that featured many D.C. artists and a 25-piece orchestra and it also had some recognizable Broadway names involved. And the vast majority of the audience that saw that were people who had never been to Signature before and it was an audience from around the country as well as all over the globe. And so that was very exciting for us, to be able to go, "Here is Signature. We do musical theater. We do it really well. And Sondheim is our reason for being," <laughs> for lack of a better phrase. And so to say to the world, "This is what we do and we do it really well" was one of the more positive things to come out of the pandemic.

Jo Reed: One of the biggest jobs you have is putting together a season. So,what goes into your thinking as you put a season together and how do you work on having a balance of theater that we know and love and new plays.

Matthew Gardiner: Yeah. I mean, I think that's one of the most beautiful things about Signature is that we are both committed to reimagining the classics as well as putting new work on our stage. And so it is a delicate balance of looking at whether this is a 7 show season or an 8 show season, looking at sort of the balance of stories and do we have enough diversity of voices? Do we have something that is exciting and new as well as something that we can reimagine that is a classic standard musical? And it's tricky-- You know, it's hard to say sort of exactly how we do it. It's this tricky balance of having a lot of conversations amongst the artistic team at Signature as well as the senior team at Signature to sort of examine: “Are we looking at this season in a holistic way?”

Jo Reed: Well, I think in some ways you're fortunate in that Signature has two theaters which gives you some leeway in being able to produce new work while still embracing musical theater that we know, for example.

Matthew Gardiner: Exactly. Yeah. Definitely does. And I think that, you know, we're constantly looking at the ways in which we can use those two spaces to their full potential and capacity.

Jo Reed: So let's talk about what we're looking forward to this season at Signature. As you said, it's a season-long tribute to Stephen Sondheim. So what's on the docket?

Matthew Gardiner: Yeah. So we are-- we are doing three productions of his musicals. We're doing "Into the Woods." We're doing "Pacific Overtures." And we're doing "Sweeney Todd." All three are, you know, I think three of his greatest pieces of musical theater. "Pacific Overtures" is one that is not seen very frequently and so we're excited to highlight that. But I'm also excited to alongside those big three Sondheim musicals, to highlight the work of some young emerging writers. So to have Anna Nagara's play and Sylvia Khoury's play happening in the ARK Theater as well as Ethan Lipton's musical that we closed earlier this fall. And "Passing Strange," which is not a new musical but is more contemporary than any of the Stephen Sondheim musicals that we're doing. What I love about our season is that I think Stephen Sondheim would greatly appreciate his work being set against the work of some really exciting new voices in the world of theater.

Jo Reed: You've been at Signature for almost 20 years. What part of your job excites you the most?

Matthew Gardiner: Oh. Connecting people. What excites me is connecting artists, connecting stories to audiences. Yeah, it's connecting people. I love building community and hopefully that is recognized in the work that we do at Signature and as you said, like, you saw so many people on that stage that you've seen on Signature's stages before. That's not just a happenstance. That is purposeful. And certainly, we could bring in different artists every time we put up something on stage, but that doesn't lean into my commitment to building community and to connecting people. I count myself as very, very lucky to make a living doing what I love so dearly and that is to create theater.

Jo Reed: And I think that is a good place to leave it. Matthew, thank you.

Matthew Gardiner: Thank you.

Jo Reed: Thank you for the incredible work you did and honestly, I loved that production of "Into the Woods."

Matthew Gardiner: Thank you so much.

Jo Reed: Thank you.

That was Matthew Gardiner, Artistic Director of Signature Theatre—and director of its current production of “Into the Woods” “Into the Woods runs until January 29—if you’re in the DC area, give yourself a gift and go see it. You get more information about Into the Woods and Signature’s current season at sigtheatre.org and we’ll have a link in our show notes. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. We’d love to know your thoughts—email us at artworkspod@arts.gov. And follow us on Apple Podcasts. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

In this podcast, Matthew Gardiner talks about directing Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods as well as the emotional draw of musical theater and Sondheim’s mastery of it. We discuss Signature's commitment to musical theater and its development through its many programs, the theater's long association with Sondheim and what goes into staging an iconic musical like Into the Woods, the theater’s deep commitment to local actors and artists, its intensive and long-term commitment to an inclusive theater, and Gardiner's own journey into theater.

Let us know what you think about Art Works—email us at artworkspod@arts.gov. And follow us on Apple Podcasts