Photo: Trent Johnson

A Day In The Life: Signature Theatre’s Gardiner Brothers

Signature Theatre is a unique space among DC area theaters for a myriad of reasons, and chief among them are the pivotal roles played by twin brothers Matthew and James Gardiner. Each has their own history with the theater spanning more than a decade; Matthew has worked at Signature for 11 years, currently as the associate artistic director, and James has transitioned from acting in Signature productions to spending the past four years as deputy director of creative content and publicity. We caught up with the pair about what Signature means to them, how DC’s theatre scene has shifted and what it’s like to work with your sibling.

On Tap: You each represent a different side of the house at Signature. How do your teams work together?
James Gardiner: I came into this as an artist, and over the last four years, I’ve learned what necessarily works as an artist doesn’t necessarily work to sell the show. But I think I also am able to marry both things. It’s a delicate balance.
Matthew Gardiner: It’s very funny to watch when marketing wants something to happen, and James is on their side but artistic is not. James is always the mediator. He’s always the one who comes in and tries to convince us because we trust James [and] they trust James.
JG: This sounds like two warring factions…
MG: I find that human interaction of, “How do I get what I want?” so fascinating. That’s why I’m a director. How do I manipulate James into doing my bidding?
JG & MG: [Both laugh]

James Can’t Live Without
(According to Matthew)
Orioles baseball
His Netflix account
Final Cut Pro X
Broadway Sirius XM
His wonderful twin brother, Matthew

OT: James, what role does video play in your day-to-day at the theater?
I do all of the marketing content as far as TV commercials, trailers, online [and] B-roll. Five years ago, the content theaters were putting out in the DC area was not good, and I just thought we weren’t doing a great job of capturing our shows and presenting them to the world. MG: James is being a little bit humble about this, but before what he has done in terms of video for theatre in DC, people would put out videos, but they were, “We set a camera up in the back of the theater and we pressed record, and here are five clips from the show.” James has made it very dynamic, and he’ll probably deny this, but I have watched other theaters in DC try to emulate that over the past few years.

OT: What was it like to go from the black box theater on Four-Mile Run to your current location?
MG: I assisted on several shows there, and that was a magical space. There’s so many wonderful things about this building, but there are so many things that are harder about it because in magical little Shirlington Village (Shirleyville by day, Shirley Vegas by night, as we call it), you can’t get away with the sh-t that you can at a bumper plating garage that’s a little sketchy. You’re like what dark, crazy sh-t can we get away with in this [space]? Anything. Whereas here, people come up and they’re like, “When are you doing Annie?” Never, we’re never doing Annie. Sorry. And if we did do Annie, it would not be the version of Annie you’d want to bring your children to.

Signature Theatre DIL 1 (Photo - Trent Johnson)

Matthew’s Signature Must-Haves
Dreamgirls Barbie
Director notebook
“Questionable/Sensible” stamps
“You Are a God Damn Magical Unicorn” notecard
Finishing the Hat (a music theatre lover’s bible)

OT: How have you watched the theater grow over the past decade?
JG: Eric [Schaeffer, Signature’s cofounder and artistic director] and Matthew throw something into [every] season that just defies expectations to keep our audience…
MG: …surprised, on its toes. His desire is always for the season to feel diverse and eclectic.
JG: Anytime something starts to feel comfortable, it feels wrong. If something feels formulaic, we push against it, which I think is good. I think it’s healthy. I think it’s what keeps this building creative, and keeps our staff happy and engaged.

OT: What have been some of your proudest moments at Signature?
MG: What’s so cool about Signature is that it’s one of the few larger theaters in DC that doesn’t have a set seating configuration, and so we’ve been really trying and pushing to use the space in more dynamic ways. I’ve seen that start to happen over the past couple of years, not just in my work but in Eric’s work, and we really push other directors to do that as well. In a world that’s so hungry for entertainment to be right at your fingertips, how do we make it more dynamic?
JG: What’s exciting to me and what I’m most proud of is when our marketing follows that strategy of engaging [our audiences]. I’m proud of when we think outside the box, [and] when we do daring, new work.

OT: What productions in the 2017-2018 season are you looking forward to most?
This production of A Little Night Music [through October 15] is one of my favorite things I’ve ever see Eric direct, and such a remarkable accomplishment for so many DC artists that are involved. I think that it’s a really beautiful production of a show that I haven’t seen done well often, and I feel like I can say that because I had nothing to do with it.
I’m very excited about Light Years. I fell in love with the band Eddie From Ohio in college; my roommate was obsessed with them. So when Eric said that he was approached by one of the band members from Eddie from Ohio about a musical I was like, “What, what, what, what, what?” I just love when we bring in writers that are just over the moon excited to be working on a new musical, and Robbie [Schaefer] is one of these people. I can’t wait to see audiences experience it because it doesn’t feel like a musical. It’s got Robbie’s unique voice.
MG: [Next] spring, I’m doing a musical based on the Matthew Sweet album from the 90s, Girlfriend. The album tells the story of Matthew Sweet’s relationship with this girl, and Todd Almond took the album and made it about two boys living in the Midwest in the 90s [with] no gay role models anywhere to be seen. But he doesn’t change a single lyric of Matthew Sweet’s album. And then Crazy for You. I grew up on the films of Judy Garland and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly, and that is why I loved musical theatre. I haven’t been given a chance to direct a true MGM Hollywood musical, and so to be given the chance to do that, and imagine it in this space, is exciting to me.
JG: That’s my favorite thing too, whenever anybody’s like, “Oh, they’re doing Crazy for You? That old workhorse?” But then we do those shows and people are like, “Ohhhh.”
MG: I just think it’s funny when you
hear that. You’re like, “Have you all been to enough Signature shows to know that it’s not going to be the standard Crazy for You? [Editorial note: The brothers said Crazy for You in complete unison]. Alright, I guess not. Well, we’ll show you.” [Laughs].

Signature Theatre DIL 3 (Photo - Trent Johnson)

James’ Signature Must-Haves
Canon 60D
GoPro Hero4
USB flash drives
H5 Handy Recorder
Eric Schaeffer’s book My Signature Story

OT: What’s it like working together full-time?
I love having him here. We’re very bullheaded, but I think we also balance each other and help balance our departments. We defend each other and we defend the art, but we also defend other people in this building.
JG: When I was an actor and Matthew was directing, we ended up working together. And the whole time, it would work really great, and then in one moment, we’d be at each other’s throats. The other actors were like, “Jesus Christ, he’s really nasty to you.” But I didn’t see it that way. He just wasn’t sugarcoating things. He knows what he wants, and I’ll push back if I disagree. That was our relationship when we were little kids, too. We have the ability to fight, fight, fight, and then two minutes later, everything is totally fine.
MG: That’s just the way we operate [both laugh]. His wife will look at us and say, “I don’t understand you. You all were so mean to each other two minutes ago.” [Laughs] Well, we got it out.

OT: Signature’s team seems like a family in many ways, with familiar faces popping up in multiple productions throughout the seasons. What’s it like to work so closely, and often, with local actors and the rest of the creative team?
MG: The pool of talent here is smaller, so when you find somebody that you connect with as an artist and think is super talented, you cling to those people. You see that in DC everywhere because people are fighting for the talented people.
I think that it’s rare to have the opportunity to work with a group of actors as if they’re a company, and nobody is in a company here at Signature, but there is sort of an unspoken company of actors that we look out for and admire, and that we want to see in interesting, dynamic roles.
JG: And [these actors] are a joy to work with. A lot of people are talented, but the people that always jump out at me are the people that have awesome personalities. I want to have a drink with that person; I want to hang out with that person.

Matthew Can’t Live Without
(According to James)
Bravo TV
A sensible winter jacket (purchased annually)
His iPhone
The 1987 rom-com Overboard starring Goldie Hawn

OT: What goals do you have for Signature in the next few years?
MG:To keep creating experiences that not just tell stories, but create full, interactive, involving experiences for their audience. I want to see audiences out of their seats. Those are the most exciting things to me.
JG: I think we’re a leader in new works and in the creation of new works, but I think we could be even better and could go even further in challenging ourselves. I want to see our audiences get larger and our subscription numbers get bigger, and just engage audiences in new ways.

OT: How do you think DC theatre is changing, and what impact is it having locally?
MG: It’s gotten better and more professional, and the work that every theater is doing is more interesting. And the fact that there’s so much great theatre only makes what we do better. There’s a very healthy competition and fight, which is necessary. To survive as an organization and as artists, you need that. I think we all challenge each other.
I think the growth of DC theatre, and theatre in general across the country, is redefining what theatre is. There’s ways that we can defy expectations and do something completely different, and I think you’re seeing that a lot in New York [and] in DC.

Learn more about Signature Theatre’s 2017-2018 season at