Before becoming a prominent director in D.C., Matthew Gardiner, Signature Theatre’s associate artistic director, was a promising ballet dancer.
Gardiner studied at The Washington Ballet starting at the age of seven, learned under noted teacher Suzanne Farrell, danced in The Nutcraker at The Warner Theater for several years, and performed with The Boston Ballet.
“I was always dancing around the house and I was just fascinated the first time I saw The Nutcracker,” Gardiner says. “My mom did her research and found an all-boy ballet class that was starting with The Washington Ballet and it soon became two boys and a bunch of girls, until it was just me and the girls. That sort of continued until I was 16.”
By the time he reached high school, Gardiner gave up on ballet, concentrating on his new passion—musical theater. Now, he is getting the chance to combine both loves by directing Billy Elliott at Signature Theatre, which runs through January 6.
The musical, with a score by the legendary Elton John, is based on the acclaimed film of the same name, which follows 11-year-old Billy who wants nothing more than to dance. And being that he’s living through the 1984 miners’ strike in Northern England, his love of ballet is not looked on too fondly by many in his family or community.
“I loved the film though I never saw the musical before; honestly, I always wrote it off as a kid’s show purely of my ignorance based on the Broadway marketing,” the director says. “I really thought it was the boy version of Annie.”
Signature’s artistic director Eric Schaeffer convinced Gardiner that it wasn’t and he soon sat down, read it and began taking it seriously.
“I knew I would connect with it because it was the story of a boy who wanted to dance, but I wasn’t prepared for the story of loss and the community that is losing its voice, and the depths and politics of this show,” he says. “That’s what really attracted me to it. The story of the little boy trying to find his individuality struck me, but it wasn’t the only thing I gravitated towards.”
Gardiner admits that he was picked on mercilessly for doing ballet as a youngster, to the point where he actually changed schools because of it.
“I was very lucky in that I had a support system in my twin brother [James Gardiner] who wouldn’t let me be bullied, but I was certainly picked on,” he says. “In fifth grade, my parents moved us to a performing arts magnet program and I was more comfortable there because the students were more open to a boy dancing.”
No one in his family ever acted as if it was strange for a boy to love dancing, which is obviously different than the story of Billy Elliot.
In Signature’s production, Liam Redford and Owen Tabaka share the role of Billy Elliot, playing the part on different nights. Gardiner was able to use his background as a way to connect with them.
“I don’t talk with them necessarily about my experience because I don’t want to scare them, but it is easier for me to connect with them and connect with their experience,” he says. “I know where to access certain emotions and experiences in their own life, because I’ve also experienced it.”
Both actors were found during an open call in New York, and coincidentally, Tabeka was from Alexandria, Va. Redford is from New Jersey.
closes January 6, 2019
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While Gardiner has taught some classes with youngsters and worked at some of Signature Theatre’s camps, he hasn’t worked with kids too much as a director in the rehearsal room. He’s only done it on two times, and both only had one child actor in the cast.
“I went into it thinking it was going to be a whole different thing, but these kids, and not just the Billys, are so smart and so insanely talented, so I don’t find I am being an acting coach; I feel like I am talking to professional actors,” he says. “The more I treat them like I treat the adults in the room, the more I get out of them and the more responsive they are.”
One thing Gardiner does need to do is watch his language as he admits he’s one who likes to use explosive words to get across the intensity of a moment, and he tries not to do that with the kids in the room, even though the child actors curse in the play as much as the adults.
During the staging of the number “Electricity,” a scene where you must tap into something really personal to elicit the emotion and intensity needed in the moment, Gaardiner admits he needed to be a little more method about it with the youngsters. And while he hasn’t gone to the extreme that Vincente Minnelli did in Meet Me In St. Louis when he told child actor Margaret O’Brien her dog had just died to make her cry, he is trying to get some sad feelings, like asking how they would feel if they were told they were never allowed to dance again.
“I ask them to feel that and act that,” he says.
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The folks at Signature found themselves with some of the same marketing problems that Broadway originally did—the same thing that made Gardiner originally have a wrong impression about the show—and that is how do you market a story about a boy dancer with so many deeper themes.
“That’s the trick. You don’t want to scare off the families because they will enjoy it, but adults are not necessarily aware of how moving and deep and relevant the themes in this story are,” Gardiner says. “We’ve talked a lot about the images we are putting out there and specifically decided not to put a picture of a child dancing in the air in a joyous expression. The poster is not dark, but it’s more somber that that.”
The marketing campaign also includes educational material about the miners’ strike to engage people who want serious pieces of theater.
“Our goal is to let people know that while this is uplifting and joyous and moving, it is also filled with very important themes,” Gardiner says.
Gardiner has talked with family and friends about how he wishes Billy Elliot had been made a decade earlier because he feels it’s a role he could have played and could have inspired him to dance even more.
“I don’t know if I know a show like this that is truly for everyone and will hit everyone in many different ways,” he says. “It’s a family-friendly show with a great language about allowing children to carve their own path and follow their dreams, but at the same time, it’s a musical that is political and resonates today about the voiceless and communities that feel forgotten.”