By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor
Erin Driscoll Gardiner, professional singer, actor, and voice teacher, and James Gardiner, former professional singer, actor and now Deputy Director, Publicity and Creative Content for Signature Theatre, are also both Professors of Musical Theatre Performance at George Mason University (GMU). They are, in addition, married with two small children. That’s a lot! AND because of COVID-19 they are currently working from home, learning new ways to navigate teaching, performing, and publicizing a major regional theatre. But wait, there’s more…their two small children, Gabby, two and a half, and CJ, five, are also at home. Just another family stuck at home while waiting out the lock-down and social distancing guidelines of Northern Virginia
Well, not so much! I think you’ll be interested to know what they have been doing since Signature Theatre and GMU had to close their doors and comply with CDC guidelines as well as state and local regulations. I talked with both of them at length and came away feeling truly hopeful about the state of the theatre in the future and the new ways schools have had to adapt in order to train actors and singers in the 21st century! (Some of the questions and answers have been edited for brevity.)
Zebra: So, Erin, you graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree with a concentration in Musical Theatre from James Madison University. And you’ve worked for over a decade professionally, as an actress and singer in the DC area, appearing, not only at Signature Theatre, but just about every theatre in town. You’re also Assistant Professor of Musical Theatre Performance at GMU. How is your teaching at the university changing since you can’t be in the classroom with your students?
Erin: I’m not teaching this summer. I just finished in the spring and it was interesting. Luckily, we worked with each other in the classroom before we went online in mid-March, which I think was helpful. I teach a class called Music Theatre Workshop which is acting through the song. I fortunately, had worked with my students live in the classroom for long enough so that when we went online, they already had the basics down before they had to commit to this new online format.
Zebra: What do you envision is going to happen in the fall
Erin: I’ll be teaching a musical theatre history class in the fall, which is better suited for online teaching and learning. We’ll save the musical theatre performance class for the spring. I’m also learning the best ways to use song tracks and how to find the best tracks for my voice students’ songs for their private online lessons. And we’re learning how to make the Zoom technology work better for our purposes, since we are all in our homes and have access to many different backgrounds.
Zebra: James, you have lots of balls in the air with your transition to publicity from being an in-demand actor in theatres all over town, directing, as well as appearing in lots of shows at Signature. One of those shows was the unforgettable The Witches of Eastwick in 2007, which is where you met Erin. Then in 2014 you decided to move to the front of the house and become Signature’s publicist, in addition to directing creative content. Additionally, you teach part-time at GMU in the theatre department. Let’s talk about your teaching first.
James: Well, when I started teaching, I was doing a workshop class and now Erin teaches that class. In the last two years, we created a musical theatre ensemble class which I co-teach with Erin. This semester, we were supposed to stage Spring Awakening, which was to have been presented in the Concert Hall, but it didn’t happen because of COVID-19. We decided to take the time that we would have been in the classroom and turn it into a Master Class Q and A with renowned artists. So the students got a chance to talk to people like John Kander, who wrote the music for Cabaret, Chicago, etc. and Eric Schaeffer, who is the Founder and Artistic Director of Signature Theatre, as well as Barrett Wilbert Weed, who originated the role of Janis Sarkisian in the Broadway production of Mean Girls. I guess you could say we took lemons and made it into lemonade.
We also did audition videos and sort of worked through how to approach auditions in the same way Erin was doing with her musical theatre workshop classes. In the future, regardless of what happens moving forward, auditioning online is becoming a new reality for artists.
Zebra: Which brings me to my big questions for you both. What does the theatre of the future look like? Will the theatre we have come to know and love come back?
James: Yes. But I don’t think it will come back soon…(he laughs), and I don’t think anyone knows specifically when it’ll come back, but it will come back! As far as the University, we’re still in the process of working out exactly what the fall semester’s going to look like. But we aren’t taking a wait and see approach, we’re being really proactive about making sure we have a lot of different contingency plans.
I think the one thing that I would add is that with the new format we are in online right now, especially as educators and working with these students at GMU, although at first we were a little demoralized by it, now many of my colleagues at the University are taking that situation and turning it into something really magical. When would our students have had the opportunity to talk to John Kander? When would we have had the opportunity to create musical theatre in this medium? So I think there are ways that we can create something really dynamic and magical, even if it is online.