An Interview With James Gardiner at Signature Theatre

Founded in 1989, Signature Theatre is a Tony Award-winning, non-profit professional regional theater company that attracts some of the best and brightest talent from the Washington D.C. metro area and New York, entertaining more than 100,000 people a year in the D.C. area. Signature produces contemporary musicals and plays, reinvents classic musicals and develops its own new work. It also provides the community with engaging educational and outreach programs.

Signature began working and performing out of Arlington’s Gunston Middle School auditorium, before moving to an old auto garage they converted into a theater where they would perform for 13 years. In 2007, Signature moved into a beautiful new $16 million two-theater building that tripled its former garage space and now serves as the cultural anchor of Arlington’s Village at Shirlington.

Since its inception, Signature has produced 50 world premiere works, including 19 new musical commissions, and is home to the largest musical theater commissioning project in the United States, The American Musical Voices Project.

I interviewed Signature’s publicist and former actor of the Theatre, James Gardiner, to learn more about the Theatre and its many programs, and to learn about James and his brother, Matthew, Associate Artistic Director at Signature Theatre.

How did you and your twin brother, Matthew Gardiner, come to Signature Theatre?

Matthew and I first came to Signature Theatre in 2003 as students of “Overtures: The Musical Theater Institute,” which is a professional training program that Signature runs for college students and recent graduates. We were 19 at the time and we both knew about Signature and its incredible reputation. I think both of us were determined to meet Signature’s Artistic Director, Eric Schaeffer, and we saw the Overtures program as a way to wedge our foot in the door. Since then, our roles at Signature have evolved and changed. Matthew has gone from being assistant director to resident director to associate artistic director, and I’ve been everything from actor to playwright to publicist to content creator. Right now, Matthew is in Seoul, Korea to stage the company’s hit revival of the musical “Titanic” with an all-Korean cast.

You’ve performed in many of Signature’s productions over the years. Are there a few that stand out as favorites?

Absolutely! I loved being a part of some of Signature’s big hit productions like “Les Miserables” and “Chess,” but I really loved working on brand new musicals the most. Signature is nationally renowned as a leader in the creation of new musicals. Some of my favorites were “The Boy Detective Fails” and “Spin.” The opportunity to create a role that no other actor has touched before is thrilling. The show that undoubtedly had the biggest impact on me was “Glory Days,” which was a musical that I wrote with one of my best friends, Nick Blaemire. We premiered it at Signature in 2007, and it went on to have one glorious (or not so glorious depending on how you look at it) performance on Broadway.

How is Signature Theatre involved in the community?

Signature Theatre is very proud to be a part of the DC area, specifically the Arlington community. Signature gives back to the community through education and outreach programs. Outreach initiatives include an arts education program for Northern Virginia high school students called “Signature in the Schools,” a free public lecture series co-hosted by the Arlington County Public Library, free workshops and an annual Open House and Summer Concert that is free and open to the entire community.

What are some of Signature Theatre’s programs for youth?

“Signature in the Schools” is our flagship education program. It’s a multifaceted program that encompasses workshops for high school English, social studies and theater classes, theatrical training for young performers and technicians and the creation of an original play. The play is directed, designed and written by professional Signature artists, and features a cast and crew of Arlington high school students and an Equity-actor. We also offer the “Stage One Summer Training Program” for teenagers who want an in-depth experience in the world of professional musical theater.

You’re now a publicist for Signature Theatre. Can you tell me about your job and what your favorite part of the job is?

My official title is Deputy Director, Creative Content and Publicity, which means I do a lot of different things in the marketing world at Signature. As a publicist, I’m constantly looking for ways to promote the theater and our productions, and I love working with all of the great writers who are covering the arts on a local and national level. At Signature, I’m also involved with content creation. I’m responsible for the commercials that you might see online or on TV. I enjoy working with the artists and the rest of the marketing team to find new and exciting ways to promote the work. So even though I’m no longer performing, I’m definitely still using the right side of my brain!

You and your wife, actress Erin Driscoll, are now proud parents of an adorable little boy and you have a baby girl on the way. Do you hope your children will someday follow the Gardiner family footsteps and venture into theater?

I hope that they both find something that makes them as passionate as I am about theater. If that happens to be theater, that’s terrific. If it’s something totally unrelated, that would be terrific, too. My parents were both computer programmers, so the fact that they ended up with a pair of musical theater-obsessed twins is sort of a mystery. The best thing my parents did, though, was to unequivocally support us and our dreams. I intend to do the same for my kids.

To learn more about Signature Theatre and its programs, visit