Through May 6, 2021
Streaming tickets available at SigTheatre.org/Signature-Vinyl for a donation of $25 or more.
Prior to the pandemic, filming a rooftop concert wasn’t high on director Matthew Gardiner’s artistic docket. But tough times call for flexibility.
“We knew socially distanced performances would never work in our intimate spaces,” explains Gardiner, associate artistic director at Signature Theatre in Arlington. “So, we pretty quickly pivoted to film and the outdoors, the best way for us make to art in this moment.”
The inaugural result is “Signature Vinyl,” a Gardiner-conceived, 80-minute concert replete with joy while not neglecting the intense concerns of the present – pandemic and racial reckoning. Safely filmed and recorded on Signature’s roof, spots at the Wharf, and the grounds of a donor’s upscale digs, the project is inspired by Signature’s popular summer cabaret series with its celebration of retro-classics and madly talented artists.
Nearly 20 of Signature’s favorite performers including Nova Y. Payton, Rachel Zampelli, Natascia Diaz, and out artists Jade Jones and Solomon Parker III, accompanied by “Mark G. Meadows and The Movement” serve up rousing, fun, and moving interpretations of old favorites like “September,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Signed Sealed Delivered (I’m Yours), and “Up On the Roof.”
“It’s a gamble, we know,” says the out director. “We’re not Netflix but we believe there’s enough love for the artists in our community and for music and musical theater to engage an audience in a more cinematic film way.
“And it’s not only about tiding over until Signature gets back to live performance. It’s also a way to expand what we do. These projects won’t suddenly end when the pandemic ends.”
Gardiner has never worked harder. After the resignation of Signature’s longtime artistic director Eric Schaeffer in June, Gardiner’s responsibilities have increased many fold: “Essentially, I’ve been asked to put forth a season and fulfill the artistic mission of the theater in a time that is unlike anything we’ve ever had to deal with before. It’s been the most challenging time of my career – by a million.”
Signature’s dubbing the film a “cinematic concert” isn’t pretentious, but rather a way to differentiate the piece from so many other streamed offerings: “We’re producing some filmed theatrical experiences and that’s our goal at this moment as opposed to virtual digital, which to me implies it’s going to be on Zoom or YouTube in the livestream world,” Gardiner says.
And while filming isn’t easy during the best of times, during pandemic it requires strict adherence to the demanding safety precautions prescribed by SAG-AFTRA (the film and TV union) which include frequent Covid-19 testing and an onsite medic in addition to the usual social distancing, masks, etc.
Looking forward, Gardiner knows that theater will be different, and he’s more than fine with that. What leaves him leery, however, is getting back to live performance too soon: “I’m not for a rash push to make it happen by doing it in a socially distanced way that will make people run screaming from the theater. I’d much rather see theater come back full force — whatever that may be — exciting and vibrant.”
In the meantime, upcoming projects include a concert filmed inside Signature’s Max Theatre featuring an orchestra and a dozen artists familiar to Signature audiences and beyond (Broadway’s Emily Skinner, Norm Lewis, and Solea Pfeiffer), followed by a series of cabarets. “Filming inside makes filming outside look easy,” he says.
Gardiner describes the times as very telling. While some theater makers are taking time to breathe and reassess, others are working harder than ever to prove that art is essential.
Both are estimable camps, he says, but Gardiner identifies with the latter: “I’m more determined to create art when I’m being told that I can’t.”