My Washington: Eric Schaeffer

On Signature Theatre's 25th anniversary, its artistic director talks about Sondheim, taking risks and visiting the monuments by moonlight

Not one to shrink from a challenge, Schaeffer directed his first show, “Oliver!,” at age 15 with a cast of, gulp, 72. After co-founding Signature Theatre in 1989, he took it from a converted auto garage to a gleaming $16 million venue that earned the 2009 Regional Theatre Tony and now draws 80,000 attendees a year. His Broadway directorial credits include “Follies” and “Million Dollar Quartet.” Here this month, catch fiery musical “Elmer Gantry” (October 7-November 9) and sensual play “Sex with Strangers” (October 14-December 7).

Signature Theatre

Growing up, did you expect to have a career in theater?

No, it was a favorite hobby, so I’m lucky to do something that I love every day.

Why did you choose Arlington, Virginia, for Signature’s location?

At the time, Arlington didn’t have a professional theater, and I felt there was an audience waiting for it.

How has Signature changed over 25 years?

The great thing is that it hasn’t changed that much. We’re still taking risks on new works and reinventions of old ones. We love to challenge ourselves and our audiences. We’ve become bigger, but our spirit and enthusiasm remain the same.

Tell us about a memorable moment during a show.

We were doing “Cabaret,” and one of the Kit Kat girls came off stage after the opening number all upset. The choreography had a lot of bending, grinding and groping, and she said, “Wouldn’t you know it, my minister is in the front row.” We all just laughed.

Is there a “dream” artist you’d like to work with?

I’ve been so fortunate to work with many legends in the business, but I wouldn’t mind being in a room with Cherry Jones. She’s an actress I’ve always admired.

If Signature had a theme song, what would it be?

It would have to be a Sondheim tune, so I’d say “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow.”

What’s new in your current production of “Elmer Gantry”?

Lots! I'm directing a brand new musical of this classic story with all new orchestrations. There’s a new script as well as six new songs. I feel such a connection to the material, so I’m excited to be working on it again.

What are some must-do activities for visitors to the D.C. area?

Seeing the monuments at night, when there is a great calm and mystery to them. I would also take in a show. There’s so much great theater here, from the classics to new work to musicals—something for everyone.

When you’re traveling, what do you never leave home without?

My iPad—it keeps me connected to everything. I have the kind of job where things can change minute to minute, and I have to stay on top of it all.

Where are you headed next?

To New York City for pre-production on the new Broadway-bound revival of “Gigi” and then to Paris for “Gigi”-related research.

 

Read about Schaeffer’s perfect day in D.C.