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Side by Side With Eric D. Schaeffer
by Jerry Floyd

Though a small troupe, Signature Theatre has a large-size reputation for its confrontational production of works by artists including Sondheim. Artistic Director Eric D. Schaeffer directs the Sondheim repertory and also staged a controversial 1995 staging of Cabaret. Signature's next Sondheim production will be Sunday in the Park with George, co-produced with Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage in Spring 1997, when some major changes are planned in Act II.

In February 1997, Mr. Schaeffer directed an acclaimed concert version of Hammerstein/Kern's Sweet Adeline for City Center's "Encore" series. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Schaeffer was named director of the touring version of Big, which opens in Wilmington, Delaware in August. On March 19, Mr. Schaeffer was nominated for two Helen Hayes Awards, as outstanding director of a resident musical. The nominations were for Passion and for The Rink. Mr. Schaeffer will design and direct A Little Night Music at Signature which will run from May-June.

Mr. Schaeffer spoke with Jerry Floyd in Fall 1996, a few months after Signature's production of Passion ended its acclaimed run.

tOWARD The end of Passion's run, Sondheim paid his first visit to Signature Theatre. What was the composer's reaction?

At the end of the performance, Sondheim was emotionally moved. He said that he was sorry he had missed our other productions. He was impressed with the interpretation, voices and orchestra and the physical production. He talked briefly with the actors in the green room and gave autographs to audience members. It was a perfect ending to a sold-out run.

Earlier James Lapine came down to see the show and held a discussion with the audience, after the performance

The origins of Signature Theatre go back to Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, first directed by you 1989.

The production was presented by the Arlington Theatre Players, whose board sensed there was enough of an audience in the Virginia suburbs to take a risk. For $25,000, we purchased the sets and costumes used in the original Broadway production of Sunday in the Park with George. The production drew capacity, enthusiastic houses, demonstrating that there was indeed an audience for Sondheim - and other venturesome repertory - in northern Virginia.

What happened next?

Donna Lillard Migliaccio, cast as the Nurse in Sunday... and featured in several in Signature's Sondheim productions, and I co-founded Signature in 1989. At the end of our first season, 1990-91, we decided to treat ourselves with a production of Sweeney Todd.

The production put us on the map. Our audiences loved the show and we won a bunch of Helen Hayes awards (Washington, D.C.'s equivalent of the Tonys), including best musical. We've since staged Assassins (1992-93), Company (1993-94), Into the Woods (1994-95) and Passion (1995-96).

Why are you so turned on by this repertory?

I find Steve's work very rewarding for a director, actor, musician and audience. His musicals tell rich emotional stories that are exciting and challenging. There's no doubt that he continues to break new barriers in musical theatre. He's not afraid to tackle any subject that is unusual to the human experience.

For instance, when I directed our production of Assassins, we projected images of Kennedy's funeral on the set while the assassins pointed their guns right into the audience. People questioned me about it. "What's to question? I ask. I feel it's important to go out on the edge and put the audience in their minds

Cabaret, your 1995 production, caused quite a bit of controversy!

As audiences enter the theatre from the lobby, they walk down a long, shallow hallway. We extended the Cabaret set into this hallway, to replicate an old train car with steel girders. At the end of the second act, Nazi flags were draped on either side and there were sounds of goose steps and tanks rolling non-stop. I feel it's important for audiences to take the theatre experiences with them out the door and not just experience them in the auditorium.

The New York Times review of Passion and Sondheim's visit to see the show happened late in the show's run.

As with any show, actors grow in their roles with each performance. At Signature, we only have four previews before opening to the press. Passion is a very difficult show to maintain because of the emotional journeys taken by the actors.

I kept a closer watch on this show than any I've ever done before, because of its demands. So it wasn't an advantage or disadvantage. I was just pleased that people were so enthusiastic about our production and about Steve's work.

Passion has only three principals, fewer than in most other Sondheim shows. Was this production difficult to cast?

Yes! We auditioned 28 Giorgios before Lewis Cleale got the part. We only auditioned 18 actresses for Fosca. But only because I coincidentally saw Ann Kanegeiser (in the title role of Eleanor) in Chicago. As the show progressed, I sensed she might be the Fosca we were seeking. We flew Ann to Washington and asked her to read. We knew right on the spot that we'd found our Fosca, especially after she sang "Loving You is Not a Choice." As it turned out, we auditioned an average of 25 performers per role, lead and supporting. More than 250 auditions!

Since you have a background in graphics design, are you involved in designing Signature's productions?

We have a very talented design team. What I bring to the design table are ideas about the production's mood, emotion and coloring. I usually have a strong sense of the look and feel of the show from the beginning. Our set was a colonnade of columns that worked extremely well in bringing all the locales to life without stopping the action. As Clara progressed through the production, the color of her dresses became darker, to almost mirror Fosca in appearance. By the finale Clara's hoop was gone and Fosca became more dominating in a red/black elegant tweed dress.

This Spring you'll direct Sunday in the Park with George, for the first time since 1989. Are there any changes planned in the sets, costumes, or book?

I've begun work on the set design with Zack Brown. The physical production with be quite different from the original. I think it's important for the audience to fill in some of the dots.

Patricia Zipprodt, who designed the original costumes, is designing the costumes. We will use the original designs for the Act One costumes, but there will be some changes in the Act II costumes.

I've also talked with Steve and James Lapine about some new ideas we'll be doing in Act Two with the chromolume. We'll be using today's computer graphics. George will be more of a visual artist, with the idea of computers and the machine replacing the creative mind. It's something we'll continue to explore throughout the production's design and rehearsal.

I don't want to give too much away about what we'll be doing. We are all very excited about the production. I have a special fondness for the show and I think the time has come to witness a major revival. Hopefully our production of Sunday... will inspire other productions throughout the country.

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