PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Eric Schaeffer

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Eric Schaeffer It didn't take long for Arlington's Signature Theatre to get noticed after being founded 19 years ago. Winning a Tony Award took a little more time.
Eric Schaeffer
Eric Schaeffer Photo by Russ Hirshon

This year, the Washington, DC-area nonprofit is the recipient of the annual special Regional Theatre Tony Award. It's a long time coming for a company that has regularly been noted for its innovative reinterpretations of the work of Stephen Sondheim, as well as their rejiggerings of new musicals that didn't succeed in their first stagings elsewhere. It has been consistently successful in luring New York talent and New York critics down to its Virginia home, winning plenty of plaudits along the way. (Michael John LaChiusa's musical Giant recently played its world premiere there.) Since its beginning, artistic director Eric Schaeffer has been the face of the Signature. He talked about Playbill about how it feels to finally get that Tony.

Playbill.com: So, how did you find out the Signature Theatre was getting this year's Regional Theatre Tony Award? Was it a surprise?
Eric Schaeffer: It was totally a surprise.

Playbill.com: They just call you and let you know?
ES: Yes they do.

Playbill.com: And you didn't see Tony agents sneaking around the grounds for months beforehand?
ES: (Laughs) Noooooo. No.

Playbill.com: That would be cool, though, wouldn't it?
ES: Yeah. "Guess who's here?" Playbill.com: You guys have been in business for a while and you consistently gain good press. Did you ever, in the past, think "Well, maybe this year?"
ES: No. We really haven't. They have the American Theatre Critics Association, and they choose the winner. And they were all here the year before last, seeing The Visit. I know a lot of them said really complimentary things when they were here. Which was great. But that doesn't mean anything. Allan Williams [of Alan Wasser Associates, general managers of the Tony Awards] actually called the night before it appeared in the New York Times. He said, "I get to tell you good news." I was up there [in New York] last week for the Tony nominee luncheon.

Playbill.com: How was that?
ES: What was wonderful about it is Marian Seldes was the one who talked about all the Special Tony Awards. And she wanted to meet me before she announced the Signature. She looked in my eyes and said, "You're so young. How did you do this?" I said, "I'm not that young." She said, "Yes you are. Trust me."

Playbill.com: And you told her, "20 years of hard work. That's all it took!” Does it seem like the right time to you? Do you feel you've just come off a great season?
ES: Absolutely. The Kander and Ebb season and the season we just had were really terrific. It was typical Signature season where we kind of tried a whole lot of new and exciting things and reinvented some older ones. It was an amazing month, really. We did really well at the [DC] Helen Hayes Awards. Two weeks later we had the Sondheim Award gala, where we introduced the award, and Sondheim was here. And two weeks after that, we got the news of the Tony.

Playbill.com: So you feel on the top of the world. You're wondering, what's next?
ES: It's like, "When's it going to crash?!"

Playbill.com: "The Nobel Committee is on the phone."
ES: (Laughs) Yeah, right. It's been pretty amazing since April.

Playbill.com: These are tough times, economically. Do you think this award may help the Signature?
ES: I think it definitely will help. It's like that Kander and Ebb lyric, "Everybody loves a winner..." It gives recognition not just to the Signature, but theatre in Washington itself. The first theatre to win was Arena Stage. They got it in 1976. It hasn't come back to Washington for over 30 years.

Playbill.com: Of course, you know the downside of it: You can never win it again! You can only win it once.
ES: Well, it's nice just to get it.

Playbill.com: So where are you going to put the trophy? In the lobby?
ES: It is going to go in the lobby. However, when we bring it back, every day it's going to go on someone's desk. There are 33 desks. It will go around all summer long.

Playbill.com: So, everyone can casually say, "Have you seen my Tony?"
ES: Exactly!

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