Interview with Jeff Gardner
Jeff has played Mercier, one of Chauvelin's henchmen, since the show opened in 1997. I enjoyed speaking with him as he shared stories about his famous grandfather and working with Colleen Dewhurst.
NR: Where did you grow up?
JG: I was born in the Bronx, but I was raised in Westchester County in a town called Scarsdale.
NR: That's pretty local.
JG: I'm a New Yorker. In fact I'm a fourth generation New Yorker, which is pretty rare. Both of my grandmothers were born in the City of New York, and both of my grandfathers lived in New York most of their lives, as did my great-grandparents. There are a lot of artists in the family tree, so my family stories include names such as George M. Cohan, Flo Ziegfeld and Leopold Stokowski.
I was bounced on the knee of Leopold Stokowski when I was three years old and my grandfather, Samuel Gardner, was the First Violinist under him with the American Symphony. He was also in the pit orchestra of the original Broadway production of On The Town. At the end of his career, when he was teaching at Juilliard, my grandfather got a call from a music contractor for a show asking him to recommend one of his students to be the concert-master for this new show On The Town. They knew they were going to have a very demanding violin score. My father was to enter college at the time, so my grandfather needed a good gig for money. He said, "Would you object if I took the job myself?" They were delighted to have him, but it would have been a terrible insult to ask a violinist of his caliber and stature to be in the pit of a Broadway show, as he was a soloist with the many of the great Symphony Orchestras for most of his career.
NR: It sounds like you've always been involved with show business.
JG: Since I was a small boy, the theater has been a big part of my life. By the time I graduated high school I had been in forty amateur plays.
NR: Is this a career that you would recommend?
JG: No. First of all, there's no money to be made in the theater, even if you're successful at it. I've never really had to have a survival job for any length of time in the seventeen years that I've been in the business, but I don't have much of a savings account either, and I'm reasonably successful. I'm 36, I've done five Broadway shows, but I don't have a "name factor" so there aren't people just dying to offer me a job. Unless you are very, very successful, it's a hard life. Most people can't survive not knowing where their next meal is going to come from. I'm used to the instability. Most people don't have the stomach for it.
NR: Are there good parts to it that keep you going?
JG: I love what I do. It's great. Tonight I get to do a Broadway show. It's what I dreamed of as a small boy. I love the theater. It's what I do. It's where I fit, it's home. There's nothing better than an opening night of a Broadway show. That's crazy, exciting. There are a lot of people who would lop off their left arm to do what I have done. When it's good, the rewards are wonderful.
NR: Have you done TV or film? If so, how do you compare them to the theater?
JG: My film and TV experience is limited but the difference between film and theater is easy to define. Film is a director's medium and the theater is an actor's medium. In film, you shoot it and then it's up to the director to make it work. In the theater, the director is in charge of the rehearsal process and then it's up to the actors to make it work. The director turns it over to the actor. In a film, the actor turns it over to the director.
From the audience perspective, a film can be seen many times and it's exactly the same every time. The theater is ethereal. Each performance exists only in the moment of its creation and in the memory of those who were in it or those who saw it. This is why theater is the stuff of legends and dreams. You can say "Oh, I saw it the night when this happened" but there isn't any proof. Whereas, in film, you can look at a little moment, and you can run it fifty times. You can talk about it and analyze it, but that's not true with the theater.
NR: I understand you worked with Colleen Dewhurst. What was that like?
JG: Yes, when I was nineteen. The name of the play was The Queen and the Rebels and it starred Colleen Dewhurst. It was at the Plymouth Theater in 1982. On the first day of rehearsal...we were supposed to be a bunch of prisoners and it was supposed to be very hot. I asked the director if I might have a thermos of water that I could work with. He thought that was fine. So, I was sitting on my box, doing my sensory exercises, (I was just out of acting school) pretending to pour the water, taste the water, smell the water, etc. Colleen Dewhurst was just going through the text one page at a time, seeing what happens. I didn't have any lines in the scene, but she sat down next to me in the middle of her scene with someone else. I looked at her, and I was holding this imaginary cup. I didn't want to be a coward. I said to myself, "Be strong and do it, or you don't really deserve to be where you are." So, in the middle of her scene with someone else, I offered her my imaginary cup of water. What I thought was going to happen was that she would pat me on the head and say, "That's very nice, but please don't interrupt me when I'm working. What are you, right out of school?" Instead, she took the cup of water. She walked across the stage, and while she was working her scene with Peter Michael Goetz, the other actor, she took a few sips of the water. She drank the last drop, and, at just the right moment, she jauntily tossed the imaginary cup across the stage back to me, winked, and continued on. At the end of the day, she stopped me and she said, "Thank you for handing me that water. That was very helpful." The message was, "Don't be afraid of me because I'm famous. That's our work." She was a real theater artist and she was letting me know that even though I was young, it was right of me to take that risk. She was encouraging me to be creative. Now, the prop man was watching the whole thing, so the next day, on the prop table was a thermos with some water in it and a cup, and the bit was in the play. It came out of the rehearsal process and so I shared a "moment" with Colleen Dewhurst that was my own creation. That's a memory that will stay with me, and it will remind me that if I ever get really famous, people will be intimidated and I should help them not to be intimidated. I think it's a sign of real greatness and generosity. That's a theater memory that I'll keep with me for the rest of my life.
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