Women & Shakespeare Spotlight: Beth Gardiner

Women & Shakespeare Spotlight: Beth Gardiner

This post is part of our continuing series “Women & Shakespeare”, as part of Women’s History Month at GRSF. Today’s interview is with Beth Gardiner, who is a director in the company. In past years with the Festival, she has directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Servant of Two Masters. This season, Beth will be directing The Tempest.

Beth Gardiner, “agent of chaos”.

We started by asking Beth how she arrived at theater as her chosen discipline. She was always involved with theater as a kid, she said, but went to college determined to find something else. However, that was ultimately not to be. “The theater classes were the ones asking questions and provoking work I continued to be most interested in, so I went with it.” Sometimes you can’t avoid your calling.

Part of Beth’s early journey as a director actually began with GRSF. When asked about mentors, she shared the following:

I assisted [GRSF co-founder] Alec Wild on a production of Titus Andronicus when I was recently out of college. He told me the director’s job is to tell the story and to do the play. Sounds simple, but this bit of advice has stuck with me. When pressures about budgets, differing aesthetics, personalities, traditions or fads build up in the process, it’s useful to refocus on what my job is, at its core

That philosophy is very apparent in the work Beth produces. Her works are vibrant celebrations of the magic of theater – she invites the audience to wholeheartedly take a walk with her into the world of the play. One of her favorite things, she said, about the art of theater is “how messy it is!” For Beth, that’s where the good stuff is.

There are so many moving parts, a constant balancing act to get those parts to live beautifully together, and unforeseen events can change everything in an instant. That messiness is endlessly challenging and intriguing…and it’s honest. So much of life today is about presenting a perfect face to the world. Some theater tries to be perfect too, but I’ve always preferred when you feel like there’s a little wiggle in the event, like it’s living and breathing and changing right in front of you, because that’s where the good stuff of art and life happens.

There are always challenges, though. Like Mary Capers (wig & makeup designer for GRSF, whose interview you can read here), accessibility is a real sticking point for many artists. Beth said, “I wish theater was accessible for everyone. Theater companies and artists are thinking about this problem, but it’s still a super specialized, insular, often expensive way to spend our time.” She says it’s important for everyone to be able to go to the theater because great storytelling is incredibly valuable. “Everyone who wants should be able to participate and see themselves reflected in the experience.”

Much like her productions, Beth’s approach to the artistic process is unique. “I’m an agent of chaos,” she says. First, she gets a clear idea of the story she wants to tell, and from there, it’s basically anarchy. The zanier the rehearsal hall is, the better. She prefers to spitball and brainstorm with everyone involved, rather than lead the production down a specific path. “I’m consistently most excited and inspired by the problem solving and creativity coming out of those conversations. I think artists who collaborate with me must be either like-minded, patient… or have a lot of faith in the process.”

Antonio Duke, Silas Sellnow, Andrew Carlson, Leah Gabriel, and Anique Clements in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, GRSF 2018. Photo by Dan Norman.

Ultimately, Beth sees her role as that of someone who makes space for and encourages others’ ideas. It’s not just about her vision. For Beth, successful directing means that when the project is complete, it hasn’t been about her at all. “It’s never just my work,” she said. “There are scores, sometimes hundreds, of people who make live theater happen. My job is to encourage and make space for everyone (including the audience) to bring their brightest, fullest, bravest selves to whatever we’re trying make.”

Since she joined the company, Beth’s approach to directing has felt like a natural fit for the festival – it is collaborative and places a huge emphasis on not only audience experience but often times audience involvement. In her production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (GRSF 2018), the production concluded with a magical moment where Oberon encouraged the audience to activate tiny glowsticks that had been distributed at the end of intermission. The result was an enchanted sea of glowing lights where every audience member immediately became part of Titania and Oberon’s fairy band. In her adaptation of The Servant of Two Masters (GRSF 2019), Beth’s acting group were invited to have moments of improv, and she collaborated with actor Silas Sellnow on writing songs specifically for the show. The company also had opportunities to invite an audience member on stage to take on the role of “The Doctor” – where a volunteer was able to stay in their seat but was cued from the stage by Christopher Gerson wielding a frying pan. The result was a hilarious bit that changed from performance to performance.

Leah Gabriel and Daniel Stewart in The Servant of Two Masters, GRSF 2019. Photo by Dan Norman.

Although Beth only began working for GRSF in 2018, she was in the audience opening weekend for the very first festival in 2004. Tarah Flanagan saw Beth’s work in New York and recommended her to Artistic Director Doug Scholz-Carlson as a possible director for Midsummer in 2018. Beth said, “I had already worked with so many of the company members, it felt a little like coming home.”

Finally, we asked Beth about one of her favorite memories of working with GRSF. Her response summed up what many love about the festival.

One evening in my first season [Managing Director] Aaron was working late outside the theater to get everything set up for opening and his whole family was there serenading on banjos and guitars and singing. I grinned the whole walk home. Little kindnesses like that are one of the reasons I look forward to working at Great River. 

Make sure to get tickets for Beth’s upcoming production The Tempest – and join us this summer for some magic, some chaos, and a “little kindness”.