Before directing his erotically-charged production of The Bridges of Madison County, currently at Signature Theatre, Ethan Heard had seen the musical during its original Broadway run. He knew and appreciated Jason Robert Brown’s score. Yet, when Signature artistic director Matthew Gardiner asked Heard if he would helm the company’s Bridges, Heard initially was hesitant.
Entering his second season as Signature’s associate artistic director, Heard, a gay, biracial Asian man, considered what he calls the “very white, very heteronormative” love story and wondered, “What is my access point going to be?”
So he went to the source material — that is, the bestselling novel, and the hit film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. “I watched the movie and read the script and read the book,” Heard says, noting the eroticism of author Robert James Waller’s language in the novel.
“I found myself quite moved by the relationship, the sensuality and the longing,” he continues. “I was just like, ‘Oh, if I can make this universally erotic, and really think about eroticism not just as sexuality, but as life force and vivacity — that we all want to dance, we all want to experience life vividly — then that’s something that I can totally enjoy working on and politically stand behind.”
Heard appears to be enjoying the work he’s doing since joining the Arlington-based outfit in 2022. Since 2014, the D.C. native, and Yale Drama graduate, had been serving as artistic director at New York’s Heartbeat Opera, a company he and friend Louisa Proske founded upon finishing graduate school.
Pursuing Heartbeat’s mission to make opera accessible to 21st century audiences, Heard staged acclaimed productions of Fidelio and Butterfly, among others, and, ten seasons in, though both founders have departed, the company is still going strong. That’s a testament to the leadership that started the enterprise, and some indication of the experience Heard brings to Signature, an opportunity that arrived on time.
“I got this wonderful email from Matt, December of ’21. It came at a really good time because, as so many of us were, I was questioning my purpose and my direction and trajectory,” recalls Heard, who had been teaching at Yale while also running Heartbeat.
“I was overextended, and my husband and I were in Connecticut, but it didn’t turn out to be so great in Connecticut, and it just was the perfect invitation,” he says. “I wanted to switch something up. I realized that having a home base, where I was full-time…was going to be really worth trying.”
Heard hit the ground running with his debut directorial effort at Signature, last season’s wickedly funny Which Way to the Stage. He followed that up with a sterling production of Sondheim’s notoriously tricky-to-stage Pacific Overtures.
“It’s a demanding show, in terms of acting and singing, complex score, maybe expensive to design, if you want to really bring authenticity to the Japanese aesthetic. I think Signature is so bold about programming Sondheim. And three in one year, I think we’re probably the only theater that can do that.”
The bold move paid off: Pacific Overtures was a massive hit. “We sold so many more tickets than we thought we were going to, and we could have extended, so that was a thrill,” he says. “There was a real appetite from the audience.”
Bridges is on the tail end of its run, while Lauren Yee’s biting comedy King of the Yees is just gearing up. Meanwhile, a blockbuster production of Ragtime, directed by Gardiner, is in the wings for a late October start. So the company is clearly keeping the audience’s appetite well-served — and Heard’s hands are busy in the kitchen.
“It’s been really wonderful to be on such a vibrant, supportive staff, who really care about the work,” he says. “The audience is so engaged, so loyal, and Matt is leading us into this new chapter and I think there’s a lot of exciting potential.”
The Bridges of Madison County closes Sept. 17. Tickets are $40 to $99.
King of the Yees runs through Oct. 22. Tickets are $40 to $93. Call 703-820-9771, or visit www.sigtheatre.org.
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