Professor Joe Gardner's office shelves reveal the story of his nearly 45-years at Davidson. They hold a brace of old fashioned stage pistols that stood in for the real thing in "Frankenstein the Rock Opera;" toy mice that peek down from an upper shelf, recalling the era when Gardner hid them on sets and challenged colleagues to find them during the run of the show; a sleek three-foot model sailing sloop he crafted by hand, evoking his nautical background racing sailboats on Biscayne Bay, a two-year stint in the Navy, and competitions with the Davidson sailing team in the late 1960s.
"Wood-working is my meditation," he said. In his hours away from his campus office, he has built baby-sized ship-shaped wooden cradles for his seven grandchildren. Each bears a duck's head prow and a nameplate.
Resting inconspicuously on another shelf are three intricately crafted models of sets for some of the 180 or so plays he has designed over the years–sets that Gardner made famous.
Gardner's association with Davidson began as a beanie-wearing member of the class of 1969. He was introduced to theatre as a junior, and his involvement with that department covers all but a fraction of the entire time the theatre department has existed.
Though he teaches a full range of courses, his set designs are his signature–Gardner is a master at creating the infrastructure that frames and supports the life and plight of hundreds of characters. He has also designed lighting, costume and sound, has acted in a few plays and directed others, including "Cabaret" this spring.
In 1997, his set for "Angels in America" for Charlotte Repertory Theatre was featured on the cover of Stage Direction magazine. He has received 12 nominations and five awards in set design, directing and production from the Metrolina Theatre Association.
He has left an indelible mark on Davidson, over the years promoting and helping to plan the design of facilities that now accommodate the music and theatre departments and through his work with countless students.
In this Q&A, Gardner responds to questions about his distinguished career.
In this era of ubiquitous video, you can watch a movie or theatre show at will. How can live theatre compete with that?
Seeing actors in real time creating something that can't be repeated is like watching a wire walker perform without a net. Members of the audience bond in the same way as people in a stadium watching an athletic event. Being together like that builds and reinforces their energy. It creates bonds not only between audience and the actor, but within members of the audience. You can watch it on TV, but it's not the same. Theatre is about being there.
How is theatre appropriate to the liberal arts curriculum?
The goal is not to graduate students who will become big stars. It's about the growth and discovery students experience in our program. What we do applies so many ways–skills in collaboration, teamwork and communication, developing an empathetic outlook toward others, leadership... those are the type of life learning skills that can take a student anywhere.
How did you end up on the Davidson faculty?
There was no art or theatre major when I studied here. I considered majoring in economics as a step toward the family business, but quickly gravitated away from econ and toward art. That was a difficult letter to write to my father, who assumed I would inherit the family business. One day I visited Professor Earl MacCormac in his office to discuss my options. I was a pretty good writer, so Dr. MacCormac suggested I could major in English and minor in art. I had never thought of that. He ignited a spark that made me look at education and life differently, in a way that seemed to fit my own personality, desires, likes and skills.
So I took introductory theatre with Professor Rupert Barber and got more and more involved. I got a part in "Darkness at Noon," and then Rupert asked me to design a set for "Billy Budd" my senior year. I had no idea what I was doing. I just did it by instinct, but it worked and I ended up doing sets my whole senior year and winning the Drama Award. Rupert went on sabbatical to complete his doctoral degree after I graduated and asked me to cover for him in the department. I didn't teach any classes, but directed shows and kept the program going in his absence. I was a one-man shop. I even lived in his house and did a lot of babysitting! He and his wife, Carol, gave me a home and made me feel like family.
What has given you the most satisfaction during your tenure?
I'm most gratified for helping to nurture a strategic vision for construction of the Knobloch Campus Center. Union director William Brown '70 and I were roughly contemporaries, and shared a belief that a true campus center would transform campus life and create the "House of Serendipity" that C. Shaw Smith '39 envisioned, where exciting collaborations would arise simply because you were in the same attractive space. There was considerable reticence about the plan to repurpose Johnston Gym, but President Bobby Vagt made it happen. Looking back, there's no question that the building has met our expectations, and its Duke Family Performance Hall has provided us with a theatre and music space among the most elegant anywhere in academe.
At the same time you were working for Davidson theatre, you did a lot of work in Charlotte. How did you manage to burn the candle on both ends?
I got lucky because Charlotte was experiencing a flowering of local professional theatre production, so there were many opportunities for me there as well as here. I spent a couple of summers designing for Central Piedmont Community College, and for 19 years was a regular contributor to Charlotte Repertory Theatre. We worked out a system where I didn't have to be there physically the whole time. I would give them plans and models and they could do the work. It was a good collaboration, and opened up opportunities for many of our students to get some professional experience assisting me.
What are the favorite designs you have created?
Picking favorites over the years is tough. They're like my kids. But I think of "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" for technical achievements. The bar had to disappear, a small painting behind the bar had to morph into a giant Picasso painting, and the walls went away to reveal a starry heaven. In "Angels in America" at Davidson we suspended the angel above the stage as the walls cracked open to reveal her. I'm also proud of the "Tartuffe" I did for the N.C Shakespeare Festival, and a production of "Camelot" for CPCC. More recently, our productions in Duke Family Performance Hall of "Fiddler on Roof" and "Clybourne Park" were pretty challenging.
How did you choose "Cabaret" as your swan song?
This will be my third collaboration with Jacque Culpepper as vocal director, Bill Lawing as band director and me as director. We enjoyed working together in the previous productions, and were looking for another opportunity to collaborate before I go. We also wanted a show that would be right for students. But our choice of "Cabaret" from a political point of view was totally unintentional. The political climate now, after the November elections, makes this play more relevant now than at any time since it was written in the 1960s.
Though it's your final Davidson production, you aren't designing the set for "Cabaret." Why is that?
I've been crazy lucky that we have a new faculty member, Anita Tripathi, as our brilliant young set designer. "Cabaret" is a handoff from me to her. While it's my final show, it's her debut. We've had an overlap year that allowed me to mentor her. The department has had a long-standing goal of teaching students to design shows themselves, but we haven't been able to do that with my teaching load. Now with Anita, we're beginning to develop the design program with a full-time faculty member devoted to that area. It was a good time in the department's growth for her to step in. One of things that excites me most about this production is Anita. This is her moment, her debut to shine and come out. It's a gift I've been given, that someone is taking over my role and building something for the future.