A spirited approach

Matthew Decker

As he experienced late adolescence and early adulthood, Matthew Decker, fortunate to have found he had an instinctual draw toward theater, looked to locate more members of his “tribe” in the hopes of appreciating and advancing stage-based lessons. Thanks to his effervescent affinity for directing, the former Queen Village resident has aligned himself with many kindred spirits in becoming an award-winning overseer and is continuing to captivate audiences by helming the Arden Theatre Co.’s production of “John.”

“I love being involved with projects that offer opportunities to probe the depth of a playwright’s intentions,” the 35-year-old said not far from the Old City-based venue that is presenting the Annie Baker-penned piece through Feb. 26. “The Arden wants to address that severity with every show, so I’m very lucky and blessed to be a part of this.”

Decker, who resides in Center City, serves as the associate artistic director for the revered entity and has prompted patrons to express their gratitude through his masterful handling of many works, including last year’s “The Stinky Cheese Man,” for which he won his third Barrymore Award. Through “John,” he is giving the Arden faithful proof of his admiration for Baker, having guided her “Circle Mirror Transformation” for the Norristown-based Theatre Horizon, which he co-founded in 2005, three years ago. Set in Gettysburg, famous for the 1863 Civil War battle that raged there for three days, the intense play addresses the complexities of keeping love intact, standing up for oneself, and straying from allowing outside perceptions to cloud awareness of our identities. Because of the inherent unease within the script, with a young couple’s trip to a bed and breakfast making evident their strife and two locals’ demeanors and pasts revealing their idiosyncrasies and regrets, Decker dubbed the text a presenter of “great problems to solve,” and he has not backed down from any challenge since the mid-January opening.

“I never want for anything to be easy, so it’s always beautiful to find eager people to mesh with,” he said of his status as a collaborative conveyor of

plots, with the Arden’s website stating that “John” explores “spirituality, relationships, and other scary stories.” “This gives us chances to follow our own compass while being true to what writers were looking to accomplish, and it’s that synergy between those who write the material and those who execute it that makes me excited each time there’s a job on the horizon.”

That excitement has coupled with personal realizations, many bred as his mother courageously battled cancer last year, to endow Decker with greater admiration for the time allotted to each of us. He believes stellar stories can encourage means to deliberate on the best use of one’s finite journey, with “John” helping to intensify his compassion and consideration for individual challenges and his eagerness to tackle personal conundrums.

“I think it’s important to walk toward the light and to get at what motivates our actions,” Decker said. “I’ll forever feel that theater is not only a wonderful entrance way for answers to those questions but also a terrific way to see how important you and I and everyone else are to contributing to the powerful story that is life.”

The Roxborough native can credit his creative childhood for bearing devotion to delivering well-received shows to the masses. Reading, writing and exploring music registered as early interests, with Decker eventually deeming acting his likely vocation. Thinking of theater as a thrilling source of opportunities to encourage him to feel comfortable in his skin, the young man looked to the Big Apple for assistance, enrolling at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he studied at the well-renowned Atlantic Theatre Co.

“It was there that how I looked at a text changed,” Decker said of the institution whose founders include Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet and Emmy Award winner William H. Macy. “I started to have a genuine, unbending interest in the whole idea of a play, and soon enough, the idea of acting gave way to the possibilities present in being a director.”

As appealing as New York is, his home state won the honor of where he would look to cast his watchful eye over casts. Decker, whose family moved to King of Prussia when he was 7, gradually gathered perceptions of the City of Brotherly Love’s revered theatrical existence. While many local actors and actresses are highly familiar with the praise behind being hailed as “a Philadelphia performer” because of the term’s acknowledgment of their full immersion into their efforts, he stressed that being called “a Philadelphia director” can occur, too, if an individual truly cares about being a storyteller.

“There are no frills involved,” Decker said, adding that his ilk consists of figures fully dedicated to serving the integrity of celebrated scribes. “Even with original works, every decision is going to come down to what is going to be the most educational step in valuing an audience and its experiences.”

Armed with ardor for narratives, he has helped the Arden and Theatre Horizon, frequent employers for South Philly thespians past and present, to grow as havens for nuanced looks at what unites the human family as it faces various conflicts. The concept of resilience often comes through easily in a Decker-helmed offering, but so does the idea of seeing which lessons can come from struggles.

“We face drama each day,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a national or global event either. We’re all going through something, and if we’re fortunate, we’ll keep reaching for that sense of stability. What I’ve learned through many experiences, including my mom’s death, is that you can’t let small battles weigh you down. You’ll get through if you believe. That’s easier said than done, I know, but it’s rewarding to hold dear to and even more rewarding to validate.”

With “John” and last fall’s “A New Brain” for Theatre Horizon, Decker noted he has pretty much wrapped up his directing contributions to this season and revealed he has begun to consider his next batch of projects.

“I’m not entirely sure what’s next, and that’s exciting,” he said. “No matter what, though, I’ll be looking to make something as dynamic as it deserves to be. … We need art to sustain our curiosity, and I’m as curious as they come these days.”


Playing through Feb. 26 at

Arden Theatre Co.,

40 N. Second St.

Tickets: $15-$50.

215–922–1122. ardentheatre.org.