Editors' pick

Ford's Theatre Grand Reopening and Open House

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Editorial Review

Open House Schedule

Thursday, Feb. 12

8:30 a.m.
Box Office opens for ticket distribution

8:45 a.m.
Wreath-laying by the National Park Service in front of the historic theatre

At 9 a.m., 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and noon
Federal City Brass Band performs
Ranger-led interpretive program
Area students present Lincoln speeches

1:15 p.m.-4:15 p.m.
Ranger-led interpretive programs

Monday, Feb. 16

8:30 a.m.
Box Office opens for ticket distribution

9:00 a.m.
Lobby doors open

At 9:15 a.m., 10:15 a.m. and 11:15 a.m.
Ranger-led interpretive program
National Park Service Rangers will present interpretive programs about the life, assassination and legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

12:15 p.m.
Performance of One Destiny

1:15 p.m.
Excerpts from The Civil War

2:15 p.m.
Performance of One Destiny

3:15 p.m.
Performance of The Road from Appomattox

4:15 p.m.
Ranger-led interpretive program

Creating A Living Theater

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Febr. 6, 2009

Twenty-five million dollars, and all anyone will notice is the new chairs.

That's the joke Ford's Theatre Director Paul Tetreault tells while leading a tour of the historic site and working theater, which has just reopened after an extensive (and expensive) 18-month renovation. Part of that upgrade included replacing the theater's notoriously uncomfortable seats. Uncomfortable? The old ones -- which Tetreault compares to 19th-century dining-room chairs -- were rigid, straight-backed things with no arms and little padding. For children and certain height-challenged patrons, they were so tall that they blocked views of the stage. They had to go.

But the benefit to theatergoers' rear ends is hardly the only change, or even the first one, you'll notice about the new and improved Ford's. For one thing, you can now find the place.

It's in the same spot it has always been, of course, on 10th Street NW between E and F streets. Just as it was on the fateful night of April 14, 1865, when Abraham Lincoln was shot there, during a performance of "Our American Cousin." But the theatre's humble brick facade was always easy to miss. You might have walked by its plain wooden sign, thinking you had just passed the back of a church. Which is, in fact, what the building once was. It still has that vaguely ecclesiastical look.

My, how things have changed. Entry to the theater is now through a spacious, contemporary lobby, situated just to the north of the historic building, on the ground floor of a neighboring office development. Crowning the lobby's glass windows is a polished steel marquee that makes Ford's look, at long last, like the living theater it is, and not just a shrine to the dead.

Make no mistake: Tourists and school groups aren't going to stop coming to Ford's. They will continue to visit, just as they have since the late 1960s, when it reopened after a century of disuse. They'll snap pictures of the bunting-draped state box where Lincoln sat. And they'll visit the museum on the theater's lower level when it reopens this spring, with an expanded focus.

But for the first time, lovers of live theater will discover a place that caters to modern needs and comfort, while respecting the sanctity of the past.

Caters, yes, but with a caveat.

See, Ford's occupies an unusual space, both literally and figuratively. As a historic site, it can't be messed with too much. Those creamy white interior walls of the theater, for example. They're always going to be white. This, despite the fact that blinding-white paint makes it difficult, if not impossible, for lighting designers to achieve a complete blackout between scenes. Tetreault puts it this way: "The first thing I always tell my directors and designers is this: 'Here is the space. Do not fight it. Because if you fight it, you will lose.' The building always wins."

Directors and designers will find new rigging, lighting and sound technology backstage. But some things haven't changed. Take the raked stage. Its almost imperceptible downhill slope can make it tricky for dancers who don't want to tumble into the laps of front-row patrons, but it's historically authentic. Offstage wing space for the actors is still claustrophobically tight. "Believe me, backstage movement is choreographed as succinctly as it is choreographed onstage," Tetreault says. "We can't alter the footprint of the building."

That doesn't mean he couldn't make a few other alterations.

When Tetreault was hired five years ago, after the death of the theater's longtime producing director, Frankie Hewitt, he sat down with Ford's management team. "What are we missing?" he asked. On the wish list? You mean, other than new chairs? Well, to name a few things: a gift shop; an expanded lobby to replace the old, cramped one (little more than a hallway, really); more and better bathrooms; something to eat and drink during intermission. With this latest renovation, Tetreault says he got 85 percent of what he wanted. Left out? A green room, or lounge for actors when not needed on stage; on-site workshops for costume construction and set building; and dedicated rehearsal space. The only audience amenity he didn't get? A coat room.

What that means: We're the real winners here. Sure, the performers and backstage crew may still, in some small ways, have to cope with a theater that's an artifact of the past. But for those of us out front in the seats, it's a whole new show.

Here's what you'll find:

- Sips and snacks. Concessions at the old Ford's were always "weak," Tetreault admits. Weak? Try nonexistent. A new lobby bar will offer wine, beer, soft drinks, coffee and tea, along with a selection of savory and sweet snacks.

- Better sound. Uncomfortable chairs weren't the only thing patrons used to grouse about. It was sometimes hard to hear what was being said onstage, largely because of noisy air handlers that Tetreault says turned the theater into "a wind tunnel, or an airport." New, quieter air conditioning and heating systems should alleviate that.

- Fewer obstructed views. No, you still can't sit in the presidential box. But who would want to? "The thing is," Tetreault says, "they're really terrible seats." Thanks to the theater's ornate white columns, they weren't the only lousy seats either. The good news? The total number of seats has been reduced (from 682 to 658), eliminating a few spots with problematic views of the stage.

- Gift shop. The theater's previous shop was little more than a wonky bookstore, specializing in academic titles about Lincoln. An expanded store just off the lobby will offer, along with the expected array of Lincoln-themed mugs and T-shirts, such theater-centric items as scripts of featured plays and CDs of show tunes from the musical you just saw.

- Dedicated parking. An elevator now takes you straight from the nearby pay garage (entrance just north of the theater, on 10th Street) to the theater lobby.

- Accessibility. And speaking of elevators, the old Ford's Theatre didn't have any. If you had a mobility issue and wanted to visit the balcony or the lower-level museum, you were out of luck. All levels of the building are now accessible.

- Renovated restrooms. They're bigger, for one thing, and there are more of them, on both the ground floor and balcony level.