Creating A Living Theater

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 2009; Page WE23

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.

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