Paul R. Tetreault, natty and animated in a gold-and-navy bow tie, is leaning over a long wooden conference table upstairs at Ford's Theatre, creating sharp borders with his hands.

"Directing a show is a huge responsibility -- you've got to put your head there," Tetreault declares, delineating a pinspot-thin beam. "And then you're gone from the institution for four, five, maybe six weeks. If you're the head of an institution, that's very hard to do."

For the first time in his career, the 42-year-old Tetreault is the head of an institution -- he's the new producing director at Ford's -- but he won't be plagued by the divided focus he's illustrating. He doesn't want to direct. He wants to hire experts for that, experienced hands like Marshall W. Mason, the legendary lion of New York's legendary but now defunct Circle Rep, the original director of Lanford Wilson's "Hot l Baltimore," "Burn This" and more than a dozen others. Mason will direct Carson McCullers's "The Member of the Wedding" next spring in a Ford's season that will include the inevitable "Christmas Carol" (thoroughly overhauled), Deaf West Theatre's touring production of the musical "Big River" and the traditional Inauguration Week observations of another bow-tied smoothie, political satirist Mark Russell.

For Tetreault's first act, however, he's bringing in Mark Lamos, whose production of "The Matchmaker" will inaugurate the Tetreault era at Ford's this Wednesday. Thornton Wilder's sweet comedy is "Hello, Dolly!" (the musical it inspired) without the songs, so the play itself won't break any new ground at Ford's, where Americana has been the rule ever since the late Frankie Hewitt managed to get the theater up and running again in 1968. (For more than a century before that, the stage mainly sat dark, holding the ghosts of the night Lincoln was shot.)

On paper, though, this "Matchmaker" suggests that it might have a touch of class that Ford's, long a magnet for tour buses across the land, hasn't always displayed. Andrea Martin, an "SCTV" alum and Tony winner for the musical "My Favorite Year," will star with Jonathan Hadary (the 1989 Broadway "Gypsy" with Tyne Daly; the national tour of "Angels in America," in which he was a stellar Roy Cohn). Michael Yeargan, who routinely works with major opera companies and the Shakespeare Theatre, is designing the sets, and Lamos, recently of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" at the Kennedy Center, is directing. It's a top-to-bottom team of seasoned theatrical pros.

"All they're thinking about is that show," Tetreault continues, speaking of his directors. "They're not thinking about the fundraiser that night, or the board meeting. That's what I get to do."

That declaration makes him sound a bit like a schoolboy eager for homework, and he certainly looks the part -- fair-haired and blue-eyed, frequently sitting forward in his chair and carving the air as he underlines key ideas. When Richard L. Thompson, chairman of the board of the Ford's Theatre Society, reports that Tetreault was very "stimulated" when he interviewed for the job, you know what he means.

There is irony in this schoolboy image, though. Tetreault wasn't a particularly gifted or driven student -- "The last thing I wanted was to go to college," he says -- and it was only within the theater that he was able to find his sense of direction. His hands move back to the table as he explains just what his mission has been during a 20-year career of arts administration that most recently included a noteworthy decade as the managing director of Houston's Alley Theatre; Tetreault's tenure there saw his company transfer musicals to Broadway, cope with a tropical storm that washed out an entire stage, build a seven-story state-of-the-art production facility, and win the regional theater Tony Award.

"Reality," Tetreault says, tracing a circle on his left the way a general might draw in the sand. "Vision," he continues, making an equal circle on the right. "And me as the bridge," he concludes with an arcing gesture, "to make it happen."

Caught in the Footlights

Paul Tetreault is a New Englander, born and bred. He has suffered through enough cold weather for a lifetime -- the swampy Houston climate agreed with him -- but some things remain deeply ingrained. He's a Patriots fan, a Celtics fan, and he still sweats it out with the Red Sox.

His father, who died a year and a half ago -- within weeks of Hewitt's death, as it turns out -- worked as a machinist with Texas Instruments and held a second job to keep the family afloat while his wife stayed home and took care of the five boys. (Paul is the middle of the bunch.)

The family lived in Attleboro, a small town in the southeast corner of Massachusetts. Ask about the place, and Tetreault talks about the education system, how it was in some sort of heyday when he was a kid, offering art and music and theater classes as part of the curriculum, not merely as after-school activities.

"They had a great public school system before they had property tax cuts that just decimated the schools," he says. "The sad thing is today, absolutely in the public schools, those things are nonexistent. So what happens to the me of today? Do I fall through the cracks? Am I . . . I don't know." Tetreault puts this forward with apparent concern, and gets wound up on the subject more than once.

The Portrait of the Executive Director as a Young Thespian goes like this: In third grade, wee Tetreault played the part of a table -- yes, a table -- but by sixth grade he landed the lead in "Oliver!" and was thrilled to be at the center of things. He followed this bliss through high school, though by graduation his parents insisted that he take a year of community college to study accounting and purge theater from his blood.

It didn't work. Soon he was taking drama as an extracurricular course, performing in a show and generally botching the operation his parents had planned. At the same time, he met an older returning student -- mid-forties, disillusioned -- and had the Conversation, the one about not getting stuck with a career you'd regret for 40 years. That was Tetreault's thinking already, having watched his father's grudging double-shift existence. So Tetreault applied to Emerson College in Boston, studied acting, then directing, then theater education and, in grad school at Brooklyn College, arts management.

"I never looked back," he says.

He quickly found jobs with good companies -- business manager at Circle Rep, general manager at Berkeley Rep in California -- but after a period in Berkeley he figured he could see the ceiling. The next, and final, rung on the career ladder was managing director, and he was already questioning whether that would satisfy him for the next several decades. He didn't even have such a position yet; he wasn't even 30.

Says Ford's new associate producer Mark Ramont, who has known Tetreault since their days together at Circle Rep, "There is a restlessness in Paul that needs to keep moving."

This is when Tetreault had his flirtation with the devil.

Waking Up in Manhattan

Just as Tetreault was entertaining his doubts, a friend called from New York. He was working for Madison Square Garden, and there was an opening, and would Paul like to apply?

This was the commercial side of entertainment beckoning -- big projects, pots of money. Madison Square Garden was owned by Paramount Pictures; Tetreault couldn't help wondering whether somewhere in that vast enterprise he might walk through a door that led to the movies.

"Grand ideas about the big brass ring," he says now.

He took the job and was laid off 12 weeks later in a ruthless 15 percent workforce cutback -- last in, first out.

"And I thought, I have worked for some of the smallest, nickel-and-dime, penny-pinching nonprofit operations that barely had money to pay for salary that week, and I never once felt my job was threatened," he recalls, the embers of ire not fully extinguished. "Here I am working for this behemoth corporation, $300 million revenue in Madison Square Garden, which is merely a piece of Paramount Pictures, and I am out on my rear end."

During the layoff, Tetreault did some managerial pinch-hitting for Crossroads Theatre Company, a noted but struggling African American troupe in New Brunswick, N.J. He loved the mission and enjoyed encountering artists including Anna Deavere Smith and Ntozake Shange, but he heard the philosophical conversations about the validity of white faces in leading positions at black institutions. "I was frustrated by that because I wanted them to hire me," he says. "But I totally understood where they were with that."

A better offer came soon from Houston.

Although the Alley was respected artistically, its infrastructure was not in terrific shape. Phil John, president of the Alley Theatre's board, reports that in the early 1990s, Tetreault was maybe the company's eighth choice to take over the managing director's job.

"He hadn't had a lot of experience," John says. "And a lot of people turned it down."

Tetreault wondered whether he would fit in as a Yankee so far south of the Mason-Dixon line, but he looked up the Alley's programming and was quickly seduced when he found everything from "A Christmas Carol" (a cash cow whose revenues Tetreault would triple during his tenure) to a production of "Angels in America" that traveled to Europe. Gregory Boyd was and is the artistic director, and what Tetreault says he picked up from Boyd is this: "He wants his audience to be the Public. So there's this ability and willingness to do A to Z."

As Tetreault worked on eliminating the debt and doubling the $10 million endowment (accomplishments he can point to as evidence of success during his Houston years), Boyd and company routinely churned out nationally conspicuous work. The Alley developed Frank Wildhorn's "Jekyll and Hyde" for Broadway, imported Vanessa and Corin Redgrave from London to do their rep of "Julius Caesar" and "Antony and Cleopatra," brought Corin Redgrave back for the U.S. premiere of "Not About Nightingales" (the Tennessee Williams play that Vanessa helped rediscover), and staged the U.S. premiere of "The Play About the Baby" by longtime Alley associate artist Edward Albee -- presenter of the Tony the Alley won in 1996.

"The theater was really at the top of its form there," Tetreault says. "When we brought it up together" -- the levels of management matching the artistry, he illustrates again with those animated hands -- "we ran."

Disaster hit in 2001 when Tropical Storm Allison poured 3 million gallons of water onto the Alley's Neuhaus Arena Stage (the smaller of its two performance halls) the night after the world premiere of Horton Foote's "The Carpetbagger's Children." In a classic show-must-go-on story, the production was relocated within days to Stages, a smaller Houston theater, and the Neuhaus reopened seven months later.

The other noteworthy development at the Alley was the creation of a 75,000-square-foot, $12 million production facility filled with rehearsal space, administrative offices and scene and costume shops. Ramont, former artistic director of the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y., says, "I gotta tell you, it's like nothing else in this country." He also guesses that Tetreault looked around after helping create that and wondered: For a managing director who has made it this far, how do you get further up?

Following Frankie

For more than three decades, Ford's Theatre was virtually a one-woman operation: Frankie Hewitt strapped it to her back and turned a profound American landmark into a living, breathing, tourist-friendly theater. Hewitt had her artistic triumphs but never seemed to mind if she tottered over the line that separates American classics from American kitsch. She cultivated tremendous support in the corridors of power and was able to do things her way, without the sort of infrastructure around her that most not-for-profit theaters establish early in their growth. When she died last year, there were no obvious successors to fill her singular shoes.

Of Hewitt, Tetreault says, "She was a master here. It was a theater that was in her image. . . . She was very clear about what she was, and she didn't mince that, didn't apologize for that. And I say to her, hear, hear." He pauses. "I'm going to be different."

Not that Tetreault figures to be a wallflower on the local cultural scene. Phil John says that in Houston, "Paul was visible in the community in a positive way -- a lot of publicity, a lot of face. The front-door man." Indeed, upon his departure, the Houston Chronicle wrote Tetreault a farewell on its editorial page.

And though the theater's historically evocative but uncomfortable hardback chairs may someday be retired, things on Tenth Street NW won't be so different that Ford's annual gala will change (it came up in conversation with the Shakespeare Theatre's Michael Kahn), or that Tetreault will ax "A Christmas Carol," especially not after seeing the money it spun off in Houston. "The thought of not doing 'A Christmas Carol' never entered my mind," Tetreault says, though he has moved to jolt it off what he calls "automatic pilot."

He has the advantage of working in a niche theater where the mission is pretty strict. At the Alley, which Tetreault says was essentially "the only game in town, I felt if we didn't do it, it might not get done. Here, I don't think any theater in town has that burden. The wealth is spread all over."

Tetreault, looking for a classic American comedy, trusted Lamos's choice of "The Matchmaker" for his first production, and he impressed the director with his observations in design meetings. Says Lamos, "You feel you are dealing with a producer who has an aesthetic background."

Edward Albee, who got to know Tetreault at the Alley (and reports that they shared a few frustrations there), says, "He's a bright guy, informed, and has the right thoughts about the function of theater." While he describes Tetreault as "pragmatic," Albee thinks he will aim for high quality, and suspects that Tetreault doesn't entirely subscribe to what he calls the "Chinese menu" approach (one of each): "You end up displeasing three-quarters of the people each time."

So far, Tetreault can only point to his choices so far and the names of the people he's been talking to in hopes of sparking work down the line, Houston confederates who include Albee, Wildhorn and Judith Ivey. It's the sort of roster of artistic associates he would like to formalize at Ford's in the near future.

"The distinction between professional and personal relationships with Paul is pretty blurred," says Ramont. "His friends are his colleagues and his colleagues are his friends."

This may explain why Tetreault isn't worried about a potential conflict of interest should he end up booking a play by John Jeter, his partner of 11 years. Jeter's first play, "Dirty Tricks" (starring Ivey as Martha Mitchell), opens next month at the Public Theatre in New York. Tetreault says if Jeter's play hadn't been picked up in New York, the decision to move might have been harder for both of them; their Houston roots were getting deep.

He parries the conflict-of-interest question by saying, "I wouldn't rule it out. My feeling is you have full disclosure." Naturally, he is high on the prospects for "Dirty Tricks," figuring it will eventually land somewhere in Washington. (He says he has talked about the play with Arena's Molly Smith and Signature's Eric Schaeffer.) "Let me put it this way: I've got an 'in,' and I'm not against exploiting an 'in' if it's in the best interest of Ford's Theatre. And that's what it comes down to."

The most tangible thing Tetreault has to say about where he wants to take Ford's, besides up, has to do with professional connections -- the people he can consult and cajole and eventually bring on board.

"Completely," he declares. "That's what the theater is: It's all people." Luring Ivey to Ford's means "having a conversation, not just bringing her in as Mrs. Cratchit, because then you're using them as a cog instead of as a creative element. . . . When I found the theater, and I found that that's what I can do," he avers, speaking with the wonder and conviction of the saved, "that's when I became a person."

As the new producing director at Ford's Theatre, Paul Tetreault has ambitious plans for the historic landmark that since 1968 has specialized in tourist-friendly fare.Of his predecessor, the late Frankie Hewitt, Tetreault says: "She was a master here. It was a theater that was in her image. . . . And I say to her, hear, hear."