Bill Alterman doesn’t know for sure if he’s the reason that “All the world’s a stage” is painted on the ceiling of the lobby at the Lansburgh Theatre, but he’d like to think that he is. Since 1977, Bill has been a loyal subscriber to the Shakespeare Theatre, dating back to the days when the company performed not in its own Penn Quarter spaces but at the Folger Library.
“It was on the ceiling at the Folger, so I told (Artistic Director) Michael Kahn that he should put it on the ceiling here, too,” Bill says, gesturing up at the gold lettering in the lobby before a recent matinee of “As You Like It,” the play that is the source of that oft-quoted epigram. The next lines in Act 2, Scene 7, are less known to many, but not to Bill: It’s the “Seven Ages of Man” soliloquy. As “one man in his time plays many parts,” trips to the Shakespeare Theatre have played many roles in his life as a Washington arts patron: get-lucky date night before he was married, no-kids date night once he was, and then family night once the kids were old enough.
“Now the kids are in college, and Sue and I are back to dating again, just the two of us,” Bill says. “It’s sort of like the whole life cycle, and it started 35 years ago when I was dating.”
Bill, 63, knows his Shakespeare folios, but he’s no thespian or scholar. The retired international economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics says he originally subscribed to the theater so that when he met a nice Jewish girl in Chevy Chase he could mention that he happened to have an extra ticket to see a Shakespeare play, and did she want to go?
“It took me a while to get married, so it wasn’t wildly successful,” he says. “But I just didn’t like the bar scene. I liked a little more culture. . . . You want to go to events that you like doing yourself, and hopefully, you’ll find someone who likes doing those things, too.”
Just how many women were there before he met Sue, who was then working as public television researcher? “There must have been a lot,” she says. “We would walk down the street in Northwest and if a woman was short — and Jewish — she’d say ‘Oh Bill, hi! How are you?’”
The couple met on a synagogue hike in 1989, and had just started dating when Bill had to go out of town. He gave Sue his tickets to see Stacy Keach play Richard III, and she took a girlfriend. To this day, Sue maintains it’s one of the best shows she’s ever seen at the theater, and he regrets missing it, but their relationship survived. A few weeks later, he mopped up after a plumbing accident on their second date, and coached her through an international economics class while she was working on her MBA that winter.
“He was a keeper,” Sue, 56, says.
When their now-college-aged children were young, going to the theater was “how we got away from them five times a year. We were forced to go on dates here,” Bill says. Once Hershel and Briana were old enough, they changed their seats to a family subscription, which was mostly a success, although everyone vividly remembers that night in 2007 when Sue’s mom and Briana walked out of a bloody “Titus Andronicus.” But there were high points, too, like when Hershel and a friend insisted on playing Juliet and her nurse in English class after seeing an all-male production of the classic tragedy at the theater. (“We are doing this the way it was historically done,” he proudly told his teacher.)
These days, they always make the trip from Rockville the Saturday before shows at Shakespeare formally open. That’s not because they’re trying to be cheap, but because Bill likes to beat the critics.
“I hate reading reviews before I see something. Sometimes my assessment is consistent with the critics, but just as often it is not,” he says. “C’est la vie.”
An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect age for Sue Alterman. This story has been corrected.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.