Given that it shares a name with one of the largest auto manufacturers, perhaps it’s not surprising Ford’s Theatre had picked up a reputation as a tour bus house. For years, tourists kept seats filled at the most famous theater in the nation.
Of course, Ford’s Theatre was less about fame and more about notoriety, given the uncivil ending to the 1865 performance of Our American Cousin. Taking in a play in the very building the Abraham Lincoln was assassinated is a quintessential Washington tourist moment, one that has kept Ford’s successful over the years.
Yet while financially successful, Ford’s has never made many waves among Washington’s savvy and sophisticated hometown theatergoing audience. Until recently, that is.
When Paul Tetreault arrived in Washington in 2004 to take over the reins at Ford’s, he knew he wanted to change how the city viewed its historic theater — but without losing the audience that kept the space successful in the first place. An interesting challenge for a balancing act, but one that Tetreault, who for 10 years prior led Houston’s famed Alley Theatre, has eagerly taken on.
After launching a radically new version of the annual chestnut A Christmas Carol to critical and audience acclaim, Tetreault, over the past three years, has pushed the envelope of what truly defines a ”Ford’s production.” Currently, that would be the world premiere of Meet John Doe, helmed by Washington-based (and world-renowned) director Eric Shaeffer.
Ford’s has also partnered with other local troupes, providing, for example, the tiny African Continuum Theater Company an opportunity at major visibility with a co-production of August Wilson’s Jitney, a production that was beloved by critics and local audiences alike. Many of Tetreault’s decisions have been daring, adventurous, and challenging, but all have remained firmly grounded in the roots of American theater. Still, even Tetreault admits you probably won’t see works by edgier playwrights like David Mamet at Ford’s. There’s the edge — and then there’s leaping off the edge.
”The great thing about being in Washington is we don’t have to do everything,” he says. ”Woolly Mammoth will do it or Arena Stage will do it or Signature will do it or Studio Theatre will do it. What I’m trying to do is carve out the niche that is Ford’s Theatre in this amazing, wonderful, massive theatrical community that we have here.”
So far Tetreault’s carvings have been prime cuts — and Washington audiences have noticed, as they have ventured back to Ford’s in droves, once again braving its infamous ”period-style” seats, finding that up on stage, under Paul Tetreault’s artistic leadership, quality is job one.
METRO WEEKLY: You’ve been heading up Ford’s for three years now. How’s it gone for you?
PAUL TETREAULT: My predecessor, Frankie Hewitt, was in the job for 35 years — she had a legendary reputation around town. And any time you replace someone of that stature, whose imprint on an institution is so clear, it’s a challenge. But I think we’ve accomplished some great things.
MW: Was there any point at which you thought you’d gotten past that challenge?
TETREAULT: I think time helps. Frankie Hewitt ran an amazing institution for 35 years, but she passed away 4 years ago. As time goes on, I get further away from that and people get more comfortable with — and accepting of –what we’re doing now. Actually, many people were very excited and open and welcoming when I arrived here. People were saying, ”It’s time for change.” People were open to that, even if sometimes it takes awhile to actually accept that.
MW: Were there people who just wanted to keep things the same?
TETREAULT: I think [some] people just didn’t know anything different. Truly, 35 years is just a very, very, very long time for anyone to be in the same job. But even if people think they’re open to new leadership, when someone tries to do things differently, they’re like, ”Wait a minute, that’s not how we’ve done it in the past.”
I didn’t come in to just change things for the sake of changing things. I really assessed what we did in the past that was good and what was not so good and tried to make changes accordingly.
MW: Washington’s known as a good theater town. When you arrived here, how did you see Ford’s fitting into the local theater community?
TETREAULT: First of all, let me say, Washington is an amazing theater town and it’s one of the top reasons that brought me here. The caliber and breadth of different theater companies that we have here is extraordinary. When I arrived, I made it a point to go around and talk to all of the different heads of the arts organizations. [The Kenndy Center's] Michael Kaiser said it to me best: ”This is a great theater town and Ford’s isn’t even on people’s radar.”
Even before I got here, I talked to many, many colleagues and they said Ford’s is not known for doing serious and/or quality theater. And that has been my mantra since we’ve gotten here: If we’re going to do it, we’ve got to do quality work. So that was my challenge. You must put Ford’s Theatre on this amazing theater going town’s radar. And I’d like to think that over three years, if we’ve not done it yet, we’ve certainly started to.
MW: In the past, Ford’s had been heavily focused on the tour bus trade, but you’ve expanded that to include partnerships with African Continuum Theatre, for example, and bringing in major local talents, such as director Eric Shaeffer for Meet John Doe. Is that all a move away from the tour bus audiences?
TETREAULT: [Finding that balance] has been the challenge. You can’t throw out all these tour groups. We do over $2 million a year in group ticket sales — the concept of throwing them out and changing that audience over never crossed my mind. What I said is, ”If we do quality theater, if we do good work, will the groups stop coming?” I don’t think so. I mean, are they only coming here to see mediocre work? No, they’re coming to see Ford’s Theatre. But if we can give them great work, maybe we’ll even increase [those sales].
My goal has never been to reduce the groups. My goal has always been to get the serious theatergoers in Washington coming as well. The groups are a very important component of Ford Theatre and they will always be there. There are a million people a year that come through that historic site. Every theater in America would like a million people just walking through their doors. Forget that they’re not coming to see all the theater [productions] — that’s potential audience. How do we convert more of those people? I think that starts by presenting good, quality work.
MW: What do you think draws in the local audience more? Is it certain types of plays or productions?
TETREAULT: First and foremost it’s quality. People want to see great work. Even if it’s sort of a tired old chestnut and they hear that it’s a great production, I think people are going to come and see it. Our production of Meet John Doe is a world premiere, which will bring in a segment of the community. But if it gets lousy word of mouth and the reviews aren’t great, people aren’t going to come and see it. So just doing new work doesn’t attract an audience. The question is quality. So we’ve delivered a brilliant production that could stand up in any city in America, including New York City.
MW: Your choice of involving Eric Schaeffer certainly doesn’t hurt.
TETREAULT: The fact of the matter is, Ford’s Theatre has a history of doing musicals but we’d never used [Eric]. That’s crazy. This is a guy who’s directed in London and New York. He is one of the topnotch musical theater directors in the country. He and I had been talking since I arrived here, and for three years it’s been about waiting for the right project. And I think that Eric Schaeffer has delivered a production [of Meet John Doe] that is outstanding.
Tetreault at Ford’s
MW: You also seem to have focused on Americana in your choice of productions. Is that a honing of Ford’s mission as a theater?
TETREAULT: One of my absolutely all-time, favorite plays — one of the most brilliant plays ever written — is The Importance of Being Earnest. I would love to produce that, but it doesn’t fit the mission. Here’s the deal: We are, as I said, America’s most famous theater. What are we going to do in there? Brecht? Moliere comedies? Shaw? Well, we could. But I think we have to be true to who we are. We are a great country. We have great art here. We have great plays about America by Americans and that is who we should focus on. And that is what we’re doing. So as much as I love The Importance of Being Earnest, it’s not right for us to do. My vision and my mission is to expose and present the American experience. Well, that’s a huge mission. That’s the African-American experience, the Asian-American, the immigrant experience, white Europeans who came over here and made this country theirs. That gives you a wide swath but I think you have to stay within that. And to me, that is not limiting in any way. It simply defines who we are.
MW: You spent 10 years working in Houston as managing director of the Alley Theatre. How was that different as a working environment in theater?
TETREAULT: If someone had told me [earlier] that I’d spend 10 years in Texas running a theater, I would have said, ”You’re absolutely crazy.” But I think metropolitan areas, for the most part are metropolitan areas. Houston has a very cosmopolitan feel to it, it has a very strong gay community, a strong arts community. It has a very strong intellectual community. It is the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country — I never felt that there was work we couldn’t do. There was work that we may not have wanted to do but I don’t think there was ever work we couldn’t do.
MW: How long have you been out?
TETREAULT: I guess I’d say probably 15 years or so.
MW: What was your coming out process like?
TETREAULT: It’s just complicated. I said I was out when I was 30 basically, so the question is, ”What is out?” Let’s put it this way: I’m an out gay man now and what was there between 18 and 30 was experimentation. I went to Emerson College, where if you didn’t have a gay experience you had missed a course. [Laughs.] It was that simple. It’s not that there was this day when it just happened.
The way I came out to my parents was when I took the job in Houston and I was moving there with my partner and we had been together a year. I told my family ”I’m moving to Houston, I’m moving with this guy, I’m gay.” And that was it. A lot of my friends, their coming out is tied to that serious relationship — whether or not that relationship becomes the relationship or it’s the first serious one. When you meet that person that you’re ready to declare a commitment with, I feel that then you’ve got something at stake. When I was going to move to Houston with my partner, it was the time to declare myself, so that’s what I did.
MW: I notice that you have a ring. Did you marry?
TETREAULT: We were not big believers in marriage. As I like to say, ”Marriage is a failed heterosexual convention, why do we need it?” However, as my partner likes to say, ”We really didn’t need it until they didn’t want to give it to us.” I grew up in a religious family but have not been religious in a formal religion way for some time. I am probably going to inflame a lot of your readers — I think marriage is a religious ceremony. I think American people put too much on it. I am all for civil unions and I want tax breaks just like married people have, and the health benefits and the death benefits of those things. So I’m big on that. But we both have rings because we are committed to each other.
When I came to Washington, there was no question that I was out. There were no domestic partnership benefits [at Ford's] so I said, ”If you want me, that needs to be in place.” I don’t make excuses. I am who I am. I’m not out there wearing it on my sleeve, necessarily, but I’m also not hiding it. My partner comes to openings, he comes to events. He and I have gone to the White House on numerous occasions and met the President and the First Lady and we have never introduced ourselves as anything other than partners. We’re not shoving it in anyone’s face but we’re also not hiding it.
MW: How do you feel about that?
TETREAULT: I have a certain amount of pride in that. I guess on some level I feel pride and on some level I feel ”ho hum.” I am who I am. I have an amazing career — I’d like to think that I’m one of the top artistic directors and producers in the country and, by the way, I happen to be gay. It’s not the first thing on the list. It’s just a part of who I am. Just like I happen to have blonde hair and I happen to wear bow ties.
I’m not here to make a statement, I’m here to say gay people are all over. I just want to be out there being a great person that a lot of people like, who is effective and intelligent and good at what he does. If that changes someone’s prejudice about gay people a little bit, that’s great. And if it doesn’t, screw them. That’s my feeling. Again, I’m not waving a banner but if my life allows people to say ”Wow, I guess gay people really are normal,” then that’s a good thing. I don’t want to be Pollyanna about it and I don’t want to be like I’m hiding. I’m not carrying a flag but I’m not hiding and I’m not in the closet.
MW: Do you consider yourself a fairly political person?
TETREAULT: I don’t think you could survive in my job in this town without being a political person. I don’t think that means politically ornery or anything, just politically aware. I go to dinners on a regular basis with politicians and members of cabinets, and they come to the theater. You have to be politically aware so you know who these people are, so I don’t believe that someone could survive in this job without being politically savvy, politically aware.
MW: When people look at theater they tend to think of actors and directors and singers. What made you choose your particular path in theater?
TETREAULT: Like most people in my position, I started out as a performer. I was a song and dance person and I wanted to be in musicals. It’s not that I suddenly had some realization that I wasn’t that good, because I actually still think I am good in that field. I just decided that that was way too risky for me. When you’re an actor or singer or dancer or performer, you do not control your destiny. And I thought, ”I want to control my destiny.” I grew up not well-off and I was determined that I wasn’t going to have other people control my destiny. I don’t mean that I’m the ultimate boss, because I’m not. But I have controlled my career. I haven’t gone to audition after audition after audition where I don’t look right or I’m not lucky or I haven’t slept with the director or whatever. I controlled my destiny and I’ve controlled my career.
The life of an actor is a very tough life. People think of acting and they think of Tom Cruise or Cameron Diaz or any of those superstars. That’s not acting, that’s stardom. And half of a half of a percentile reach that. The average, work-a-day actor is a tough job. Every six or eight weeks they’re out there looking for the next gig. I have great empathy and support and admiration for actors because that is a hard life. Even your best actors here in Washington … I don’t want to say it’s a struggle, but it’s just not easy. You’re talking about your best actors in the city making somewhere between $40,000 and $60,000 a year. That ain’t Tom Cruise.
MW: Going back to your work with changing how people look at Ford’s, one of your early changes was staging a new production of the annual A Christmas Carol. You re-imagined it in a very inventive way. It was an astonishing production.
TETREAULT: Thank you. Here’s the thing: Ford’s had been doing A Christmas Carol for 25 years. I saw the production here and it was a defining moment in what I would do here. I was in the balcony. It was the week of Christmas and it was jam-packed. During the intermission, this couple behind me said, ”Wow, our production in Salt Lake is better than this.”
And that defined [this job] for me. We have a responsibility to present the highest quality work because people are coming to Ford’s Theatre from all over the country. We have to create people who love theater, people who think Washington theater is brilliant, and if we’re doing shit, we’ve blown it. So I determined at that point that we wouldn’t be doing that [version of] Christmas Carol next year.
The thing about A Christmas Carol is that it’s like any asset that is important to your institution. If you take it for granted, you will blow it. You need to give care and feeding and nurturing. You cannot just put it up there and say, ”People are going to come no matter what.” Because they will — up to a certain point. In fact, in the three years before I got here, that Christmas Carol was starting to sag in ticket sales. Now we’ve shot up dramatically and the ticket sales have continued to rise over the last three years. And that is the difference between letting something just sit there and making sure it’s of the highest quality possible.
MW: Technology continues to change how people access arts and entertainment. With technology making home entertainment such a bigger experience — big screens, big sound — is theater, like film, having any sort of challenge staying relevant? Or does theater just have a base audience that it’s going to always have?
TETREAULT: Every now and then you hear about the death of theater or people bemoaning the death of live arts. Of all the fine arts, I think theater is the closest to the popular arts, like movies and television. I think we are the closest because we’re the most immediate. We’re not playing operas that were written hundreds of years ago, we’re not playing symphonic music that was written hundreds of year ago, we’re not dancing without any dialogue or communication. We are TV live. Therefore, I think that theater will continue to hold its place. You look at television or a quality movie and then you go see it as a live production and there’s no comparison. What we have is so unique that it cannot be replicated. I don’t care if you have a thousand channels on television, I don’t care how good Entourage is, it’s never going to be better than quality theater — if we keep it good and we keep it true and we keep it relevant.
MW: We can’t address Ford’s without mentioning the seats. The current ones are an improvement over the original ones, but they’re still less than comfortable.
TETREAULT: [Laughs.] When I was considering the position, people would say to me, ”Oh, if you go to Ford’s, you gotta change those seats.” And that was three years ago and it’s on my list. But if the plays are awful, you really notice the seats, but improve the plays and you notice the seats less.
Meet John Doe runs through April 29 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. For tickets, call 202-397-7328 or visit fordstheatre.org.