Ten Years for Tetreault at Ford’s Theatre
When Ford’s Theatre’s co-production with Signature Theatre of “Hello Dolly!” won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Resident Musical (a tie with Olney’s “A Chorus Line”), it was a sweet moment of validation for Ford’s Director Paul Tetreault.
“Actually, this was the first award Ford’s had received as an organization, and that was a really amazing moment for us,” said Tetreault, who is in the midst of his 10th anniversary as director of the historic theater. “Imagine that. We’d gotten individual awards for acting and such, but never a production award in the history of Ford’s.”
The award was significant because it showed that Tetreault had not only kept Ford’s status as a popular (and money-making) theater with a historic mission, but elevated it to the status of a theater respected for its productions and unique vision.
Signature Theatre’s artistic director Eric Shaeffer shared in the award for the remounting of Jerry Herman’s hugely popular musical, which originally starred Carol Channing. The “Hello Dolly!” co-production also featured a cast filled with local actors, including Ed Gero, who for the last several seasons has played Scrooge in Ford’s annual holiday show, “A Christmas Carol.”
“That was gratifying. Everything about the production and the result was certainly an achievement for both organizations,” Tetreault said. “Eric and I had worked together before with the ground-up production of the musical of ‘Meet John Doe,’ so it seemed natural for us to do so again. And I think this kind of cooperative effort is beneficial to Washington theater.”
Still, the award had its bittersweet aspects. Tetreault had high hopes for the season-opening production of “The Laramie Project,” the emotionally charged, realistic and inventive play about America’s reaction to the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard and its aftermath.
“The Laramie Project,” by Moisés Kaufman and the Teutonic Theater Company, was scheduled to open during the infamous government shutdown. Because Ford’s Theatre is a National Historic Site, the theater was also shut down, and with it the opening production.
“Woolly Mammoth offered us a space, and we staged a production for the media, without the usual theatrical bells and whistles of lights, sets and so on. The sparseness was emotionally powerful, as were the productions we did free to the public at a church.”
The shutdown ended soon after.
It’s fair to say that Tetreault’s tenure so far has had its challenges – not forgetting the shutdown, but also remembering the conditions that prevailed when he first came here and took over the reins. Those reins had been held for 35 years by the legendary Frankie Hewitt, who had succumbed to cancer.
Tetreault arrived after an administrative career that included stints at Madison Square Garden and the Circle Repertory Company in New York and the Berkeley Repertory in California. He was managing director of the famed Alley Theatre in Houston, where he and artistic director Gregory Boyd produced over 100 plays and won the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre.
Tetreault didn’t lack for a resume or a vision, but the Ford’s job was still somewhat daunting.
“Frankie, you have to give her all the credit in the world, she was the mainstay of the theater and gave it energy and life. She was a legend, a major Washington figure, and that sort of thing is a challenge for anybody coming in,” he said, adding: “I like to think like an outsider in some ways, to see myself that way.”
In Washington and beyond, Ford’s Theatre has a unique niche. As the place where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, it’s a shrine to Lincoln and his ideas and ideals, complete with the presidential box where he watched “Our American Cousin.”
“It’s an American theater, a certain kind of place that exists not only as theater but in the public imagination,” he said. “So, there’s some things you can’t do.” What Tetreault has done is to create a kind of theater of Americana, not in the cliché sense, but with productions that strike the themes of American inclusion: race, opportunity, outsiders and their dreams. And he kept the theater in the public eye when it lost a little more than a season during major renovations.
The Lincoln plays that have been done – and a commissioned work about Mary Todd Lincoln that’s on the agenda for 2014-2015 – have been remarkably good theater, from the musical “The Civil War” to “The Heavens Are Hung in Black” and “The Rivalry.”
Standout productions have included the powerful musical “Parade” about the lynching of Leo Frank, a controversial production of “Our Town” and “Black Pearl Sings,” as well as “Meet John Doe,” the musical based on populist director Frank Capra’s common-man hit.
“I’d still like to see that show again, to keep it alive,” said Tetreault.