Ford’s Theatre Then vs. Now: Why is the Stage Slanted?

When Ford’s New Theatre opened on August 27, 1863, owner John T. Ford’s was no stranger to building beautiful stages. The Washington Sunday Chronicle praised the state-of-the-art venue:

“Mr. Ford has shown what can be done when capital, skill, and energy are combined… In magnitude, completeness and elegance [Ford’s Theatre] has few superiors, even in our largest cities.”

Today, Ford’s Theatre produces renowned plays, vibrant musicals and newly commissioned works that evoke Lincoln’s legacy and the American experience—all on a stage designed in the 1860s.Theatre traditions have changed greatly over the last century and a half, but the Ford’s stage remains true its 19th century beginnings. In this blog series about theatre in the past versus the present, we will shed light on the kind of theatre Lincoln would have expected to visit, and how that impacts creating new works in the same space today.

A Challenging Treat: The Raked Stage

The Ford’s Theatre stage is raked, meaning the back of the stage is raised higher than the front of the stage. At Ford’s, the rake is 7/16 of an inch per foot. (More on the math behind Raked Stages here.) Raked stages have been around since the 16th century, but have lost popularity in the past century, in favor of raking the audience seating area instead—think of the “stadium seating” you see at the movie theatre. To quote the New York Times, today “almost all American stages have flat floors.”

On one hand, raked stages allowed for better audience sight lines. Dance in particular looks better on a raked stage, says the Times:

For the audience, raked stages can be blessings. By sloping upward, they help make choreographic designs clear. Indeed, the reason why they slope at all is to provide such clarity.

Sometimes set designers today will build raked surfaces atop flat stages, especially for Broadway and Opera productions playing in large venues. Set designer Court Watson (Ford’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Liberty Smith and others) calls designing for the rake at Ford’s a “challenging treat.” Watson says raked stages made performers easier to hear in a time before electronic microphones existed. He explains that the rake, “forced the performers [to move] downstage, closer to the audience. In an era before theatrical lighting, it also helped the performers be [lighted] in the same space as the audience.”

Though historic Ford’s Theatre offers one of the few remaining raked stages in the United States, all modern actors use terms inspired by this theatre tradition. In rehearsal, actors refer to the playing area at the back of the stage as “upstage,” and the part of the stage positioned closest to the audience as “downstage.” In historic theatres like ours, these terms literally refer to whether the actors are standing higher up (toward the back) or lower down (near the front) on the stage.

For modern designers like Watson, the rake’s placement on the Ford’s Theatre stage provides certain constraints. Set pieces must be constructed on a special raked platform that mimics the Ford’s Theatre rake, which local scene shop TSA has on hand for its frequent work with the theatre. This process, known as “counter-raking,” ensures the items will sit upright when brought onto the actual stage.

Raked stages also provide challenges for actors—especially dancers—because of health concerns caused by performing on a sloped surface. John Wilkes Booth performed dramas with athletic flair on the Ford’s Theatre stage. In his book April 1865, historian Jay Winik writes that Booth was famous for “difficult leaps that he used to announce his first appearance on stage” and stage combat.

Karma Camp, who choreographed the hit musical Hello, Dolly! at Ford’s, says that working with a raked stage requires extra rehearsal time as dancers adjust from rehearsal-room choreography . She continues, “The Ford’s production team was really great to bring in a physical therapist to recommend a series of exercises the cast could do while working on a rake.”

Check out some dance highlights from the production to see the end result of our cast and Karma Camp’s work.

Check our blog next month for another Then vs. Now post–we will uncover the history behind the “Family Circle” sign hanging outside the theatre.

Sara Cohen is the Marketing Manager at Ford’s Theatre, where she helms the Ford’s Theatre Facebook and Twitter accounts, among other projects that share Lincoln’s legacy with the world.