The Power of Place at Ford's Theatre
When Chris Bloch performs on the Ford’s Theatre stage, he carefully calibrates his voice to ensure that the space’s sonic passage-ways carry his words to the audience. “The sound goes to the edge of the stage and it just seems to stop. You really have to shoot the sound up.” Bloch’s advice is specific and generous, the sort that only comes from deep familiarity with a space.
Actress Kim Schraf is similarly rigorous in her preparation. She gets to the theatre early, and readies for every show with an extensive warmup in her favorite nook backstage. (She’ll never tell you where and neither will I.) As the performers work, stage manager Craig Horness sits high up in the rafters, binoculars in tow, calling the show from the gods. “It’s the farthest seat away but it’s also a spectacular overview.”
Listening to the people of Ford’s individually recount their experiences, I can see the images forming in my mind. Different vantage points enrich the picture over time; the swirling balconies lined with brilliant red, and bolstered by vibrant lights. The velvety carpets and the auburn stage framed by white walls, which set designer Milagros Ponce de León sees as both a daunting math problem and a thrilling canvas. “It calls for clever ways to conjure many locations. Exciting and scary at the same time.”
The artists and staff of Ford’s move with a spirit reminiscent of old rep companies. They have forged intimate bonds from the time they’ve spent in the trenches together. As the effusive recollections overflow, the question of what makes Ford’s such a special place always creeps into our conversations. “There’s a generosity of spirit, creativity and collaboration,” actress Felicia Curry explains. “It extends from the actors to the designers, to the ushers, to the ticketing people, to the crew backstage.”
Schraf echoes this sentiment. “There’s a deep abiding respect for the actor. It’s about the atmosphere of the work, the support of the actor, and what they cultivate when you’re in a show there.”
And for Bloch, it’s a combination of intention and context. “People really sync themselves into the history of [Ford’s]. There’s a commitment to the journey of every person who goes into that theater or who goes through the museum. Rarely do you have that community understanding of what the theatre itself is about."
And then there’s the box, the site of President Lincoln’s assassination. It’s a space that lives in the collective imagination, but one that Ford’s artists are intimately acquainted with.
“It’s inescapable, Schraf says. "It's there. It’s looming.”
Her sentiments were echoed by every other individual who works regularly in the theatre. “We had an incredible moment when we moved the musical 1776 into the building,” director Peter Flynn remembers. “There’s a moment in the place where John Adams is trying to convince Benjamin Franklin to keep the abolition of slavery in the Declaration of Independence. He says, ‘Franklin you don’t understand. 100 years from now they will curse us for not doing something.’ When the actor first played the line in the space, he wasn’t just playing it to Franklin. He was gesturing passionately towards the box.”
Memories like these exemplify how Ford’s has chosen to infuse the theatre with Lincoln’s spirit and values, rather than ignore the tragedy. American history serves as the prime inspiration for Ford’s artists, from their legendary ‘Lincoln Plays,’ including James Still’s The Heavens are Hung in Black and The Widow Lincoln, to their explorations of historical figures like Henrietta Leavitt and Frederick Douglass. And it is work they will continue to explore through the newly created Lincoln Legacy Commissions for BIPOC playwrights. “We are excited to tell stories of social justice and civil rights that we don't all necessarily know about," says José Carasquillo, Ford’s Director of Artistic Programming.
When it comes time to program a season, there is thoughtful deliberation to ensure that the chosen pieces meet the import of the space, one that is equal parts theatre, museum and historical site. “When those three elements come together with a good play, I don’t think anyone can touch the experience we provide,” says Artistic Director Paul Tetreault.
“For Lincoln, the theater was a place you could go for refuge, and respite, and to get away,” Flynn notes. “He really enjoyed operas and comedy.“
It’s a balance that Curry always values. She gets emotional recalling moments in Ragtime and Jefferson’s Garden where she grappled with ideas of freedom and liberation onstage, but also joyfully remembers performing in pieces like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
“It’s a reminder of what was fought for and what was won. I always tell new performers, ‘Don’t shy away from the history and the gravitas you are going to feel when you walk into that space. Take that in. Live in that.’"
For a community as passionate as Ford’s, the last year has been heartbreaking. “I’ve missed collaborating with my friends and colleagues,” says Horness. Schraf notes that while this time has been challenging in a myriad of ways, it’s “the separation from the art and the poverty of the spirit” that has been the hardest.
Ford’s leadership has kept their people close; enlisting their talents for online ventures. “I’m constantly checking in with them and calling them,” says Carasquillo. For the artists, this connectivity has only reinforced what they’ve long known: that their connection to Ford’s goes beyond their work show to show.
And still, the hope of returning to live theatre persists. Ford’s Theatre after all, has regularly experienced rebirths. Through countless renovations and reopenings over the last century, and changing administrations and visions, Ford’s has found its way back to its historical and creative roots. And soon, it will be reborn again, this time accompanied by theatres worldwide.
As the artists of Ford’s imagine that first performance when they’re back in the space they love, they become silent. A deep breath follows, soon accompanied by a voice, shaky with emotion but strong in conviction. “I can’t even describe what that will mean for all of us and how amazing it will feel,” Ponce De León expresses. “I can’t think of it because I don’t know if I’ll be able to get through it when I have to stand on that stage,” says Tetreault.
As memory and community continues to keep the spirit of the theatre alive, the people of Ford’s wait eagerly. “I cannot wait for the moment we get people back into the space for an experience where you can synchronize your heartbeat to a room full of patrons,” Schraf expresses. “That’s what we do.”
Rishi Mutalik is a writer and actor based in New York. He is the co-author of the play Color Coded and was a member of the BIPOC Critics Lab. Follow him on Twitter @RishiMutalik.