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Director Balances Art and Business

New Director Has Big Ambitions for Ford’s

As the new producing director at the historic Ford’s Theatre, Paul Tetreault has his hands full these days.

At any given time, he is busy overseeing the theater’s dramatic productions, communicating with actors and directors, choosing the plays for the next annual lineup, and talking on the phone with big-name trustees, like Senate spouses Karen Frist and Linda Daschle.

His duties are compounded by the fact that he is managing a business that is, at once, both a running theater and one of the country’s most historic landmarks. Every year, Ford’s brings in more than a million tourists to the infamous site of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth in 1865, in addition to drawing roughly 150,000 theatergoers.

This annual flood of visitors and hectic managerial schedule would weigh heavily on any newcomer. But the ambitious 41-year-old Tetreault says he’s up to the challenge.

“My responsibilities are all over the map right now, and I’m constantly running as fast as I can to fulfill them,” he says. “But I have a great love for theater and history. The Ford’s Theatre is such a venerable institution that I actually look forward to doing this running around if it means bringing the best of American theater to Washington.”

Needless to say, Tetreault has big ambitions for his tenure at Ford’s.

While promising to “stay true to the legacy” of former Producing Director Frankie Hewitt — who oversaw the theater’s federally commissioned reopening in 1968 and died of cancer last year at age 71 — Tetreault says he also plans to “take things to the next level.” For him, that means developing the Ford’s stage operations and attracting more DC-area patrons.

In short, he hopes to make Ford’s a bit more of a traditional metropolitan theater and a bit less of a tourist attraction.

“In this city, you have the Lansburgh doing Shakespeare, the Studio Theater doing contemporary, the Signature doing musicals and the Arena Stage running the gamut,” he says. “What I’m interested in, here, is carving out our own niche as the theater in D.C. to go to for American classics — without alienating our out-of-town crowd, of course.”

As a lover of classic American drama, Tetreault has certainly found his own artistic niche at Ford’s. The theater is best known for its productions of American originals like “Virginia Wolfe,” Born Yesterday” and “Can’t Take It Without You,” as well as plays by authors such as Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller.

Asking Tetreault to pick his favorite American classic, he says, is like asking him to pick a favorite child. “I could never choose. I love them all dearly for different reasons.”

Still, this love is often tempered by a shrewd business sense. Tetreault is intent on balancing artistic interests at Ford’s with the financial imperatives of running a business, and his professional record shows it.

With degrees in both drama and art administration, Tetreault has worked as a financial director at Madison Square Garden, a vice president at a New York management and fundraising consulting firm, and the producing director at the Alley Theater in Houston. There, he helped erase the theater’s financial debt two years ahead of schedule and led its $6 million recovery after Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

On the artistic side of his work, Tetreault has been a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts and oversaw the productions of numerous world premieres at the Alley Theater.

“I’d say I’m about 50 percent theater lover, 50 percent businessman,” he says. “It’s really a delicate line to walk. As an administrator, you want to spend less money, but as an artist, you usually want to spend more. At the same time, if you bankrupt an organization to do great theater, it will be the last great theater you do.”

Tetreault’s solution to this dilemma is to spend wisely and work hard — two things he seems apt at doing, so far. Since arriving at the theater in April, he has functioned as both a full-time artistic adviser and chief executive officer, often coming into the office on weekends to complete unfinished business from the week.

Such dedication to his new job has left little time for Tetreault to pursue outside hobbies or interests since coming to Washington earlier this year.

Still, Tetreault knows not to take himself too seriously. Every morning, he puts on one of his 75 multicolored bowties — his personal trademark, he says — before leaving for work.

“It’s just something I do,” he says. “To me, serious traditional neckties can get boring. And this lets me stand out in a crowd.”

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