Even Presidents Have Returned to Ford's Theatre

Even Presidents Have Returned to Ford's Theatre REGIONAL THEATRE NEWS

Few theatres have a national constituency. Even fewer can boast of hosting American presidents and cabinet officials along with inner-city students on a regular basis. Yet Ford's Theatre is not only a national treasure, it is an important social nexus in Washington, D.C.-- a town for which being seen at the right places with the right company is as important as plasma.

REGIONAL THEATRE NEWS

Few theatres have a national constituency. Even fewer can boast of hosting American presidents and cabinet officials along with inner-city students on a regular basis. Yet Ford's Theatre is not only a national treasure, it is an important social nexus in Washington, D.C.-- a town for which being seen at the right places with the right company is as important as plasma.

It has been thus, since producing artistic director Frankie Hewitt reopened the historical monument in 1968 as a living memorial to Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated there in 1865. Now, the Oklahoma-born producer is joining forces with former publicist Alma Viator whom she has newly appointed as the new managing director of Ford's Theatre.

"I've been looking for years to fill this position," said Hewitt, noting that Viator will be involved not only in sales, marketing and corporate funding but also in helping her develop the theatre's programming. "And among Alma's tremendous assets is the fact that she brings a lot of the knowledge of the theatre that she has learned elsewhere."

In fact, Viator's previous history as a high-powered publicist -- the Shuberts were a major client -- who commuted regularly between Washington, D.C., and New York, will keep her in good stead as she helps Hewitt fulfill the theatre's mandate to develop new work and new audiences. After all, Ford's was the incubator of such hits as Micki Grant and Vinnette Carroll's Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope, Your Arms Too Short to Box with God and James Whitmore's shows, Give 'Em Hell Harry and Will Rogers, U.S.A. Also as someone who's married to Ben Jones a former Georgia congressman and actor ("Dukes of Hazzard") and who knows her way around Shubert Alley and Capitol Hill, Viator mixes the diplomatic skills of a Madeline Albright with the showbiz savvy of a Joseph Papp.

Viator, who's worked with Ford's before as a public relations' director, says that the challenge for her will be to expand with Hewitt the theatre's role as both national showcase and community educator. For example, the annual gala in March, a variety show which is also televised, traditionally draws the President and First Lady and top government officials, while several outreach programs invite the participation of children and adults from the ghettos to Georgetown.

"We recently hosted school groups from 42 states, and for many it was their first experience in the theatre," said Viator, noting that the play -- The Gate of Heaven about a Japanese-American soldier who helps to liberate the Dachau death camp -- encouraged the students to talk about their own experiences with prejudice and ethnic and religious hatred.

Since the theatre's audience is not subscriber-based, it is able to be relatively flexible in its programming. Political humorist Mark Russell will be holding forth in the 600-seat during Inauguration Week to be followed by Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. A new production of the musical Paper Moon will then follow. "We're a great theatre to begin new works," says Viator. "We are, after all, in one of the major market in the country. People think of us as an historical theatre, and so we get a lot of submissions of plays with an historical basis. But it has to work as theatre first." Both Hewitt and Viator observed that they are in the process of re-evaluating and defining the theatre's artistic mission for the future. But whatever comes out of the board meetings, one can be certain that the this vibrant gem of the theatre will express theatrically and uncynically the well-worn phrase "of the people, for the people and by the people."

-- By Patrick Pacheco