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This is seminars in theatre a series of discussions with leading members of the theatrical profession who comment on the problems and pleasures of life in the theatre. Here now is the host of seminars and theatre Richard Pyatt. Good evening and welcome to seminars and theatre. Tonight we're going to talk about what might be very quickly titled The reconstruction of an era a theatrical era in the form of the very famous theatre. Theatre made famous by the fact that tragedy occurred and probably the tragedy however was not on the stage. It's the Ford data where of course every. One who is familiar with that history knows that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. At that scene the other interesting aspect of our discussion includes our guest Michael du well who along with Francis and Dorothy founded the National Repertory
Theatre in 1961. He's the founder and producer. And also Jack Sydow who's been with the company sends Nineteen sixty one its inception and he is its director. And. The third guest is Jay Longacre who is very instrumental and has been in getting the background and the funds needed to get the Ford Theater working as an operating theater. But the individuals who know much more about that than I do will start talking and I'll stop. And the first one Michael do well just how did you come upon this idea whoever came upon the idea to get four due to working again when and how did this all come about. Well they really grew out of the announced plan by the secretary of the interior. Several years ago to have Ford's theater reopened as a national shrine dedicated to the memory of Abraham Lincoln the money
which had been very slow in coming from Congress came as a result of a battle that lasted 15 years conducted by Senator Milton young of North Dakota. He was horrified that Ford's Theater which is a big tourist mecca in Washington really didn't exist at all it was four exterior walls and a rather dusty basement with a couple glass cases in it. And he felt it should be restored starting in one thousand forty five. He campaigned on the hill to get funds to restore the theater when reconstruction was actually started. And this is now about four years ago my very lucky we have a sect of the Interior in this country who cares a great deal about the arts. Stewart Udall's do it all. And he and Actors Equity decided that the theater should be most appropriate used as a Living Theatre giving another arts resource to the nation's capital and also in this way fulfilling something that would be a more appropriate memorial and then than just a collection of Linn County
and the suit Abraham Lincoln died in or the sort of things that are in the house across the street on 10th Street the house where Lincoln died. SPECTER You talk asked the National Repertory Theatre to develop plans for the proper utilization of this building. This is an enormous responsibility of course because it is the first time within a national shrine of any federal building that there would be live theater. And we came up with a suggestion that the proper use of the utilization of it for stage would see a certain kind of play done there that would in some way indicate Lincoln's enormous involvement with where the performing arts and would therefore be about Abraham Lincoln's life not not about his death. We intend to do plays that Lincoln saw other plays that were performed in Fords during Lincoln's administration going to want to know a lot more about what you plan to do but let me take you back or let me back up a bit and ask you why did
Stewart Udall come to the national Repertory Theatre and ask them to undertake the chore of getting Ford's Theater back in operation or did you seek out the secretary. No. We we play Washington every year and have since 1061 as we play the entire country we are really much better known outside of New York City than we are in it. We're the only one. Full scale repertory company that most cities in this country see. We've toured all the major cities in the country every year since 1961 and we've been particularly successful in Washington D.C. where we play the National Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue. We sell out far in advance and our room and he really looked forward to an event every every year. So I think it was just kind of a simple logical choice for secretary you do all that wanting and wanting a good baiter there. This is the theater they are most familiar with and in Washington he also
was concerned that the idea would be developed along very appropriate lines and. The National Repertory Theatre is a sponsored affiliate of the American National Theatre and Academy and has a congressional charter and is the closest thing we have in this country to an official government theater. We are answers and it's only regularly producing arm. So we were the really quite logical people to come to I think we have Jay long ago who are primarily concerned with. I would speculate I guess I don't have to speculate you right here. But I think you're interested in maintaining and seeing that the amount of funds necessary to operate the theater and once it has been achieved or if it has been What obstacles did you have in getting your first foot off the ground here.
Well I would say the first obstacle was a matter of manpower you know when you start a project of this size and you have to move quickly with it you need a great many people to pitch in and help. My job basically is to organize these people to raise the money that they need. And in this case here we were with the probably the finest facility certainly in Washington maybe on the East Coast. A fine repertory company and no money and. The need is eminent. So we've been going around the country. It's going up prospects people who are interested in Lincoln people who are interested in Washington people who are interested in the theater to seek their support to make this a going proposition. But what was a theater in just about working order or it was a great deal of renovation needed. Well there was a great deal of renovation needed and happily the government took care of the restoration. Government spent 2.7 million dollars restoring the theater. However
the government's not spending one penny to operate the theater as a live theater that must come from the private sector of American society. And this is where we're going for the money to operate the theater and underwrite the productions there and conduct a student program which Mike or Jack can tell you a great deal about. Well speaking of jacks you know who has the responsibility of directing I think the first production. Is that correct. That's right. The opening production. John Brown's about 8 12. So obviously been rehearsing what no we have considered the production of John Brown's Body as a work in progress and that work has been in progress since. Early October when we went into rehearsal and we worked on it at Greensboro North Carolina at the University of North Carolina where we were artists in residence for three weeks. We also worked on it in Columbus Ohio and then I've been working on it since it was playing
in St. Louis in Philadelphia and Chicago and there will still be some more work done in order to adapt it for the Ford's Theater stage which is different than any of the stage that we have been playing at. But initially when the production was planned it was planned with the Ford's Theater stage in mind. So the adjustments won't have to be too enormous. I have you actually worked in the theater yet. No we haven't worked in the theater. Oh so you have that looming ahead of you. Yes we have. Do you conjure. And they kind of Poltergeist incidents occurring and I know there's always happened what I mean is a strange coincidences and sounds and figures and shapes seemingly appear out of nowhere when you're working in a hallowed spot so that the superstitious people who sometimes the material and particularly in this theater because the theater began with a curse you know. Mr. Ford acquired a building that had been a church over it literally the
dead body of one of the elders of the 10 St Matthew's Church who as he died said to the other elders if you sell the church to be to be a theater my curse will be on you for ever. Mr. Ford renovated the church and had it only opened for a few performances when it burned down then built a new theatre an actor shot a president in it they then used it for a warehouse and even as the John Wilkes Booth's brother Edwin Booth was dying here in New York on the very day that he died the whole floor collapsed in the in the building which is being used as a warehouse by the by the government killed 40 people and the theater was so Janks that they finally really just gave up on it and locked it up. And it's been sitting there ever since. We we want you to. We're playing the x ray. This could represent a formidable future for you at the at the location I mean if there are many
ways of ghosts avenging themselves they could say you won't have a hit here and do something every performance or. But even more seriously what will the area has any special plans been made for the area where Lincoln was shot. Will that be set aside with a back to Lincoln way saying it is actually an on stage box. There's an apron stage in this in the States and it's a very unique beautiful beautiful theater that deeper scene EOM is behind the two boxes the apron goes from one box to the other and we do not plan to ever use the box for audience purposes. It's been refurbished exactly as it wise on the night of the assassination. We will be using it we will be integrating it possibly in some future productions into the action of when we're doing a Shakespearean play. For instance it's absolutely fine for balcony scenes. The theater has been refurbished in a period style exactly the way it was
from top to bottom. They were probably interior we're very fortunate in that right after the assassination of Lincoln. Matthew Brady was commissioned by the investigation into the assassination to take photographs of the theater and he did so extensively and there were 400 Matthew Brady photographs of every architectural detail which they worked with. So this is probably the most accurate historic restoration ever done in this country as well as the most beautiful one. The chief way in which the restoration differs from the original building is that the basement which didn't exist before but now there is a large basement which will be the Lincoln Museum. And as will be available every day the whole building will be free to touring groups to go through and at night when we do our performances the audience will be able to go down in and wander around the Lincoln Museum which for which the departing Interior has very elaborate and beautiful plants it should be a wonderful museum free admission as a Lincoln Museum.
The admission to the theater not to the plays but to the theater during the day is free to touring groups as a national shrine and admission price will be the same as all theaters in the area or equivalent is that because the theater is so odd it's so different than modern theaters we we've just sat at one price and it's kind of first come first serve. But every ticket price is $5 whether it's upstairs or downstairs or or wherever it is that people buy the tickets first half have the best seats obviously when there is a family circle that's the old fashioned gallery with the church pews and wooden wooden and now I know I'm as in between in Lincoln's day. It only cost a quarter to sit up there and it is my hope we haven't finalized plans for the use of it yet but it's it's my hope that we will be able to sell that gallery as on a rush basis and for 25 cents. What a lawmaker this close to
the period will be. Part has been discussed but what I'm getting at now is will there be an attempt to keep the theater and not the acting with the interior as close to the period as possible. I think so. Certainly that's the way it's been done now and I would think that this is one of the great advantages of the theatre. The fact that it was restored in this way and I would foresee that they would keep it this way. Certainly Michael and Jack who worked with theaters in terms of of productions there can speak better about that but I've let's say this I've been in those seats and they're very comfortable and it's it's a beautiful theater. The the the light colors the Light Blues the red. It's it's a very attractive thing. I think also a point might be made that in its day when it was building it was only two years old when it was
closed. The theater was probably ahead of its time at that time. We retained the backstage equipment and all of the. Mechanical devices the same as they were ours there's no I will say they're all new. They're certainly all new now I name my speed the latest I'm maintaining backstage equipment that is similar to what was used in the time was the same as putting gas light and actually because the authenticity of backstage equipment for modern production is only interest the interest of interest to a certain limited group of historians and if we are going to try to produce a larger range of places we would eventually like to do it forwards. It's impractical to loot equipment there is not like that. For instance the Court Theatre and brought it home when that's what I was thinking of when I was going to find the question and got it home. All the equipment was intact and there were many sets there that all they had to do was clean up they actually didn't repaint or do anything without
the other. They just clean the dust and there were fantastic drops and things like that still in existence in storage. After driving home theater nothing of that sort exists for the whole reconstruction and we don't know that much about how they did the place there. The interesting thing here is the words of the legislation how this legislation was put through Congress before there was any thought of actually using the Living Theatre. But the act of Congress which we stored Ford's Theater said that it would be restored to its appearance on the night of the assassination. Secretary Utah who cares a great deal about the cause of the. The theater has interpreted that to say to me well after all actors appear in a band I think a little bit but about what Jack is pointing up really is that the appearance from the audience viewpoint will be when we do a period production lot so do modern ones. Exactly what an audience that is seen in 1865 by that
audience in one thousand sixty eight will be sitting there in air conditioned and heated come a varied and be plenty of plumbing facilities by the actors and the audience for the benefit of our listeners mention the drop in home theaters and Sweden. First of all it concerns itself with operas really rather than theatre. It's a perfectly restored house and Court Theatre is absolutely to look at the machinery and the equipment that they use. Because if anyone is in Sweden it should be a must they should go and take a look at the drop in home theater. Before the play was performance the night of a perfectly dreadful play every hamlet was a theatre not he went to the theater 40 times during his administration at least 40 times that he documented he probably went a good many other times that weren't documented. That probably means he was going to the theater two and three times a week and this particular Good Friday he was saying Our American Cousin for the second time had seen it shortly before
that our American Our American Cousin which is an English play and a bad one. I. Might have been one of the Indian at that period. Now he had seen though a great deal of Shakespeare at for its almost every work of Shakespeare was performed at Ford's And that's one reason why we will each season attempt to produce at least one Shakespeare play. Sheridan was performed there Congress was performed there. Goldsmith was performed there doing the plays that were actually performed there gives us a great deal of latitude but we also will be doing new works about Lincoln and we will be commissioning new plays about Lincoln and his times. I'm particular interested in that part of the program because Lincoln's times were really a great watershed in the history of America we were one kind of country before the Civil War we've been another kind of country sent and us use mid 19th century America or at least the resolution of those issues as resolutions we are still living with and under what the issues seem to be coming full circle to
a selection of plays for the season starting with John Brown's Body followed up with a comedy of errors and she's gone good. Who made the selection. How did you arrive at those. Oh just that we fight a lot and then we get together and everyone screams and yells as you want to do this and eventually that gets to be a Washington word consensus. John Brown's Body being about the times Abraham Lincoln as a character in John Brown's Body John Brown's Body had never before this been fully staged it would only be done as a reading ours is not a reading. Jackson devised a quite unique kind of thing I've never seen anything like it I mean is that 84 it's worked out in terms of prose choreography. It utilizes the full acting company and really I think conveys for the first time the broad sweep of Steven Vincent Benet. Saga and it in a way that a reading couldn't possibly the comedy of errors as our
first Shakespeare play and we pick it rightly I think even the fact that it's delicious comedy because it's the first of as many people think it's a first place Shakespeare wrote so we thought we'd do our best as our first play. We do Shakespeare's first Azar in the boat the comedy of errors and she stoops to conquer played it for ads during Lincoln's ministration in fact they both played twice they were brought back by popular demand a couple of historical minutiae that I just wondered if we could go over any record of what was Lincoln's favorite Shakespearean play or not I don't think he had a favorite he had he had plays that he liked that he quoted from extensively. He was very familiar with Julius Caesar and with McBath and with Lear plays that most presidents and leaders would obviously be familiar with and Shakespeare would like some of the leading actors other than it would be that you have an idea.
I'll go back to the American coming for a minute one of the reasons that Lincoln's went to see the American cousin that night it was Mrs. Clinton's choice actually. And. The reason why is because Laura Keene who was a very well-known actress an English actress was playing they had played extensively here was appearing that night and she had used Our American Cousin as a vehicle although the play the major role in the play is American bumped him. But she was playing an English woman Laura Keene would want to believe that Edmund was no my mistress was her name is Kay and Edwin is another one. You know John Wilkes Booth had played quite often and was very popular Ford's Lincoln had seen his Mark Anthony. But he had played there many times and I said to some of the rest of his family his father John Hughes Brutus Booth had not played them and yet by the other booths had
John Wilkes Booth was not in the play that night he was in we want the audience see as they snuck in the back of the theater actually during which I wasn't supposed to be there and I went around underneath the stage came up through the audience checked out the scholl and. Well we will go into all of the counting that can be done by psychologists I guess or probably will never really be known. The acting styles that are prevalent. To the national Repertory Theatre we I mean you have traveled to New York we've seen the company and its repertory. Will you change or will you attempt to in any way take on the acting styles of the period in any of the plays that you do. I don't think initially we will possibly at some point will try to
do a historical reconstruction of the period but once again it's like a stage machinery. It gets to an academic point in drama and what we always try to do is to give a contemporary look to the things that we do and by that I don't mean that we do modern dress things but we try to interpret the material so that it is. Identifiable to a modern audience. We have to devise it in John Brown's Body We have a device really a sort of a new style of acting in a way to handle the material because it's not it's not essentially dramatic by that I mean it's not filled with scenes but people reveal themselves through the poetry and a sort of a new style had to come about for that. Michael do well some of the names that appear as responsible for certain tasks such as the costumes lighting music. Are
these individuals Well Lisa Redfield is doing the music for the first two plays and the lighting but the costumes I notice you have several names for cast you Jane Greenwood Ray differen coat. Are these individuals members of the company. The album called has won two Tony Awards and down of over 40 Broadway shows. Jane Greenwood is currently represented. It would be on yo plate here in New York. And good argument is wearing your clothes. I think these people typified one thing that will characterize Ford's Theater and that is unlike other regional theaters which are not fully professional Fords will use the top people in the American theater in every in every department. Re deafen who has executed a good many of our costumes was brought to this continent by Tyrone got to do set up the workshop at Stratford Ontario and has come
to New York and now has really is has the very very best costume shop in this in this country there and of course is one of two or three top lighting designers in the Broadway theater. These are the kind of people who will have always worked with NRT and who we will now be able to bring to Ford's Theater. It doesn't make the whole project a bit expensive. He is I am noticing some and I wondered why that's why we need it. Long Acre so badly he's got to raise a million dollars in the next few months not to get the original music written for each of these productions I assume that Dean Fuller is writing special music for she used to conquer. Yes it's great that he created for it. She Stoops to Conquer for us four years ago when we toured the country where that red field has created original scores for John Brown's Body and the comedy of errors. The John Brown's Body scar is a very lengthy and extensive one and an absolutely fascinating one because Lise I went to period music for her
inspiration and source material. The music grows out of a very familiar civil war songs and mid 19th century songs but they aren't They are newly composed they are they are based on older music. How long will the season last for. Well this is the trial season we have really 14 subscription weeks we've had a staggering him. Success we have yet to take an ad we have done really a rather limited mailing and we have as of today 6000 subscribers for the season I think by the time the end of the subscription campaign ends. We will have reached our goal of seventy five hundred that represents about a third of the seats available in the theater we don't want to sell more subscriptions than that because to do so would be to limit our audience to Washingtonians we feel this audience must be composed also of students and one third of the seats are earmarked for
students and visitors grown groans who visit the nation's capital so that we will have. I think I'll take it. Campaign Reservations can be made for when someone is visiting wash and went to great advantage the repertory system of courses at summits in Washington on the brief time they can see all three plays because we will alternate and straight repertory. Another thing about that as you can see and use it with is that unlike most regional theatres you really have a regional audience your audience. For the most part will be comprised of individuals from all of the United States I would imagine when they run this through the computers at the Department of Interior. They say that their computers tell them that this will probably be the third most popular tourist attraction in Washington that's one thing that fascinates me about and not just the size of the audience but the mostly the visitor to the nation's capital does not take any advantage of it performing arts resources a tourist may go to the National Gallery or the
Corcoran at the Philips. But visitors don't go to the National Theatre in general don't go to Carter Barron don't attend concerts by the National Symphony. I don't even go to something like the Watergate concerts that were originally designed for it. They don't go to Arena Stage which is one of the best regional houses in America. I think this is because the things that I was organizations do do not directly relate to the reason a visitor is in Washington. Here we have the chance to have a cultural resource that does relate to why someone comes to Washington but to go to Washington seems to me to really to identify with the history of the country and with the seat of the government and to feel closer to and learn something about the nation's past. Boyd stater plays a role in that in the plays are we doing their due and we tend to to really utilize this in making ourselves available to us and that's why we will cut off the subscription campaign
at one third of the house.
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Seminars in theatre
Episode Number
Episode 24 of 31
Producing Organization
WNYC (Radio station : New York, N.Y.)
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Series Description
For series info, see Item 3231. This prog.: The reconstruction and reopening of the Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C. Michael Dewell (or Duell); Jack Sidoe (or Siddough); Jay Longacre.
Media type
Producing Organization: WNYC (Radio station : New York, N.Y.)
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 68-11-24 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:04
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Chicago: “Seminars in theatre; Episode 24 of 31,” 1968-06-18, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed May 29, 2023,
MLA: “Seminars in theatre; Episode 24 of 31.” 1968-06-18. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. May 29, 2023. <>.
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