“That’s the biggest change,” says presidential scholar and Lincoln historian Richard Norton Smith, who helped plan the new center as well as the redesigned museum beneath the theater, which opened in 2009. “People used to be exposed to a fairly narrow slice of history, with a clear-cut ending. Now the whole package is not about endings. It literally is a story that is unfinished, and in some ways is reinterpreted by each generation.”
New “centers” are the mode in Washington — the Harman Center for the Arts, the Mead Center for American Theater (a.k.a. Arena Stage) — and the ribbon-cutting of Ford’s Center for Education and Leadership on Wednesday, with timed entry tours for the public beginning Feb. 21, will complete a $60 million re-visioning. The annual slate of theater productions and the cautiously preserved and displayed historic site, managed by the National Park Service, have long operated without much integration. The new campus, created by Ford’s Theatre Society in coordination with the Park Service, aims for greater harmony.
“This is redefining who we are,” says Ford’s Director Paul R. Tetrault. The theater is creating more Lincoln connections in works as diverse as the recent musical “Parade” (about the 1915 anti-Semitic lynching in Georgia of Leo Frank) or in the current premiere “Necessary Sacrifices ,” dramatizing meetings between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. (This spring, the troupe will produce the popular musical “1776” — not strictly Lincoln, but in the ballpark.)
Meantime, the historical displays have grown more theatrical. The glass facade of the new center features a giant image of Lincoln’s face staring across 10th Street at the theater. Videos by the History Channel animate the museums on both sides of the street. The exhibits in the new center feature touch-screen displays and interactive elements to go with the artifacts under glass.
Tetrault credits current board Chairman Wayne R. Reynolds with broaching the idea of an expanded, more comprehensive approach. Tetrault’s initial response was a wary “Hold on!” He had been hired to replace the late Frankie Hewitt, who ran Ford’s as a working theater since its reopening in 1968. Tetrault’s expertise was stage-related; he came to Washington after a decade as the managing director of Houston’s Alley Theatre, which produced a number of notable shows on his watch.