Paul Ford has been a pillar of Albuquerque’s theater scene for decades. He is a director, an actor, a longtime lecturer in the University of New Mexico’s Department of Theater and Dance and the founding artistic director of the long-running Theatre-in-the-Making. There are few aspects of our city’s live drama scene he has not touched. His newest directorial effort, Winter Tales, opens at Albuquerque’s Vortex Theatre on Dec. 2.
The show is an ensemble-cast collection of fables, fairy tales, poetry and short fiction—what Ford broadly terms “story-theater.” It’s all composed of material “revolving around the holidays” that the director has been collecting for years. “A couple of pieces of it I’ve staged before,” says Ford. “But most of it is just stuff that I knew someday that I’d want to do. There are four longer stories that we’re doing, and I’m webbing it together with poetry and quotes.”
Ford has assembled a historical cornucopia of holiday-themed material to unite the key stories. “I’ve got a roast turkey recipe from the 1770s that were doing. There’s a Mark Twain quote. Something pulled from Hamlet. Some singing. All of which creates the matrix for these four stories. It’s not Christmas specifically, although a lot it is about Christmas spirit and the spirit of giving at Christmas. But some of it is about winter and cold.” On that end of the spectrum, the evening includes a Russian fable called “Frost” that Ford describes as “dark and brittle.”
Among the show’s most recognizable highlights is the famed O. Henry short story “The Gift of the Magi” which served as the initial inspiration for Winter Tales. A year and a half ago, Ford was given an adaptation of “Gift of the Magi” which featured, “O. Henry’s characters lifted out and stuck in a modern sensibility.” But Ford didn’t appreciate the theatrical alterations and quickly realized, “If I were to do this, I would do the O. Henry as story-theater and add other material to it in order to create a whole evening.”
For Ford it’s all about exploring his love for story-theater. Story-theater basically entails bringing preexisting literary stories to the stage without interrupting or altering the original voice of the author. The stories are usually presented with simple costumes and bare stages that do not distract from the “oral tradition” of the tales. Ford was first introduced to the concept back in the 1970s. “I was directing for an organization in Sacramento, and the artistic director came and handed me a script called Story Theatre and said, ‘I want you to direct this.’ Well, I had not encountered the form of story-theater, not that specific script before. That script was by Paul Sills. Paul Sills is one of the founders of Second City in Chicago. And his mother is Viola Spolin. Viola Spolin had a huge impact on my generation of theater people with her book Improvisation for the Theater. Anyway, I didn’t know anything about it at the time. So I took this and fell in love with the idea. [Paul Sills’ Story Theatre] was an adaptation of mostly Grimm’s fables, but it was using it as sort of an anti-war statement. You know, Henny Penny counterpointed with Country Joe McDonald and the Fish’s Vietnam Rag. So that’s when I first encountered this. As a movement it has continued on from then, and it has become a brand of theater.”
As Ford explains it, “The idea is that if a work has a rich narrative voice and that voice is balanced with action and character, that there is a way of bringing the narrative voice to the stage. Making it part of the stage. So it’s not separate. It’s not someone sitting outside narrating it. The narrator or narrators will be in flow with all the action, sometimes working in unison, sometimes working individually. But they become part of the overall visual picture.”
In story-theater, there can be minor edits to the original text—cutting out descriptive phrases like “he said,” “she asked,” “he smiled” and other words that are “not needed rhythmically or poetically.” But the overall goal is to keep as much of the original wording as possible and allowing the literary voice “to stand forth.”
Ford says that several of his colleagues from Theater-in-The-Making will be taking part in Winter Tales. Although the cast features both younger and older actors, many of Ford’s relationships go back 30 or more years. “I came to New Mexico to start an education program for New Mexico Repertory Theatre in 1986. And I called that program Theater-in-the-Making. In 1988 we separated from the Rep, and it became an independent nonprofit organization doing theater down at Center Stage, which is now Two Fools Tavern. We were there for years and have been an itinerant arts program ever since.”
For Ford Theatre-in-the-Making “has always been focused on the performer and creating opportunities for inexperienced performers, beginning performers, to mix with experienced performers to develop skills. At one point in the early ’90s we were at Center Stage and I was running classes and productions for young people and adults. There was a moment in which I looked at all the theaters in town and all the shows that were going on.” It was then that Ford realized virtually every show had an actor who had done their first production or had their first class with Theatre-in-the-Making. “I thought that’s about as good a representation of our mission as anything I could lay your hands on. Because we were providing an access point for both adults and young people to move into having experiences as expressive artists.”
Over the years Theatre-in-the-Making cultivated “a long-term relationship with Tricklock Company. And then we’ve been guests of the Vortex many times. We used to produce at the KiMo and ALT.” Of course the pandemic put a stop to local theater productions for a couple of years. During the COVID shutdown, Ford kept Theatre-in-the-Making busy with a new enterprise. “I wanted to keep my group galvanized by having a project, so we started a podcast. We were doing that based on fables. … That was really, really fun.” The first two episodes of Theatre-in-the-Making’s “Fables” podcast can be accessed on Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music and Spotify or through the group’s website (theatreinthemaking.org).
Winter Tales, directed by Paul Ford, runs Fridays and Saturdays (7pm) and Saturdays and Sundays (2pm), December 2-18, at Vortex Theatre (2900 Carlisle Blvd NE). Tickets are $24. There is a pay-what-you-will performance on Sunday, December 11.