the 1985 Carlo Vanzina comedy “Vacanza in America,”
a vehicle for the ubiquitous Christian De Sica, the petite and
dynamic Ford played a prostitute whose customers always asked
for their money back. “Anytime casting agents needed
an old maid or someone who spoke really bad Italian, they’d
call me”, she says.
Ford had moved to Rome on a lark from New York City two years
before, in 1983. She was an Alvin Ailey-trained dancer and aspiring
actor transported to a city whose entertainment industry dotes
on models. Self-deprecating and funny, Ford was a model only of
quirkiness. “I always took the roles no one wanted”,
says Ford, whose interest in Cinecitta’, the city’s
sprawling film mecca, soured as quickly as the movies she appeared
in. She got bit parts with belly-laugh comedians Paolo Villaggio
and Enrico Montesano. In a series of forgettable minor films (including
“Non aprite quella porta,” “Desideri”
and “Anche I commercialisti hanno un’anima”),
she was the eternal maleducata, malvestita, not-so-fluent-in-Italian
Two decades later the 47-year-old Ford can mock the bad old days,
but only because she stuck to her guns. In 1996, she founded her
own theater group, The English Theatre of Rome, the culmination
of a personal dream to assemble dramatic talent and give it an
outlet. To keep it alive, she works 60-hour weeks that take their
toll on all aspects of her life.
Ford’s theater background is rooted in family. One of eight
artistically-inclined siblings whose father — he died this
summer at 83 — taught Shakespeare at Fordham and New York
University (her mother is also a teacher and screenwriter), the
Long Island-born Ford studied drama at SUNY Purchase and then
joined the Alvin Ailey Dance theater in New York City.
Looking for a break from the demands of off-Broadway theater,
she found an ad in Backstage magazine for dance instructors in
Italy. She was 26 when she arrived in the capital in 1983. It
didn’t take her long to understand Italy’s almost
obsessive emphasis on physical beauty. “In New York,
there are more roles for women and it didn’t matter whether
you were beautiful or not”, says Ford. “In
Italy, it’s mainly based on what you look like”.
The use of the word “mainly” seems like an act of
And diplomacy is what helped her launch the theater project.
From the start, she knew that starting a creative project on a
shoestring budget would be difficult in Rome. “In the
beginning, you have to be prepared to lose money, walk a tightrope,
and hang on”, says Ford. Producing a play can run up
to e10,000, including rent, royalty fees, and promotional costs.
To make the theater more robust and give it an identity, she cast
both professional actors and amateurs in her productions. She
encouraged multi-nationalism, with actors from the United States,
Canada, Great Britain, Ireland and South Africa. With most of
them involved in other projects, she began with 10-minute skits.
“They could get on stage, do their thing, then leave
to go to work if they had to”.
What to perform is a guessing game. “You got a hit show
one month and the other a turkey”, says Ford. “Unless
you opt to reproduce only tried and true crowd pleaser”,
putting together a season is intense and time-consuming, she says.
Ford reads up to 60 scripts, mainstream and independent, before
The early days were about cutting corners: Actors were paid little
or nothing. “Whenever I hired new actors, I always invited
them to my apartment so they could see how I lived and that I
wasn’t making millions”. Ford’s apartment,
though located in the center of Rome, is modest and Bohemian.
Her living room is her office and her terrace acts as storage
space for props, with costumes hanging out to dry.
Costume-hunting was its own adventure. “Up until a few
years ago, I’d go to Porta Portese [flea market] just after
they’d closed, and gypsies had gotten a hold of whatever
vendors were throwing out. I picked up Renaissance-like clothes
for like 50 euro cents”. Unable to afford an assistant,
Ford would wash and iron the costumes, haul them with other props
to the theater, then located on Via Urbana — on a motorino.
Gradually, however, word of the theater spread. Audiences grew.
American college students took notice, as did employees of the
capital’s two major UN organizations, the Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP). With most
of the plays produced in English, reaching Italians was difficult.
“Most Italians know only about 500 words in English”,
says Ford. “They can say hamburger and toilets and not
Determined to make inroads, she began producing plays in both
English and Italian in 2001. She even added a bilingual production
titled “100” to the lineup this summer. “The
numbers of Italians increased notably, making up 40 percent of
the crowd”, she says. Ford’s profile also rose.
In June, The American International Club of Rome honored her “cultural
contribution” to the community. She smoked nervously before
accepting the award and graciously minimized her accomplishments.
“She’s really well liked and respected”,
says Mayo Pernell, 34, a novelist who worked with Ford on the
play Dinner With Friends, produced in March. Some of her actors
have moved on to larger theaters and landed work in television.
She was able to move from the Via Urbana venue to the Teatro L’Arciluito
near Piazza Navona. And with Italian productions on the rise she
changed the name of the company to The (Not Only) English Theatre
Maintaining the theater and making it grow, she admits, remains
tough. Just getting the word out that it exists can be daunting.
She says Italian media is reluctant to get involved. “A
journalist at an Italian newspaper once told me that Italian theaters
were going through their own problems and she didn’t see
any reason why she should try and help mine out”.
Funding is a constant quandary. She still juggles jobs to keep
the theater solvent, leaning on her eclectic skills. She teaches
shiatsu and stretching, translates, offers private acting lessons,
and helps American students in Rome with relocation. “I
have to spend five or six hours a day [working] to be able to
afford my rent” and keep the theater afloat, says Ford.
The leftover hours are dedicated to promoting the theater, attending
casting calls, or applying for grants.
It’s a path that leaves her little time for herself. “It’s
very demanding at times and can be very exhausting”,
says Ford. Her father’s death last summer affected her profoundly
in ways she’s yet to fully understand and she speaks of
needing more “me-time”.
Ford is unmarried and her companion of 20 years works on documentary
films, putting him on the road five months a year. Still, the
relationship works, Ford smiles, and at the very least makes for
fewer dirty dishes. “He gives me my space and understands
my long hours”, she says.
Notwithstanding the ups and downs of trying to make the theater
successful, Ford recognizes that she’s finally onto something
special, something of her own, an enterprise that she and others
respect. Without hesitation, she calls these “the best
years of my life”.
And it shows.
Call 06.687.9419 (after 3 p.m.) or 06.444.1375 for an appointment
and information on upcoming shows. Those wishing to audition should
bring a photo and a resume and prepare a two to five-minute long
monologue in Italian or English.