Theater

A Farewell to Signature Theatre Founder James Houghton

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The news came Tuesday night, August 2. I had really been hoping it would never come, and I wasn’t alone in that: When people learned that James Houghton, the Signature Theatre’s founder and its artistic director for its first twenty-five years, had died at his home in New York, of stomach cancer, at the appallingly young age of 57, the communal grief was palpable all over the little sector of the internet where New York’s theater community meets.

Not only palpable, but near universal, for the number of theatrical lives Jim had touched, enhanced, and transformed seemed literally beyond counting. His life was a lesson in belief, for the enormous success he achieved was nothing short of a miracle brought about by his innate goodness, his generosity, his persistence, and the purity of his faith in the artistic value of the simple notion that American playwrights and their plays were worth celebrating.

It all happened because, as a young actor, Jim fell in love with one senior playwright’s work, and became indignant at his not having received the recognition he deserved. Romulus Linney was nearing sixty when they met, still working mostly Off-Off-Broadway, and still, as Jim would say later, “folding his own programs and hanging his own lights.” Instead of sitting around feeling frustrated, Jim Houghton decided to do something about it. Abetted by his love of Linney’s plays — and the residuals from a detergent commercial his actress wife had just done — he scraped together the funds to mount, shakily, in 1991, an entire season of Linney’s works.

At first, not that many critics came. I did, because I too admired many of Linney’s plays, particularly one that Jim put up in that first season, The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks, a convoluted, disturbing work that still strikes me as one of the better plays written about the Vietnam War era. The Jim Houghton I met at that performance — young, nervous, feverishly energetic — had the limpid eyes of a true believer.

The nervousness waned as the years wore on, the feverish energy modulated and steadied, but Jim’s eyes stayed fixed on his goal. He had established Romulus Linney’s importance. Other playwrights were important too, and he needed to prove that. The next year, it was Lee Blessing. Then, Edward Albee. That made people sit up and take notice. The Albee season unearthed a tiny gem, Finding the Sun, and coincided with the arrival of Albee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Three Tall Women (produced by the Vineyard Theatre). Signature Theatre, as Jim had christened his enterprise, burgeoned in the afterglow, reaching out simultaneously to A-list playwrights — Arthur Miller, Lanford Wilson — and to those who should have long since been A-list but somehow weren’t — Adrienne Kennedy, Maria Irene Fornes, Horton Foote. (More notice was taken when Signature spawned its own Pulitzer Prize winner, Foote’s The Young Man From Atlanta.)

Though always soft-spoken and modest, Jim, it turned out, could achieve almost anything. His peripatetic company soon found itself a permanent home, the Peter Norton Space on West 42nd Street, which it almost immediately outgrew. Not many years later, Signature took a quantum jump, across the street and slightly further east, into a specially designed three-theater complex, the Pershing Square Signature Center, complete with bookstore, bar, and a concierge’s desk in lieu of a box office. By an additional miracle, Jim found corporate support to subsidize low ticket prices.

With the spatial expansion came a giant expansion of artistic horizons, featuring long-term residencies for new and mid-career playwrights along with the well established. The definition of “playwright” expanded too, opening a space for figures like dance-theater imagist Martha Clarke and master clown Bill Irwin adjacent to the word-slinging likes of Annie Baker, Will Eno, August Wilson, and David Henry Hwang. And while all this was in the works, the soft-spoken guy with the theatrical faith in his heart managed to inject a new charge of energy into the O’Neill Center’s National Playwrights Conference, and to bring some needed updating to the Juilliard School’s Drama Division. There really isn’t any limit to what a true believer can achieve.

And it was all for the love of playwrights and plays. Countless actors, directors, and designers have worked for Signature under Jim Houghton’s aegis. They were all there for that love — the same reason that Jim himself had been there when I first met him, in 1991, at that drafty little black-box space, the roll of masking tape still in his hand from putting “Reserved/Press” signs on the reviewers’ seats, and he said, “I’m so glad you’re here. I really think it’s important for people to know how good these plays are.”

Off-Broadway theaters will dim their lights on Thursday, August 4 at 7:45 p.m. in memory of Signature Theatre founder James Houghton. 

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