James Houghton, Founder of Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre, Dies

Obituaries   James Houghton, Founder of Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre, Dies
 
The New York theatre landscape was transformed by a company that dedicated each season to the work of one playwright.
James Houghton
James Houghton Joseph Marzullo/WENN

James Houghton, who transformed the New York theatre scene and gave birth to a mighty nonprofit company with the simple notion of dedicating a troupe’s energies to the work of a single playwright, died August 2. He was 57.

His death was announced by the O’Neill’s National Playwrights Conference, which Mr. Houghton briefly led. No other details about his death could be learned as press time.

Dramatists are at the heart of the theatre. Without them, there are no productions. Yet, until James Houghton came along in the early 1990s, few theatre people had thought to put the playwright’s work at the center of a stage company. The aptly named Signature Theatre Company, founded by Mr. Houghton in 1991 in a black box on darkened on Bond Street in the NoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, did just that.

It was a quixotic affair. The company’s first season was given over to the work of Romulus Linney, a respected writer in theatrical circles, but hardly a name that equated box-office catnip. Mr. Houghton had worked with Linney as a young actor, and fallen in love with the writer’s style.

"Romulus, at age 60, was folding his own programs and hanging his own lights, and it just felt like it wasn’t right that he was still pushing so hard, pushing a boulder up the mountain,” Mr. Houghton told the New York Times.

The Signature produced new stagings of his works F.M., The Love Suicide of Schofield Barracks, The Sorrows of Frederick, Heathen Valley, A Woman Without a Name and Ambrosio. The theatre press corps duly took note with measured praise.

The next season was a tribute to Lee Blessing, another writer of esteem, but limited fame. The Village Voice awarded Blessing an Obie Award for Sustained Achievement.

With the third season, the Signature turned a corner. Mr. Houghton convinced Edward Albee—a boldface name indeed, but then a playwright deeply out of fashion—to agree to a season. The four-play line-up, taken together with a simultaneous mounting of Albee’s Three Tall Women at the Vineyard Theatre, succeeded in turning around the playwright’s career.

Thereafter, Signature was a company to be reckoned with. Subsequent seasons cast a light on the neglected works of Horton Foote and Adrienne Kennedy. One production of a Foote play, The Young Man From Atlanta, made the leap to Broadway. The drama won Foote the Pulitzer Prize; the writer was rarely out of favor thereafter.

By 1996, Mr. Houghton was welcoming the cooperation of Sam Shepard and, the season after, Arthur Miller. A residency at the Signature became a sought-after honor for playwrights.

Occasionally, Mr. Houghton directed, piloting works by Linney or Albee or Miller and Landford Wilson. But mainly he was the Big-Idea man behind the scenes, steering each season into cohesive success.

By the time it produced the Miller season, Mr. Houghton had moved the company uptown to a more spacious home on West 42nd Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues. In 2012, the company shifted down the street into a custom-built, 75,000-square-feet, multi-theatre space, designed, at a cost of $70 million, by renowned architect Frank Gehry. It was the ultimate culmination of the company’s mission, a facility to rival Lincoln Center Theater in size and ambition.

Future seasons would be multi-faceted—not just dedicated to single playwright, but productions of plays by Signature dramatists of past seasons, and new plays by up-and-coming scribes. It produced nine plays a year in its first season in its new home. Today, Signature remains the most writer-driven theatre complex in New York theatre history, with multiple mounting taking place at any given time.

In 2015, Jame Houghton, diagnosed with stomach cancer, stepped down as artistic director of Signature after a nearly 25-year reign. The previous year, Signature had become the first Off-Broadway company to be awarded the Regional Theatre Tony Award.

James Houghton enjoyed other theatrical ventures. He succeeded Lloyd Richards as leader of the National Playwrights Conference, serving as artistic director from 2000 to 2003. His reign was tumultuous, marked by his attempt to end the O'Neill's long-standing policy of open play submissions. The move incited a small firestorm of protest, with complaints arising from unknown scribes as well as name playwrights.

Mr. Houghton had always taken the long view, theatre-wise. In 2012, upon the opening of the new Signature complex, he told Playbill, “At the end of the day, all these residencies and all this work leads up to a relationship. With that relationship, the goal is to provide context and support. I think we're doing that. These programs don't exist anywhere else. We're providing health insurance.

"From my perspective, if, as an artist, you've got insurance and some security for the next five years, the white noise goes away. You're not doing this reading at this place, and doing another across the country. All that noise goes away. The writers are here. They know their work will be produced. They know we'll be sympathetic to their process and we're suited to their process. It's designed to their need, not our need."

Update: Signature Theatre released the following statement August 3:

It is with sadness that Signature Theatre announces its Founder James Houghton passed away at his home in Manhattan on August 2, 2016 after a two year battle with stomach cancer. He was 57 years old.

Under James Houghton’s leadership as Founding Artistic Director, Signature Theatre became one of the country’s preeminent theatre companies. Signature was the first company to dedicate a full season to a living writer’s body of work, and in the past 25 years has hosted a diverse roster of some of the theatre’s most exciting and accomplished playwrights. The company has since launched two additional residency programs, as well as the Signature Ticket Initiative, its groundbreaking ticket subsidy program. In 2012 Signature opened The Pershing Square Signature Center, the largest new theatre center in New York City in nearly 50 years, and was recognized in 2014 with the Regional Theatre Tony Award for its unique mission and outstanding body of work.

Since 2006, Mr. Houghton also served as the Richard Rodgers Director of the Drama Division at The Juilliard School. To enhance the program, Mr. Houghton and the Drama Division initiated significant new programming and opportunities for students. Among these opportunities are a new Master of Fine Arts Program, which offers free tuition and a living stipend during the fourth and final year of training; the introduction of a Playwrights Festival featuring performances of plays written by students of the renowned Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program; and a bridge to the profession through the creation of the Professional Studio hosted by Signature Theatre, allowing Juilliard’s actors and writers to collaborate closely and build lasting artistic relationships.

Mr. Houghton was honored by The Acting Company with the 2012 John Houseman Award for his profound commitment to developing American actors and building a diverse audience for the theatre, as well as the William Inge Festival’s 1998 Margo Jones Medal for an outstanding contribution to the American theatre. In 2015, he was awarded a Special Award for Sustained Achievement at the 60th Annual Obie Awards. In 2016, he received the Lucille Lortel Award for Lifetime Achievement and a Special Achievement Award from the Outer Critics Circle. In 2013, he was inducted into the College of the Fellows of the American Theatre and presented with an honorary Doctorate of Performing Arts by his alma mater, Santa Clara University. Mr. Houghton has also served as the Artistic Director of the O’Neill Playwrights Conference (1999-2003), Artistic Director of the New Harmony Project (1996-1999), and the Artistic Advisor to the Guthrie Theater (1998-2012).

Houghton is survived by his wife Joyce O’Connor, children Henry and Lily Houghton, parents Joan and Sherrill Houghton, and siblings Scott Houghton, Susan Houghton Devine, Lynne Houghton and Trish Houghton Line.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to AfterWork Theater (www.afterworktheater.org) and Daniel’s Music (www.danielsmusic.org), two organizations that helped his son Henry’s life.

Details of a public memorial will be made available in the coming weeks.

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