Norris Houghton, a designer, educator, author, producer and director who was one of the major figures of the early days of Off-Broadway, when he co-founded the nonprofit Phoenix Theatre in 1953, died Oct. 9 in Manhattan at the age of 92.
Mr. Houghton, born Charles Norris Houghton in Indianapolis, IN, the son of a lumber dealer, had worked within the commercial establishment as a Broadway and stock stage manager, designer and director, including directing Michael Redgrave in Macbeth in London and New York. His professional career began as a stage manager for the University Players in Falmouth, MA, in 1931.
But by 1953, the Princeton University-educated Mr. Houghton wanted a sandbox of his own, and with T. Edward Hambleton he founded the Phoenix Theatre, and became its co-managing director. Their venue was an uncomfortably large former movie house on East 12th Street and their goals were to create a season of plays that could be affordably produced, distinct from the fare uptown, and affordable to see — theatre without the usual commercial trappings. Using his wealth of first-hand knowledge of Russian theatre (he had met Stanislavsky and other greats of the Moscow Art Theatre as a Guggenheim Fellow on a trip to the Soviet Union in 1934), he directed The Seagull for the Phoenix in 1954 and designed for the company as well. Dozens of works, including plays by Ibsen, Shaw, Shakespeare, Strindberg — and the cult musical, The Golden Apple — were presented by the nonprofit company. In 1961 the troupe moved uptown, to 74th Street, to a 300-seat theatre.
In a letter to subscribers at the time, the company said of its 12th Street location: "It's been the scene of all our triumphs and our traumas since we first began. But we've developed a conflict of loyalties: between a building and an idea. After a while we seemed to be looking for plays to fit a building. That was obviously the wrong way around! We decided ideas come first. So we have looked for a theatre to fit the plays — and we've found it. To be ourselves we had to become different."
Arthur Kopit's Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad was the debut play at the new space. Mr. Houghton's time in the early 1960s was divided between the Phoenix and running the drama department at Vassar College. His title at the Poughkeepsie, NY, school was director of experimental theatre. In 1963-64 the Phoenix began an arrangement with Ellis Rabb's APA (Association of Producing Artists) by producing War and Peace together. Mr. Houghton left the Phoenix shortly after and Hambleton kept the company going for 20 more years entering the era of Marsha Norma, Meryl Streep and Glenn Close.
"The Phoenix," Mr. Houghton wrote in his 1991 memoir, "Entrances and Exits," "did, I believe, perform remarkable services during a remarkable life. To a substantial degree it changed the way the theatre operated in New York City. It succeeded in making stage folk and the general public realize that there were other stages and other reasons to produce than Broadway's, and other motivations than commercialism. It stood as a signpost pointing the way toward a new land: Off-Broadway."
He also claimed that the Phoenix helped inspire the regional theatre boom. "Since 1953," he wrote, "a vast number of resident theatres, almost all of them non-commercial, have arisen in conscious or unconscious emulation of Off-Broadway." He pointed out that many of the major national companies had Phoenix graduates at their helm.
Mr. Houghton was also the first dean of the division of theatre arts and film at State University of New York in Purchase. His 1934 visit to the Soviet Union resulted in the theatre book, "Moscow Rehearsals."
— By Kenneth Jones