The nomadic Signature Theatre Company, which devotes whole seasons to a single author, is busily readying its first permanent space in time to begin a 1997-98 roster of Arthur Miller plays.
First up is a revival of his American Clock, which begins previews Oct. 7.
Miller was on hand for a Sept. 9 morning press conference at the space, 555 West 42nd St., as were artistic director Jim Houghton, architect Mitchell Kurtz and set designer E. David Cosier.
Amidst the clanging, whirring, banging and whizzing of workmen's tools, the three men (and, temporarily, Houghton's young son, Henry) took seats in the unfinished room, with invited press sitting opposite on wooden risers. Also onhand were cast members of the season's first show, The American Clock, beginning the first day of rehearsal at the Raw Space next door.
The American Clock begins previews Oct. 7 for a run through Nov. 16. Opening night is Oct. 19.
Staged on Broadway in 1980 after a premiere at Spoleto, the play shows men and woman trying to maintain faith in the American Dream. Filmed as a cable movie a few years ago, the drama was also staged at London's National Theatre. Asked if he's done further work on the play, Miller, born 1915, said, "It's been revised enough. This production is the result of that revising, with the music conveying the spirit of an oddly optimistic time. It's the survival of America through what could have been the end of the democratic system." Asked about the staging of the Depression-era Clock, Houghton, who will direct, said he's following Miller's concept of the piece as a kind of vaudeville. "First it's very outward, like America before the stock market crash. Then we move more inward, as people did during the Great Depression. And yet throughout, there was an exuberance, a spirit of the times -- and an instinct to survive. Fifteen actors will play 52 characters, and there'll be an onstage band playing 20 period songs."
Following Clock will be the one-acts, The Last Yankee / I Can't Remember Anything (Dec. 30-Feb. 8, 1998), both directed by Joseph Chaikin. Yankee, first staged at Ensemble Studio Theatre in 1991, looks at two couples brought together at a clinic for the chronically depressed. I Can't Remember Anything (1987), co-written by Chaikin, shows two old friends attempting to fill in "the emotional blanks of what life used to be." Memory and language are strong themes in Chaikin's recent work, since the writer/director/actor has spent several years battling aphasia.
Six-time Obie winner Chaikin founded The Other Theatre, which started back up again in the early 90s. Chaikin directed Nacht und Traume in the Other Theatre's Three By Beckett in 1996. Also a playwright, Chaikin collaborated with Sam Shepard on 1991's The War In Heaven, which dealt with Chaikin's illness.
Asked why Signature chose Last Yankee and Remember, as opposed to more well-known works by Miller, Houghton said, "We didn't want to do the plays everybody knows. We wanted to add exposure to other works. With Yankee we knew we wanted to do one-acts, and Arthur thought it would fit together well with I Can't Remember."
Miller then added that he wanted to work with director Chaikin, which had initially surprised Houghton. "We asked Joe to go through Miller's one acts and come up with the ones he most wanted to direct on a double bill. Amazingly, he chose the same two plays."
As for the new theatre space itself, "We searched for four years," Houghton told the assembled, "and over 250 spaces for a home. We'd really wanted the Provincetown Playhouse but that fell through. Then we talked to Eric Krebs, who started doing renovation on this space a year ago. He asked if we were ready to continue the renovations and take over, so we did [for a 14-year lease]. Also helping was a $1.5 million capital campaign, $1 million of which was raised very quickly, thanks especially to the Laura Pels Foundation." 71 percent of the $1.5 million has now been raised, with a goal of Sept. 1988 set for the whole amount.
Architect Kurtz then pointed out the desired design for the space would pay particular attention to the size of the stage in relation to the 160 seats in the audience. "We want a lot of stage, a lot of art. It should be prominent and reach from your eyes to my eyes. It should feel like, `come on over, we're gonna read a play in my apartment tonight. That's the feel. Plus the notion of a library, a civic space. There will be several `walls of words' on display; words that will change every year.
"Insulation will also be important," added Kurtz, "so actors can use their full, dynamic range of voice." The space is 45' X 85' with an 22' grid height, equipped with air conditioning, wheelchair accessibility and concessions facility. Kurtz's other designs include those for New York Theatre Workshop, Playwrights Horizons and Arkansas Rep.
Cosier, who joins resident designers Gail Brassard (costumes), Jeffrey S. Koger (lighting) and Red Ramona (sound) told the assembled that American Clock would have few props, "with nothing unnecessary on the stage."
Closing the Signature season (March 10-April 19, 1998) will be an as-yet unannounced full-length play by Miller.
Also on tap for the Miller retrospective will be a live broadcast, Feb. 23, of Miller's 1941 radio play, The Pussycat And The Expert Plumber Who Was A Man; and Miller reading his own 1963 children's story, Jane's Blanket, Nov. 15.
Kicking off the season, Sept. 16, will be the the company's annual "Passing Of The Pen Ceremony." That's when past Signature playwrights-in residence will be on-hand to hear the current dramatist (in this case, Miller) reading from his own work.
In his closing remarks to the press conference assembled, Miller stressed that his early, best-known works were created in a different atmosphere than exists on Broadway today. "The Group Theatre was so important to the process. People were engaged to create, and felt connected, to each other and to the same ideals. That doesn't happen overnight. Today we don't have `theatre' in America, we have `shows.' It's a crapshoot. Last time I was in a theatre they were pouring the concrete for the Mitzi Newhouse at Lincoln Center. But that, too, became commercial. I hope this place will have the same spiritual engagement of those early years."
Miller's other works include Death Of A Salesman, to receive a staging at NJ's Paper Mill Playhouse, Feb. 24-April 5, 1998, and A View From The Bridge, to be staged at Broadway's Roundabout Theatre, Nov. 25-Feb. 1, 1998, starring Anthony LaPaglia.
Founded in 1991, Signature Theatre Company spent its first six seasons focusing on the works of Lee Blessing, Romulus Linney, Edward Albee, Horton Foote, Adrienne Kennedy and Sam Shepard respectively. (One of the Foote plays premiered there, The Young Man From Atlanta, went on to receive the Pulitzer Prize and have a Broadway engagement.)
Three seasons ago, the company was housed at the (now vanished) 77-seat theatre at Kampo Cultural Center downtown. The last two seasons were at the Public Theatre space. Producer and owner of the West 42nd St. space, Krebs has stated, "Playwright John Ford Noonan said to me, `You know why I like Signature Theatre Company? -- They give working playwrights hope.'"
For memberships (starting at $90) and information on the Signature Theatre season call (212) 244-PLAY.