PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With James Houghton, Artistic Director of Signature Theatre Company

By Robert Simonson
February 11, 2012

James Houghton, founding artistic director of Signature Theatre Company, talks about the expanded mission of the Off-Broadway company now that it has a new three-venue complex on West 42nd Street.



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With the opening of The Pershing Square Signature Center on West 42nd Street, the Signature Theatre Company — which once operated out of a tiny storefront on Bond Street downtown — now has a concentrated presence in New York City to rival the Lincoln Center Theater. Three theatres, rehearsal space, a studio theatre, offices, a cafe, bookstore and lobby — all in one building, on one floor. Blood Knot by Athol Fugard, the inaugural production, began previews Jan. 31, firing up the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre. Hurt Village by Katori Hall, launching the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, began Feb. 7. And the End Stage will get started Feb. 14 with Edward Albee's The Lady From Dubuque. Those three writers are only a fraction of the playwright population that will pour through the doors of the center. Founder James Houghton talked to Playbill.com about the troupe's expansive new home.

So, after all these years, the new home is finally up and running.
James Houghton: For our first cycle, we've got Blood Knot by Athol Fugard, The Lady From Dubuque by Edward Albee and Hurt Village by Katori Hall. We've got three different audiences experiencing those plays together. But we have the collective of the audiences and all the artists coming together in that one shared space. I think that creates a new shared experience. Mainly because of the real-estate issues in New York, we just don't have the luxury of that. I think there's a whole new dynamic and ethos to that. It really addresses why we go to the theatre. We go to collide with one another. To have a place that allows us to do that is really exciting. And these theatres are really finally allowing us to achieve the full scale of our mission. Every square inch of the building is mission-based.

While the Signature Center is 75,000 square feet, and it has scope and scale, your experience in it has been designed to be a very intimate one. We're keeping it on a human scale. When you're sitting in any one of our theatres, you'll have a visceral experience that your participation matters. You're breathing the same air as those artists. The ratio of stage to audience is about a 50-50 split. It's something you feel — that your being there matters.

Katori Hall, of Residency Five.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

You are doing a season of South African playwright Athol Fugard plays for your first season in the new Pershing Square Signature Center. This is the first non-American writer you've showcased in a season. Why did you choose Fugard?
JH: There are no boundaries to the plays we do. I thought it was appropriate for this new center. We had never built into our mission that we were strictly American. I've always been dedicated to giving American writers a voice. But in this context, where we have three programs going on at once, it seemed right. We have Residency One, about honoring [one writer's] body of work; The Legacy Series, in which the writers we've done before come back; and the new program, which is Residency Five, in which writers are in residence for five years and we commit up front to three new works that we will produce. That's truly about building a body of work, and broadening our canon of work here. In that context, it felt right to add our first international artists.

 

Will Eno, one of the Residency Five playwrights.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

One of your three new theatres is named after Romulus Linney. He was the first playwright to be given a Signature season.
JH: Romulus inspired this entire company. I had worked with him as a young actor. He was the first living writer I had ever worked with. He really inspired me. The realization I had at the end of the day was that we, as a community, are coming together to share these stories and the stories begin with that writer.

You now have three theatres. How large will a regular Signature season now be?
JH: We'll be producing nine plays a year. We've got three [plays] in each of those three programs I mentioned. If you look at a five-year span of programs, we'll be doing 45 plays. Of the 45, 35 of them will be new. They'll be coming from a host of 25 writers. So you can see how the community at the center builds relatively quickly. Each year we'll be adding another single-year residency in Residency One. And I'm going to be incrementally adding people to Residency Five, so there will be a rotation.

How many writers will be part of Residency Five at any given time?
JH: There'll be an average of seven total writers in the Residency Five group. Once you're part of this family, you're part of it forever, if you want to be. It's all integrated.

The idea of community and family does seem to be central to Signature, and particularly to the new theatre center.
JH: 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.

Read the Playbill.com feature in which Houghton discusses Signature's new home.