A Walking Tour of Signature Theatre Company's New Complex, With Artistic Director James Houghton

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04 Feb 2012

James Houghton, founding artistic director of Signature Theatre Company.
James Houghton, founding artistic director of Signature Theatre Company.
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"This is one of my favorite spots," said James Houghton, standing at the confluence of a few corridors and doors in the sprawling new Pershing Square Signature Center on West 42nd Street in Manhattan, which officially opened on Jan. 31 with a ribbon-cutting.

The door behind him opened into a large, airy rehearsal space. One hall led to one of the center's three theatre spaces; another hall led to a second theatre.

"This whole building is designed for orchestrated collisions," said Houghton, the founder and artistic director of the 20-year-old Signature Theatre Company, which began in a small storefront on Bond Street in lower Manhattan. "And this is one of the points of collision. These three companies will collide into each other and meet and talk. Designer David Gallo [who is working on the world premiere of Katori Hall's Hurt Village as part of Signature's Residency Five series of new plays] just wrote me an e-mail late last night saying, 'It works! I just ran into Chris Barreca who's designing Blood Knot. I had an experience with one of the actors in another company. I had a conversation with you and your family. And I made it for my paint call in my space!'"

The new exterior

For Houghton, who met in the days leading up to the official opening, the new complex — which is designed by architect Frank Gehry and takes up the second floor of a new apartment tower — is all about community and interaction. The three theatres, rehearsal spaces, studio theatre and offices all radiate off a large central lobby, which itself contains a concierge desk, a cafe and a bookstore. Twelve months a year, the space will be constantly buzzing with activity — rehearsals, performances, meetings — and "every artist passes through that space," he said, referring to the lobby. "Every staff member has to take that same walk."

Part of what makes this meeting of energies possible is that the building which the Signature occupies consumes an entire city block between Dyer Avenue and 10th Avenue in midtown. This allows, structurally, for all the theatre and rooms to be on the same floor. In a city like New York, where real estate is scant and precious, such a situation is nearly unheard of.



"Instead of stacking theatres, the real goal here was to create a true hub," said Houghton, standing beside a large wall portrait of late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, one of many such paintings which adorn the white surfaces of the center. (Signature devoted an entire season to Wilson's work in the past; one-playwright-per-season was Signature's primary mission from the start. As of 2012, the mission has greatly expanded.)

"It's a village green of sorts, where we can have a shared experience," Houghton said. "We're able to put all the theatres on one level and surround a very active lobby with a cafe and a bookstore and concierge area. You're literally a few yards away from all three theatres. You no longer have to bifurcate your audience. You're creating a dynamic community, sharing a theatre-going experience together. To my mind, it's a bit of a game-changer. We don't have that in the theatre."

Continued...

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