With the Signature Theatre Company, founder and artistic director James Houghton made the radical-for-these-times decision to create an environment that truly supports the idea
It often takes just one hot play to put a young director's name on the street in New York City. It is hard, then, to explain the relative anonymity of James Houghton, artistic director if the Signature Theatre Company.
In the last seven years, Houghton has directed new work by seven of the top living playwrights in America and produced arguably the most consistently acclaimed seasons of any new theater in recent memory. Signature has been called "one of the best reasons to feel good about New York theater, indeed, ... about New York" by critic Clive Barnes, and along the way premiered a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, as well as earning Drama Desk Awards, Obies, and most of the other prizes available Off Broadway.
With a track record like that, in today's hype-oriented world, it seems almost unfathomable that Houghton hasn't flown to the commercial stage and fame. He is a truly rare phenomenon - a singular creative force and critics' darling who nobody knows about. He has achieved this somewhat remarkable feat by remaining dedicated to the idea that led him to found Signature in the first place: that more attention be paid to writer.
Romulus Linney, Lee Blessing, Edward Albee, Horton Foote, Adrienne Kennedy, Sam Shepard, and now Arthur Miller, have each been the focus of a Signature season in which their work has been reexplored, rediscovered, and celebrated anew. All have come away from the experience singing the praises of the company and Houghton, who has captivated audiences with not only the strength of the individual productions but the excitement of an idea. E.N.
EDWARD NORTON: When I ask people, "Do you know what the Signature Theatre Company is?" they may have heard of it, and they may even know that you devote full seasons to exploring the work of a single writer. But I don't think many people are familiar with the story of the company itself. What was its genesis?
JAMES HOUGHTON: Well, I started off as an actor, and in New York, in 1987, I was cast in a Romulus Linney play, Heathen Valley. Romulus wrote and directed it. I fell in love with his work. It was the first time I'd worked with a major writer on a one-on-one basis. It was then that I was exposed to the plight of American playwrights. Here was Romulus, who'd been writing for thirty years in New York and was regarded as a treasure of the American theater by many people, and yet he was working in conditions that almost required him to fold the programs himself.
EN: How did Signature come together out of this?
JH: I was out to dinner one night with Romulus and some other folks, and when he left the table for a second, I said, "Here's I guy you could do a whole season of." And that was the moment when I realized that writers don't usually have true homes where they are embraced. We don't view playwrights in the way we view our fine artists. With Picasso or Rembrandt, you take in each painting as part of a journey and don't expect a masterpiece from each individual work.
EN: So the goal was to do a whole season of Linney's plays, and from that came the idea to found a theater based on that notion?
JH: Yes, and to have a writer in residence. The writer must be involved, or else I'm not interested. In the case of Arthur Miller, I talked to him early on in our history. Obviously, he didn't know much about us then, and he wasn't willing at that point to commit fully. But here we are, seven years later, about to open this world premiere by him, Mr. Peters' Connections.
EN: Were there other reasons why you wanted to establish a theater devoted to the writer?
JH: Yes. Seven years ago, I felt that the theater was becoming consumed by directors and designers and we were losing track of the writer in all of it. You'd walk out of a play and you'd be talking about the director or the designer. You can talk about those elements, but they should be within the dramatic context of telling a story very well.
EN: What happens when you commit for a whole year to someone?
JH: It's like a marriage. The writer has to think through that sort of commitment very carefully, as do I and the entire company. But by the time the writer and I get to our first production, we know each other very, very well. It's the best environment for creativity and the work.
EN: What do you require of the writer?
JH: Complete involvement and agreement that there's a definite purpose behind everything we do. For example, we don't revive something just for the sake of reviving it. We steer away from "hits." In the case of Arthur Miller, chance are you know Death of a Salesman. You probably know The Crucible. You may know one or two other plays - All My Sons, A View from the Bridge, After the Fall. So we leave those alone. There was a play of Arthur's, The American Clock, that just bombed on Broadway in 1980. About four years later, something came clear to him about how to present the story, a way that had never been presented in New York. So we did that, and I feel we did it well.
EN: Do you ever think you'll run out of writers to explore?
JH: No! Because 1) people are still writing - there are young writers writing now who in ten or twenty years will have a huge body of work; and 2) there are so many lost writers - there is tremendous pressure on them to produce hits. Basically, if you have another hit, you'll have another play up. If you have two duds in a row, then you start to fade off.
EN: As the bottom line on Broadway has become tougher, more and more writers are mounting their plays Off Broadway and in nonprofit houses. Where does Signature fit into all of that?
JH: We're a nonprofit theater, which means we raise money and provide tax-relief opportunities for people if they make a donation. But it is an ongoing, horrendous struggle to get enough money to put a season together. What I have to raise for one season is less than what it costs to put on one Broadway play.
EN: To give perspective on that, as well as on your growth: what was the budget for your first season seven years ago?
JH: About $35,000.
EN: And for the current season?
JH: Around $1 million.
EN: How have you managed to expand the parameters of the production that much in that short a time?
JH: Because I think people were hungry for this kind of exploration.
EN: So you've built a fairly consistent audience.
JH: Each year we sort of erase the blackboard. There's a certain percentage of people who come to see any writer's body of work, but each year we also lose a percentage of subscribers because they're not interested in, say, Sam Shepard. So there's some fallout, as well as a new audience that comes with a particular writer.
EN: Last year Signature moved into a new home. How did that come about?
JH: At first we rented a 79-seat space, but after four years we found ourselves homeless. Next we rented for two seasons at the Public Theater while we looked for something more permanent. After seeing over two hundred theaters or buildings we could convert, we finally found one in March of last year. Then we had to raise $1.5 million, and we raise a million of it to get the door open; but were still raising money to complete the renovation. We raised the first part in seven weeks and built the theater in seven weeks, opening last October. So now we have this beautiful 160-seat theater on 42nd Street in Manhattan.
EN: So what you're saying is that you are trying to create a creative and spiritual hoome for writers, but that it's much easier to do if there's an actual physical center.
JH: You can't do it without it. You can't.
EN: Why? What does it mean to have a space of your own?
JH: Well, now our writers have a first-rate space to work in. In addition, having a home gives us the ability to think of the future and create new programs. We can do things like readings, and open ourselves up to other companies. Ultimately, I want a building where there are three theaters, as well as rehersal studios and offices; where we have multiple programs working with writers, and have long-term commitments to them.
EN: With a new idea, you can groove along for a while thanks to money from friends, family, ticket sales, and a couple of big supporters - which you guys did at the beginning. But there's a point where you have to notch up a level that requires institutional and corporate funding. Are you moving in that direction?
JH: We've gotten money from private foundations and some government support. But it's not a huge amount. There's a long way to go before we reach a place where I feel comfortable. People are still not making a livable wage here.
EN: You mean working for the company?
JH: I mean the actors, designers, staff. This company has been built on the backs of the people who work here. This is true of the nonprofit world and theater in general. But in many ways we've been fortunate. We've spent the past six years in the black, even if only by a couple hundred dollars or so a year.
EN: One of the proofs of the value of your new home must be ending your current Arthur Miller season with a world premiere starring Peter Falk. It probably would have been more difficult to hire an actor like him if you weren't in an appropriate space.
JH: That's absolutely true. It's a major event that Arthur is doing a world premiere Off Broadway in a theater that seats 160 people. Arthur's plays don't always open in America, and if they do they sure as hell don't open in a major way in New York. I would like to think that his having the confidence to do this speaks to our place in the American theater right now.
EN: I'd love to hear your thought on the issue of the theater. Because with the way that film permeates our consciousness now, I know that what I continue to seek in the theater is the potential for direct, live chemistry.
JH: Well, there's a greater illusion of spontaneity in theater because of the character that comes out of that actor and that writer. It's not visual, really. It's about capturing the imagination, which, when it's sucessful, kicks you so deeply.
EN: To me, it's closer to a rock show than to a movie.
JH: You're literally in there with them, in that moment.
EN: I remember Woody Allen once said that the reason he likes sports so much is that they provide everything you try to achieve in theater: true, dramatic unpredictability and spontaneity in a contained amount of time.
JH: More often than not, that doesn't happen in the theater. Yet theaters are still filled with people hoping for just those moments.
EN: Why do you think people are still willing to engage in the hunt for those moments?
JH: Because whatever you are experiencing, you're experiencing it right then. When that kind of exhileration happens in a film, it's exhilerating in a different way.
EN: In film if you see something great, you know you can watch it again and again. Whereas part of the thrill of theater is that you have to hold a great moment in your head; it can't be rewound except in memory. That great live chemistry is like a drug.
JH: And in the theater, the audience is an equal partner in the experience.
EN: For an actor, there the special thrill of adjusting your performance to the audience. There are those nights when you feel the dance going on. It's not necessarily sexual, but it feels sexual.
JH: It's completely intimate, because without the partner - the audience - there's nothing.
EN: If people go to the theater now in search of a more immediate intimacy then they can get from film, does that put more pressure on each theatrical experience? Does it make people expect more?
JH: I think the mistake is for theater to attempt to be as total as film. I can't take you to the real Titanic onstage. And frankly, I don't want to. I think it's fine that film has come along and take that kind of mass entertainment away. When we did a season devoted to Horton Foote, I talked to Horton, who's eighty-two, about the time when the theater was a place of mass entertainment. I said, "Horton, it must've been phenomenal in the days in the days when there were three hundred plays on Broadway, all these great plays." And he said, "You know what? The majority of the work was terrible."
EN: But even the mass entertainments that are left in the theater can't compare with the almost unbelievably accurate re-creation of something like the sinking of the Titanic. Even the chandelier crash in The Phantom of the Opera doesn't compare. With every attempt on Broadway to have a helicopter, like in Miss Saigon, I find myself not caring. I see it and say, "Oh, they're lowering a big fake helicopter into this theater."
JH: If spectacle is to work in the theater, it's because of the imagination - as in the case of The Lion King, because Julie Taymor's theatrical imagination is almost unmatched. I think the destructive aspect of television, film, and highly commercial theater, all those forms that deal extensively in spectacle, is that it has put a strain on the overall theater experience, made it more part of a hit-or-miss mentality.
EN: It makes it harder for theaters like yours which create a home for work that's going to challenge audiences a little more.
JH: Yes, it does. It makes it harder to het an audience in to see one-acts of even a writer as well-known as Arthur Miller than it is to get them to see a big musical, much less a movie.
EN: Give me a high point and a low point of the past seven years for you.
JH: The low points have always come with the incredible fatigue that sets in just trying to raise money. And the highs are all related to the work itself.
EN: In the minefield of New York City, where may worthy and even well-done things don't fly, you've managed to hit on something that was needed and wanted.
JH: I ask myself whether in the grand scheme of things - world crises and all kinds of serious stuff - this little tiny theater makes a difference. And I think it does make a tiny difference in out little part of the world. And for that I'm really, really grateful.
Edward Norton performed in premiere of Edward Albee's "Fragments" with the Signature Theater and is on the Board of the Signature Theater.
Norton's interactions with Interview magazine has provided a great deal of creative insight into Norton. EN was did two in-depth interviews with Graham Fuller for Interview: the January 1997 issue (in which he talks about American History X and the Nov 1999 issue (where he talks about Fight Club). In addition to the two interviews done by Fuller, EN's first ever interview was published in Interview magazine's April 1997 issue. He was interviewed by Everyone Says I Love You co-star and best friend Drew Barrymore. It was a much more relaxed and friendly interview than what is normally found. The above article provides the most notable swich where Norton is the interviewer. Photos taken by EN accompanied both this article and the Nov 1999 article (EN's photos can also bee seen in Premiere magazine Jan 1997 issue (see the Premiere pics).
Back issues of Interview magazine can be ordered by calling Brant Publications (212)941-2900. Check the availablity of the issue before sending money (to save yourself the time and aggrevation).
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