Jim Houghton’s secret lair is in the back of a parking garage on 42nd Street, just east of 10th Avenue. There, in a warmly lit room behind an anonymous steel door, the Signature Theatre Company’s founder exhibits his models. His artful miniatures depict a thriving theater center, featuring four stages, a café, a bookstore and, most important, hundreds of tiny metal theatergoers. In Mr. Houghton’s models, there is not an empty seat in the house.
Across 42nd Street, those models have nearly been brought to life. The 70,000-square-foot Signature Theatre Center opens on Jan. 31, a bid for citywide prominence from a company that has spent two decades making a name for itself as a friend of the living playwright. In the mid ’90s the Signature was homeless, surviving in space rented from the Public Theater. Now its staff is preparing to occupy what they call the first new theater complex Manhattan has seen since the opening of Lincoln Center. If Mr. Houghton can fill his Frank Gehry-designed palace as easily as he has his models, this center could become the Public Theater of a revived West Side.
“It’s a whole city block!” he exclaimed last week while giving a tour of the site. With his smooth speech and swept back, graying hair, Mr. Houghton has the elegance of a James Bond villain. Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a long-time collaborator who is directing one of the first plays of the center’s inaugural season, called Mr. Houghton “that kind of warrior who’s going to make a stand for something besides the dollar.” Some people are changed by theater ownership, he said, but success has not spoiled Jim Houghton. “If Jim’s an asshole,” said Mr. Santiago-Hudson, “it would permeate the entire company. But because Jim’s so good, it’s infectious.”
“And now,” he concluded, “he’s got an empire.”
The Signature Theatre’s mission began percolating inside Mr. Houghton’s august head in the late ’80s, after years of what he called “off-center experiences” with big-headed actors, directors and artistic directors who let their egos hijack a production. It was while appearing in a play written and directed by Romulus Linney that “suddenly all the pieces fell into place.”
“With Romulus it was crystal clear why we were there,” said Mr. Houghton. “We were there to serve the play, and him as the playwright. A lot of the BS that got caught up in the process went away.” In honor of Mr. Linney, who died in January, one of the new center’s three main theaters will bear his name.
When he founded the Signature in 1991, Mr. Houghton used it to help writers escape “an abusive setting where they couldn’t really engage in their own work.” He found fast success by giving year-long residencies to playwrights like Edward Albee, whose renown had turned him into a museum piece. When the Signature was founded, Mr. Albee had not had a new play produced in a decade. The Signature quickly staged four of his works, some old and some new.
This was, Mr. Houghton said, “something nobody else in the world was doing.” The company grew quickly, moving into its first permanent home—a single-theater space down the street from the new Gehry-designed digs—in 1997. It outgrew that space almost immediately, reaching a threshold familiar to most midsize theaters, where growth slowed and costs kept rising. “There’s no flexibility in the model,” said Mr. Houghton. “You kind of grow or die.”
It helps to have friends in the mayor’s office. Of the project’s $66 million, $27.5 million has been provided by the city, the fruit of a relationship that goes back to 2004, when the Signature was selected as one of the four tenants for the planned Performing Arts Center at Ground Zero. When that project sputtered, City Hall scoured Manhattan for an alternate location for a company that cultural affairs commissioner Kate D. Levin described as “very nimble in terms of understanding the business of their art.”
“It’s exciting,” she said, “when a relatively young organization has proven itself to have such a powerful idea about how to support artists and find audiences.”
In 2006 the city razed a patch of theater row to prepare western 42nd Street for the eventual arrival of the 7 train. To make up for destroying a pair of Off-Broadway houses, the spot was tagged with a theater bonus, requiring any developer to provide space for the performing arts. In 2007, when Signature was trying to escape the Ground Zero mire, Related Companies was seeking a tenant for the second floor of a glass box condo called MiMA. Connecting the two was, in Ms. Levin’s words, “such an obvious choice.”
“We ended up signing on the dotted line in August ’08,” said Mr. Houghton. “Just in time for the economy to collapse.”
The city’s hope is that the center can help serve as a cultural anchor for the far West side, encouraging the growth of the increasingly residential neighborhood. “There aren’t that many places along 42nd Street where you can actually spend time,” Ms. Levin said. “Lucky Strike is a great bowling alley but you wouldn’t go there to hang out.” She compared the project to the recent redevelopment at Lincoln Center, which was meant not just to improve the artistic facilities, but to create more public spaces for local residents.
Kathleen Treat, of the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association, called MiMA “a filing cabinet for humans,” but said that “everybody likes the Signature Theatre.” Mr. Houghton, who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years, hopes to maintain that good will. For the center’s first decade of operation, Signature has pledged that every seat in the house will sell for $25. To make that possible, Mr. Houghton and his team are currently raising $20 million, in hopes that across-the-board cheap tickets will cultivate a new generation of theatergoers.
“We want to be an anchor, a community center,” he said. “I hope community board meetings happen here.”
Building a community space was his paramount concern when he and the board began looking for architects in 2004. Though they considered over 30 firms, when Mr. Houghton and his crew stepped into Frank Gehry’s offices, it was love at first sight. They were charmed by Mr. Gehry’s models, his track record, and his commitment to building “program first.”
“Because Frank is known for very expressive architecture, a lot of people don’t realize that,” said Mr. Houghton. “Everything, every bit of the architecture, is related to the core mission of the program.”
After Mr. Houghton decided he would rather build uptown than down, Mr. Gehry agreed to rework his plans for the new site, confronting the headache of fitting offices, a lobby and three medium-size theaters into a space shot through with the supporting columns of skyscrapers. It was worth the trouble, Mr. Gehry wrote in an email to The Observer, because Jim Houghton is “a detail guy,” “fully engaged in the designs right down to the nuts and bolts,” and “great fun to work with.”
Mr. Gehry placed the largest theater in the most open space, and designed the other two around the irksome columns, choosing “to make an attribute of the tight space.” In one case this led to a rectangular courtyard, in the other a clam-shape “jewel box theater” modeled after a European opera house, but shrunk down to 199 seats.
“This compression of space will create a very exciting theater experience,” the architect promised.
To help keep Mr. Houghton’s grand vision affordable, Mr. Gehry decorated the space with little more than concrete, glass and 45,000 square feet of plywood. To keep this cheapest of materials from looking cheap, the wood has been treated, stained and warped in a variety of innovative ways. Nevertheless, said Mr. Houghton, “That’s the same plywood you would buy at Home Depot!”
On the day The Observer visited the site, a hay bale rested under the recently completed grand staircase, which bends sharply from street level to the second floor. Audience, artists and staff will all enter from these steps and pass through the lobby that sits between the three main theaters. For Mr. Houghton, who called the lobby “another venue,” this shared expanse is the heart of the company’s mission.
“It’s a venue that expresses and digs deep into why we go to the theater,” he said. “It creates the collision between our audience and our artists.”
Colliding there this spring will be South African playwright Athol Fugard, the Signature’s old friend Edward Albee, and three young writers selected for a new, five-year residency program, whose terms—$50,000 and three full productions—would make a fine grand prize for America’s Next Top Playwright.
The Signature will stage three of Mr. Fugard’s plays next year, with Mr. Santiago-Hudson directing one and Mr. Fugard directing the other two himself. Bookending the residency are Blood Knot, one of his earliest works, and The Train Driver, his most recent. They were written four decades apart. Mr. Fugard said that, as he approaches his 80th birthday, working with Mr. Houghton has helped him understand “what lies behind me, and what I could possibly do with the time that’s left.”
“Because,” he said, “let’s face it: at 80 we’re talking about a handful of years. It’s not a lifetime in the theater anymore. That’s what’s behind me.”
At the other end of a career is Katori Hall, the Memphis-born author of The Mountaintop, currently playing on Broadway with Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson. She met Mr. Houghton as a student at Juilliard’s playwriting program, which he oversees, and sees this residency as a chance to create a body of work. She feels no pressure to live up to her old teacher’s expectations.
“You know what’s pressure?” she asked. “Broadway is pressure. This is much more lovely: being off Broadway and not thinking about commercial viability. This is just about storytelling.”
Such is the confidence of youth. For his part, Mr. Fugard called the experience “damned intimidating.”
“This is not just another opportunity to do a play,” he said. “This is the launch of an incredibly ambitious project in one of the greatest and toughest theater cities in the world. To say that I feel up to the challenge would be very, very wrong. I’m quaking in my boots, literally. But Jim Houghton has promised that he will sit by me and hold my hand.”
With Mr. Houghton’s sharp eye for planning, and his zeal for detail, it would not be a
surprise to learn that somewhere in his models of the new Signature Theatre, two tiny metal figures are holding hands.
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