The Signature Finds Its Center: After a Ground Zero Location Fell Through, Signature Theatre Landed on 42nd Street

New Frank Gehry-designed space could be a cultural anchor for the West Side

“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.

The Signature Finds Its Center: After a Ground Zero Location Fell Through, Signature Theatre Landed on 42nd Street