Signature Theatre: A Crown Jewel in New York's Off-Broadway Scene

With the opening of "Heartless," a new play by Sam Shepard, Signature Theater kicks off its first season in its new home, a complex that spans a city block and comprises three theaters, a café, a bookshop, a cinema, rehearsal studios, conference rooms, and interactive billboards in the lobby. It is the closest thing New York has to London's National Theatre.
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For James Houghton, theater should be an intimate affair that involves the active participation of writers, actors, directors, and audiences to create a communal experience. It is an ideal he has long pursued and with his sprawling new Pershing Square Signature Theater complex in New York he has seen his dream come alive.

With the opening of "Heartless," a new play by Sam Shepard, on Aug. 27, Houghton will kick off the first full season of the Signature Theater in its new home, a building that spans a city block and comprises three theaters, a café, a bookshop, a cinema, rehearsal studios, conference rooms, and interactive billboards in the lobby. It is the closest thing New York has to London's National Theatre.

Located on 42nd Street, on the western end of Manhattan's Theater Row, the complex is the result of a vision that Houghton has chased for nearly a dozen years and that was brought into focus by Frank Gehry, the architect for the $70 million project. The seed for Signature's unique theatrical mission, however, was planted long before the ribbon was cut on the new center in January.

As an undergraduate at Santa Clara University, Houghton and a group of fellow students founded the Collective Theater, a political enterprise that embodied the notion of theater as commune. That idea gestated while Houghton paid his dues acting in regional theater and downtown New York venues and a year on the road with John Houseman's Acting Company.

Houghton's epiphany came when he was cast in a new play by Romulus Linney called Heathen Valley, at the Theater for a New City. It was the first time he had ever worked with the playwright at rehearsals.

"It was a revelation," Houghton said at a recent interview. "The spontaneity of discussing the play with the writer brought a clarity that I'd never experienced. Theater is at its best when it serves a story, when it serves the writer. And when the writer is in the room, the work becomes a true collaboration."

During the run, Houghton got to know Linney, a gifted writer but one often dismissed as "regional." Houghton came up with the idea of presenting a whole season of Linney's works, with the stipulation that Linney be present at all rehearsals. Linney readily agreed. Now all Houghton had to do was find a theater to stage them.

Houghton heard that the proprietor of the Campo Cultural Center, a downtown music studio, was looking to rent out the ground floor as a theater. When he laid out his plans to stage an entire season devoted to a single playwright, the owner demurred. He had never heard of such a thing.

"I didn't realize at the time that it was such a unique idea," Houghton said. "But when I explained that it was to put the writer at the center rather than the actors, he looked at me and said: 'You have the samurai spirit.'" The deal was sealed with a handshake.

The season was so successful, Houghton began to make plans for another. Over the next three years, Signature, the name Houghton gave his makeshift theater, devoted seasons to Lee Blessing, Edward Albee and Horton Foote, always on two conditions: that the playwright be available for the full year, and also contribute at least one new play to the season. In 1995, Foote's original offering was The Young Man From Atlanta, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

When the Campo owner decided he wanted the space back four years on, Houghton moved to the Public Theater for two seasons before he was orphaned again. Through the grapevine, he heard there was space available at the Norton Center, on the far end of 42nd Street. But it needed a complete overhaul. He raised funds, and hired a crew to convert the space in six weeks, at a cost of $1.5 million

"We went from homeless to building a functioning theater in three months," Houghton recalled. "But after the first couple of years, I realized that our time at the Norton Center would eventually end as well, and I needed a space with more theaters."

In 2003, Houghton began to consult the architect Frank Gehry about moving Signature into a cultural center planned for Ground Zero. As the plans evolved, the eventual cost of the project multiplied, until it reached a staggering $700 million. After four years of haggling, Mayor Bloomberg advised Houghton to look elsewhere to locate his complex.

Houghton eventually found his new home only a block away from the Norton Center. He and Gehry went to work transforming a disused space on a seedy stretch of 42nd Street into his dream theater, for a tenth of the projected cost.

The new Signature complex houses three theaters around a central communal space. The 7,500 square foot lobby includes a café-bar open from noon to midnight, offering hot roast beef sandwiches, salads, and snacks. There is also a book shop, a rarity in American theaters. Tables, chairs, and couches invite theatergoers to congregate and discuss the plays they have seen. There is ample room for groups to hold receptions, even dinner parties.

The theaters inside cater to diverse production needs. The Alice Griffin is a traditional wrap-around theater with 191 seats, including a balcony, a proscenium stage and a full fly above. The Romulus Linney Courtyard is a long, rectangular bathtub of a stage with the audience situated around the sides, and in one row of chairs above, looking down on the action.

The Irene Diamond Theater is the main showcase. Seating 299, it opens just off the lobby and has a wide and deep stage that can switch from proscenium to thrust and rise to a raked angle of nearly 45 degrees.

Backstage is a maze of corridors with green rooms, wardrobes, and two full rehearsal studios, one of which can be converted into a fourth theater that is about the size of the Campo space where Signature began its journey 22 years ago. There are also writers' rooms and lounge areas where playwrights, actors, and directors can meet over coffee and discuss their individual projects.

Even the lobby billboards are interactive, 85-inch touch-screens, through which a theatergoer can call up all the Signature plays that have been produced in years past.

With his three ongoing residency programs, Houghton's five-year plan envisions 45 separate projects, including 35 new plays, providing a home base for 25 playwrights. For Houghton, the new Signature complex represents a commitment to the two elements in the theater that he feels matter most -- the writer and the audience. And he still has the samurai spirit to make it work.

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