Theater for the 99%
Bucking a trend, new Gehry-designed Signature Theatre Center is selling cheap seats to top-class plays.
When the lights go down at the Signature Theatre Center Jan. 31, the curtain won't just rise on a performance of Athol Fugard's classic play "Blood Knot." It will also reveal a new era for a small-scale theater with large-scale ambitions.Skip to next paragraph
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After 20 years in limited space, this season heralds "an enormous threshold moment," says artistic director James Houghton. It marks the debut of the Signature Theatre Company's new home, a Frank Gehry-designed complex sprawling over a city block on West 42nd Street. "Now we have a home that serves the breadth of our deep vision," Mr. Houghton says, "one place where we can do it all – encourage and honor writers and build bodies of work."
The company, founded by Houghton in 1991, first performed in a tiny 79-seat space, and occupies a unique niche among off-Broadway, nonprofit theaters. "There's no other theater quite like it," says Emily Mann, a director, playwright, and artistic director of Princeton University's McCarter Theatre Center. Its mission is to devote each season to work by a single, living playwright rather than, as Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner says, "immediately lunging for whatever's new and shiny."
Houghton's mantra is "the thea-ter begins with the written word," and his company spotlights a playwright's entire oeuvre. Last season, which presented both old and new work by Mr. Kushner, "was a stunning experience," the playwright says. "It's like you're taking a look at your life's work ... literally like a time trip."
Actor Edward Norton, who got his start performing in Edward Albee's "Fragments" during the 1993-94 season, has led the fundraising drive for the $66 million, 70,000-square-foot project. When Signature did its Albee season, the Pulitzer Prize winner hadn't had a play produced in New York in 10 years. That is why, when Houghton identified the task of exploring bodies of work – a sort of retrospective for drama – "he hit on a mission," Mr. Norton says, "that was actually necessary."
The tendency to downgrade writers after a box-office flop has left many esteemed authors in the cold. Not only Mr. Albee but also giants of the American theater such as Horton Foote and Tennessee Williams were neglected after their first buzz of success.
Kushner recalls how leading critics "sort of sniffed at" Arthur Miller's new plays, which he was still writing at age 87 and which Kushner terms "really interesting, very viable plays."
As Willy Loman's wife so ringingly declared in Mr. Miller's iconic "Death of a Salesman," "Attention must be paid." Signature pays respectful attention not just to greatest hits but also to an author's whole output, which achieves, according to Kushner, "a valorization of the art form" as literature that "can bear up to serious, sustained scrutiny."