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Theater for the 99%

Bucking a trend, new Gehry-designed Signature Theatre Center is selling cheap seats to top-class plays.

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"The nice thing about Signature is it proves you're not only as good as your most recent play," Albee says. "You're as good as the entire corpus of your work."

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From the beginning, the honor of being celebrated attracted major dramatists like Miller, Mr. Foote, Sam Shepard, John Guare, Lanford Wilson, and August Wilson, which provided momentum and built devoted audiences.

Signature also distinguished itself by involving playwrights in every aspect of production. "A lot of people think the director knows more about the play than the playwright, which is preposterous nonsense," Albee says. "I have this bizarre notion that nobody knows better what the play is about and how it should sound and look than the person who wrote it." A self-described "control freak," Albee immerses himself in details like set design and lighting to craft definitive productions. His play "The Lady from Dubuque" opens at Signature Feb. 14.

With the enlarged center (three theaters seating a total of almost 700 patrons), the Signature can now expand its mission. In addition to focusing on the historical canon, Houghton is launching a program called Residency 5, which will pay a stipend of $50,000 to five young playwrights and guarantee them three productions over the course of five years. The African-American playwright Katori Hall (whose "The Mountaintop" won London's Olivier award for Best New Play and is now on Broadway) is rehearsing her play "Hurt Village," which opens at the Signature Feb. 7. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated the title of Katori Hall's play 'Hurt Village.']

"Signature is really moving American theater forward in saying there are young voices and new stories that need to be heard," Ms. Hall says. "Otherwise, these stories will never be produced or sometimes never even be written."

Hall called the center her new artistic home, saying, "It's more than dating; it's a marriage. We're committed to having three children together."

Pulitzer Prize finalist Will Eno is a young playwright who'll have a new play ("Title and Deed") première this spring. Residency 5, he said, "is specifically and aggressively in the direction of new work, a deepening and widening of the original Signature idea."

Mr. Eno praises Signature's pledge to sell all tickets for the next 10 years for only $25. "It's a very shrewd move on Signature's part but also a very loving and decent gesture."

"Everyone's afraid of what commercial theater pricing will do to the theater," Norton says. With tickets for Broadway shows selling for more than $100 per seat (and a recent Broadway League survey showing the average income of theatergoers is $244,000), "We're pricing ourselves out of our next generation," Norton says.

"Access for all is where it all begins," Houghton affirms. Since the Signature began selling every ticket for $20 in 2005, "we aren't fighting to get people in," Norton says. "People are fighting to get in." Democratizing the theater experience has lured audiences that are younger and more ethnically and economically diverse. In 2009, when most theaters in the United States were only 60 percent occupied, Signature's seats were 100 percent full.


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