New York Theater Community Mourns James Houghton

James Houghton - H 2015
Gregory Constanzo

James Houghton - H 2015

Zachary Quinto, Edward Norton and Tony Kushner are among those paying tribute to the Signature Theatre founder who died Tuesday, a tireless champion of American playwrights for the past 25 years.

The lights of numerous leading off-Broadway theaters will be dimmed Thursday to honor the work and legacy of James Houghton, the founding artistic director of Signature Theatre, who died Tuesday, following a two-year battle with stomach cancer. He was 57.

In the 25 years since the former actor was inspired by his friendship and association with dramatist Romulus Linney to establish a New York company exploring the body of work of a different living American playwright each season, Houghton has become one of the most respected and influential statesmen of the off-Broadway scene.

His work at Signature over the years has helped significantly to deepen the appreciation of prominent playwrights such as Edward Albee, August Wilson, Horton Foote, Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Paula Vogel, Tony Kushner and John Guare, as well as championing lesser-known names like Maria Irene Fornes, Lee Blessing and Adrienne Kennedy.

"Jim kept the reputation of playwrights alive," said Guare, author of Six Degrees of Separation and The House of Blue Leaves. "He believed by saving the past you create the future."

The crowning achievements of recent Signature seasons include a marathon 2010 presentation of Foote's novelistic nine-play epic, The Orphans' Home Cycle; an emotionally trenchant revival of Kushner's Angels in America that same year; and in 2012, arguably the definitive production of Wilson's The Piano Lesson.

One of the stars of Angels in America at Signature, Zachary Quinto, in an Instagram post described Houghton as "a brother to artists of all kinds, a man of dignity and grace whose tireless commitment to creativity and creators was inspiring beyond words."

Another Signature acting alumnus, Edward Norton, who serves as chairman of the company's board, said, "Very few people are possessed of authentic artistic talent, brilliant institutional vision, leadership skill and deep commitment to service. Jim did and inspired me as much as anybody I've ever worked with. Many of the best experiences of my career flowed from collaborating with him. He elevated everybody around him, as artists and as people."

In recent years, Signature has expanded its mission to create a residency program for emerging playwrights like Annie Baker, Katori Hall, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Will Eno, as well as more established talents such as Suzan-Lori Parks, David Henry Hwang, Kenneth Lonergan, and in a rare instance of venturing beyond national borders, the South African dramatist Athol Fugard.

"Jim was an exemplary leader for the entire off-Broadway community," said Adam Hess, president of the Off-Broadway League. "His passion, vision and unwavering support of artists truly inspired and transformed the landscape of New York theater."

In recognition of its outstanding contribution to American theater, Signature in 2014 became the first New York company to win the annual Tony Award for a regional theater, following a change in the rules that made locally based theater institutions eligible for consideration.

Houghton's contribution also has been recognized with a series of personal honors in recent seasons, including career awards from the Obies, the Lucille Lortels and the Outer Critics Circle.

From 2000 to 2003, Houghton also served as artistic director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference, shepherding new work from David Lindsay-Abaire, Gina Gionfriddo and Adam Rapp, among others. And from 2006 until his death, he was director of the Juilliard School's drama division, during that time introducing a Master of Fine Arts degree program.

Prior to founding the Signature Theatre, Houghton had been a member of John Houseman's Acting Company, the famed touring classical theater troupe whose other alumni include Patti LuPone, Kevin Kline, Frances Conroy and Jeffrey Wright.

After being diagnosed with cancer, Houghton announced last year that he would step down from his role as artistic director of Signature, a company he had built up from its modest start in 1991, with a threadbare budget of just $35,000 covering six productions, into a legitimate off-Broadway powerhouse.

Signature now runs on an annual budget of around $13 million; in 2012, the company inaugurated its new home on West 42nd Street, the Pershing Square Signature Center, a $70 million three-stage complex designed by Frank Gehry. Signature also has been a notable champion of affordable theater via a groundbreaking corporate subsidy program in place since 2005 that made main-season tickets available for just $20. Even with the dizzying escalation of New York theater prices, that scheme remains in place, with only a modest increase to $30.

"Jim created the Signature Theatre out of a beautiful, original idea, born out of his unswerving certainties that dramatic writing is serious writing which merits and rewards sustained, in-depth exploration; and that theaters should be homes for artists, not factories for manufacturing marketable product," said Kushner.

"What never ceased to amaze me was Jim's cheerfully unstoppable determination to give his best ideas and strongest convictions immediate, palpable, actual existence," continued Kushner. "He made wonderful things happen, enlisting in his schemes the eager participation of artists, audiences, patrons, all of us drawn in by the clarity of Jim's visions, by his assumption that worthwhile effort will be rewarded, and of course by his astonishing gift for friendship. Everyone who loves theater is in his debt."

Paige Evans, who formerly headed Lincoln Center Theater's emerging artists program LCT3, stepped into the role of Signature artistic director this summer.

Houghton is survived by his wife of 30 years, Joyce O'Connor, as well as his parents, his brother, three sisters, a son and a daughter. Details of a public memorial will be announced in the coming weeks.