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Will Eno, Annie Baker, Erika Mallin, Paige Evans, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Athol Fugard at New York City’s Signature Theatre. (Photo by Shevett Studio)

Paige Evans: Writing Signature’s Future

The late playwrights’ advocate James Houghton left behind an embarrassment of riches for his successor, but she seems quite suited to the task.

Though Signature Theatre founder Jim Houghton wasn’t a member of the generation that forged the U.S. resident theatre movement as we know it—the Joe Papps, Zelda Fichandlers, Gordon Davidsons, and others who carved out an American theatre landscape where there was nearly none before—he arguably had as much lasting impact on the field as any of them with his visionary Off-Broadway theatre, which began in 1991 with a startlingly simple and powerful mission: to dedicate each season to the work of a different living playwright. Not only did Signature demonstrably help revive the careers and reputations of such taken-for-granted masters as Edward Albee and Horton Foote. It also grew into a kind of brilliant national gallery where America’s robust and still-unfolding stage literature could be honored and, increasingly in recent years, nurtured afresh.

James Houghton. (Photo by Gregory Constanzo)

Tragically, Houghton’s death at 57 from cancer last August meant that he joined Fichandler and Davidson in 2016’s sobering masque of death. His passing also came just four years into a dramatic, even bewildering expansion of his theatre’s mission and physical footprint into the Frank Gehry-designed Pershing Square Signature Center on 42nd Street, where three theatre spaces now vie to present three interlocking programs to honor living playwrights with multiple productions. Houghton’s would be big shoes to fill in any event, but programming at the Signature Center only adds to the challenge. On top of which is Houghton’s other great and influential legacy: a commitment to low (i.e., heavily subsidized) ticket prices that caps the vast majority of Signature seats at $30.

To succeed him, the company’s board turned to Paige Evans, who worked her way up in Manhattan Theatre Club’s literary department in the 1990s before taking over LCT3, Lincoln Center Theater’s new-play program, in 2008. Evans’s literary development background—among her early wins at MTC was discovering David Auburn’s work at a small theatre downtown and commissioning Proof from him—as well as her experience holding her own under the leadership of strong artistic directors, would seem to make her an inspired choice to succeed the charismatic, artist-friendly Houghton. Kate Roche Hope, Signature’s board president, put it this way: Evans “understands what it means to be in service to a mission.”

For his part, her former boss, Lincoln Center Theater artistic director André Bishop, listed Evans’s qualifications for the job as “her particular combination of intelligence, empathy for new and young writers, her very wide knowledge of what’s going on, not just in New York but all over the country, and her—I can’t think of a better word—her grit. She struck me always as a strong-minded person whose aim in life is to accomplish what needs to be accomplished. She’s someone who’s not capable of letting things slide.”

It wasn’t an easy choice for her, though, as Evans confessed in a recent interview from her office at the Signature Center.

“It was not something that was a very clear decision for me—I really loved the job at LCT3,” said Evans, a tall woman with a serene but sharp presence. “I was very happy there. But the mission of Signature, and the idea of collaborating with a writer over a period of time and over a series of plays or works, was very exciting to me, and that was something I really couldn’t do at LCT3. I’ve always worked with writers, and my focus has been on playwrights and primarily on new plays. To me it was a very exciting next step.”

 

Signature Theatre Center. (Photo by David Sundberg Esto)

Interestingly, the first Signature season Evans said she remembers seeing all the way through was Bill Irwin’s in 2003-04. “I found it very exciting to see in fairly short order—within one year—three pieces by the same creator,” said Evans. That summed up the original Signature mission, with an added wrinkle: Houghton had made, as Evans put it, “a very conscious choice to expand the definition of storyteller or authorship.” Along those lines, one recent Signature residency included the dance/theatre auteur Martha Clarke, and among Evans’s first announced slate of resident artists will be the theatre’s first musical artist, composer/theatremaker Dave Malloy (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812).

In that way and others, Evans’s first announced batch of commissions feels very continuous with Signature’s history. Next fall she’ll finish up the last residency that Houghton programmed with two Scarlet Letter-inspired plays by Suzan-Lori Parks, In the Blood and Fucking A. Then she’ll begin with writers she’s picked: “Residency One” playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis will revive two of his well-known plays (here’s hoping that one of them is his seminal Jesus Hopped the “A” Train), and “Residency Five” writer Dominique Morisseau will bring forth one. The following season should conclude Guirgis’s residency with the premiere of a new play, and begin Lynn Nottage’s Residency One and Malloy’s Residency Five. Somewhere in both seasons, apparently, will also be a few plays by a yet-to-be-named Legacy playwright.

Wait, what? If you got a bit lost in the above paragraph, welcome to the 12-dimensional chess that Signature programming has become.

“A number of people have told me it was very clear when it was in the smaller space, and it’s not so clear anymore—it’s more complicated now,” Evans conceded. “I think we can probably work on messaging that better.”

Outlines of the various programs are relatively easy to sum up: Residency One offers an established playwright three productions in a single year, usually one of them a world premiere; Residency Five commissions three plays over five years, typically from a less established writer who’s still building their oeuvre; and Legacy brings back a previous resident playwright for one (or more) productions over an undetermined span of time.

They’re also easy to list: This year’s Residency One playwright is Suzan-Lori Parks; its currently active Residency Five writers are Annie Baker, Will Eno, and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins; and its Legacy writer is Athol Fugard.

But in practice it’s often been hard to see which end is up. Naomi Wallace and A.R. Gurney’s Res One programs, for instance, both ran concurrently in the 2014 and ’15 seasons, with Wallace choosing to produce all new plays and Gurney going the usual two-revival, one-premiere route. And while “Res One” still offers a relatively compressed time period in which to see a single author’s work, it is now spread across two seasons, in a rough calendar-year span.

Meanwhile, many Res Five playwrights are reaching the end of their designated five-year period with fewer than the planned three productions: Kenneth Lonergan, Katori Hall, Annie Baker, among others. The Legacy program now includes some non-living alumni (Foote, Albee, Arthur Miller), while Fugard’s ongoing recurrence in the Legacy program, following so closely on the heels of his 2012 Res One, makes him seem like a permanent fixture at the theatre.

In short, it’s a long way from the “one playwright, one season, one theatre space” of old. But all of these changes are driven by the theatre’s playwright-centric mission, and have been shaped by the needs of artists. Creating theatre, even within the confines of subscription seasons, is not assembly-line work. As board president Roche Hope put it, “Signature is really not in the business of making plays; we’re in the business of making relationships of which plays are the happy by-product.”

That could be the self-description of many who work at institutional theatres, large or small. And certainly Evans’s vow that “the playwright is at the center of everything here” would probably be claimed by a number of other theatres, including her neighbor on 42nd Street, Playwrights Horizons. But it’s also true that few theatres in the U.S. have codified their ongoing commitment to playwrights in quite the same way, or on quite so large a scale, as Signature. (Portland, Ore.’s Profile Theatre also uses the one-playwright-a-season model; the current honoree is Quiara Alegría Hudes, a Residency Five playwright whose Daphne’s Dive bowed at Signature last spring.) While plenty of theatres commission plays they never find a season slot for, and some playwrights famously take their time delivering said commissions by deadline, the mutual commitment to multiple productions—to “building a body of work,” as Evans put it—clearly sets Signature’s program apart.

But the expansion into so much new-work development inevitably makes the leadership job a heavy lift. That, coupled with keeping ticket prices accessible and running a multi-stage theatre center, means that fundraising is central to Evans’s new title in a way that’s not unfamiliar to many artistic directors but which goes beyond her previous experience at MTC and LCT.

“We’re sort of doing that on steroids now here by necessity,” she said, referring to a conundrum common to many theatres that leap up in size: A lot of money arrives to build a beautiful new home, with the ongoing task being to chase down more to keep the home fires burning. Evans has also taken steps to consolidate and clarify the theatre’s operations. After a few years at the new center that saw as many as eight productions a season, the program has settled down to a planned six per season, with other slots in the three theatre spaces being taken by rentals (by the New Group, among others). And for the first time last fall, she noted, the theatre hosted an official season opening with all of the playwrights on the roster.

 

Signature Theatre Center box office. (Photo by David Sundberg Esto)

The kind of administrative muscle required to keep a large institution afloat may ex­­plain why many of New York’s biggest theatres aren’t run by directors, as has often been the nonprofit theatre model, as by folks who are primarily producers and dramaturgs: Todd Haimes at Roundabout; Oskar Eustis at the Public, Tim Sanford at Playwrights, and Bishop, Evans’s former boss at Lincoln Center Theater. Though Evans was mentored by one of the exceptions to this rule, MTC’s Lynne Meadow, she neatly fits the literary/producing mold. A New York City native who studied American literature and history at Harvard, where she found time to act in some of her classmate Bill Rauch’s early productions alongside another Harvardian, Richard Greenberg, Evans worked for a dozen years at MTC as an in-house advocate for new plays. She took a break in the late 1990s to live in Cuba on a fellowship, and while this Caribbean idyll didn’t have any obvious effects on her theatrical career—she went right back to work at MTC, though in a higher position—it is where she met the father of her now 17-year-old son.

“I started out with writers on new plays and dramaturging their plays, and that’s where my training comes from,” said Evans, who briefly tried her hand at playwriting as well, and whose Cuban fellowship required her to pen monthly essays about her time studying music and dance there. Lincoln Center’s Bishop may have summed up Evans’s qualifications for her role at Signature best when he said, “She’s willing to commit to a writer’s work even when that work is not finished or in particularly great shape. She commits to what she thinks the work could be or will become: ‘Well, this isn’t finished, but if we do our work, if we work hard, and get a good production, I believe this author can do the best version of this play.’ This interesting combination of trusting and taking a chance—following in the heels of a charismatic founder, that determinant is even more important.”

If the question of succession weighs heavily on Evans, she doesn’t show it. Perhaps the greatest gift Houghton gave her, as Roche Hope put it, is a mission that wasn’t based on his personality but on something larger: “He used to say that we’re guided by the mission, and sometimes the mission makes decisions for us that we might make differently ourselves.” Evans, she added, “understands that mission in her bones.”

Will Eno, who started writing his play Wakey, Wakey (at Signature Feb. 7-April 2) a few weeks after Houghton died, agreed. While he remembered the former a.d. as an “amazing and beautiful person,” the reason it’s “impossible to not think of Jim when you’re working at Signature” is that “the genius of the systems and practices he put into place at Signature continue to surprise and comfort you…Jim truly had vision, and he could see way ahead of everyone else, and he left behind a place that has that very forward-looking stance in its bones.” That is also his best wish for Evans: that she “feels a lot of encouragement and gentle guidance from the mission, the traditions, and the structure that Jim created.”

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