James Houghton, the founder of Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre, died on Aug. 2 at the age of 57 of stomach cancer. Guare was among the playwrights Houghton honored with a full season of productions in the early seasons of Signature, which he began in 1991. -Ed.
Jim Houghton believed that by saving the past you create the future.
Jim kept the reputations of playwrights alive.
Jim was supposed to be here for decades more.
I think the first words I ever heard Jim when he called me in the spring of 1997 were: “Could we meet?”
We did hours later at a coffee shop on the corner of West 42nd St. and 11th Ave., not exactly a theatrical hub.
Jim was shining. My first image of him was that of a man in love with the world—a world he was creating.
Signature Theatre seasons had redeemed the reputation of Edward Albee, who’d been out of favor for two decades. Thanks to Signature, Horton Foote was rediscovered, finally appreciated. Signature believed not in a playwright’s hits but in a playwright’s career, in making an audience aware of the range of a playwright’s life work. We talked about Tennessee Williams, floundering around the last 20 years of his life without an artistic home.
He wanted to name me Signature’s 1998/99 playwright. My God! Follow Edward, Horton, Sam Shepard, Romulus Linney, Lee Blessing, Adrienne Kennedy? The upcoming 1997/98 season would be Arthur Miller’s.
But shouldn’t a theatre that gives playwrights a home have one of its own? Signature had just lost their space at the Public Theater. Before that, they’d trundled among various downtown spaces.
“Those days are over. We have a home,” said Jim. We left the coffee shop and went next door to a bodega. “This is it.” Shakespeare didn’t look at the Globe with more pleasure.
I said, “Jim, shoppers are in the aisles pushing carts, taking food off the shelves, waiting in line at the cashier. In what aisle will Signature be performing?”
“No worry! The bodega lost its lease. Signature will take it over and open Arthur Miller’s season in September.”
“But, Jim, this is May.”
And then it was September. Arthur’s The American Clock opened beautifully in the sparkling new Signature Theatre, in what would be its penultimate home.
We got to work. Jim wanted the last slot of my season to be my three Lydie Breeze plays, which had never been performed together. As we got closer to production, Jim realized that project was too big for Signature to pull off. Did I have another play no one had seen? he wondered.
“Then write one.”
Six weeks later we went into rehearsal with Lake Hollywood.
Sam Shepard had given me one piece of advice before my season began: “Hang on. Seat of the pants. It’s the ride of your life.”
I did hang on.
I did have the ride of my life.
A few years later he wanted a new play from me. He produced A Few Stout Individuals. In 2006, he produced a perfect revival of my 1977 play Landscape of the Body.
The best thing had happened to me: I was a Signature playwright.
Last May’s opening night was the last time I saw Jim, standing in the light waving to the audience who cheered him and the dazzling production.
I can’t believe that Edward Albee, Maria Irene Fornes, and Adrienne Kennedy would outlive him.
He was supposed to be here for decades more.
My heart goes out to Joyce, to Lily, to Henry. The happiest I ever saw Jim was when Henry won the lottery that got him an apartment on the West Side, and the proudest was when Lily got into Bennington.
I can’t imagine New York without him.
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