James Houghton, the founder of Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre, died on Aug. 2 at the age of 57 of stomach cancer.
Jim Houghton was one of the most beloved people in the American theatre.
In our theatrical field, which is often marred by competition, schadenfreude, and pettiness, Jim was openhearted, gracious, and generous.
He called me “brother”—but then, he called all men brothers. (I’m not sure how he addressed women, but I am sure it was equally generous).
Every time I encountered Jim, I left with a brighter spirit. He had an astonishing ability to share happiness, and to remind people of the best part of themselves. It was part of his genius as a producer: His love meant more than any notes could; his attention and care spurred artists to do their best work. As a teacher, too, he inspired and provoked his students through his warmth; he never used fear as a motivating force, just as he never used greed as an incentive.
By his example, he reminded me constantly that we are all in this together, that theater isn’t a competition but a communion, that art isn’t a zero-sum game but a way of being that elevates all of us, and that the collaborative nature of our form must be reflected in the way we treat one another.
Signature Theatre was Jim’s idea, and what an astonishingly powerful idea it is. For a quarter of a century Jim pursued the idea of a theatre devoted to the writer, and created an institution that is one of the few irreplaceable theatres we have in this country. Jim, more than any other producer or artistic director of the last half century, has changed what it means to be a playwright in America. He didn’t just change the lives of the playwrights he produced and honored: He elevated the status of playwrights in general, and by devoting an entire season to their works insisted that we treat the body of a playwright’s career as a whole. This was, and is, a powerful antidote to the ephemeral, ever-vanishing nature of the theatre. Signature has strengthened and deepened, for all of us, the idea of what a playwright gives to society.
The continued support of Signature is the most powerful way we have of honoring Jim’s legacy.
Jim was also a loving father and husband, and Joyce and Henry and Lily were constantly in his heart and in his conversation. Although he worked like a demon, he was no one-sided workaholic. He loved his family, and he never failed to be generous to mine.
He died far too young, but he has left behind an amazing legacy, both in his family and in his field.
Artistic director, teacher, director, friend: Like many, I will miss him more than I can say.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man.”
Oskar Eustis is artistic director of New York City’s Public Theater.
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