Lanford Wilson's year starts out with bang

Since 1991, James Houghton, 44, has been making playwrights’ dreams come true, one at a time. Houghton’s Signature Theater Co. has become an indispensable part of the Gotham legit landscape by devoting a whole season to the work of a single living American playwright.

This is Lanford Wilson’s year, and it started out with a bang, as the Signature’s starry production of “Burn This,” with Ed Norton and Catherine Keener, has become one of Off Broadway’s hottest tickets after winning a money review in the New York Times.

“Burn This” completes its run Nov. 9, while “Book of Days,” a New York premiere, opens Nov. 3, followed by “Talley’s Folly” and “Rain Dance.”

“Lanford has such an extraordinary body of work, but he has been absent a bit in New York,” Houghton says, and indeed part of the Signature’s accomplishment has been in drawing attention to significant writers whose reputations were perhaps waning when Houghton took them up.

Edward Albee was one of the first to see his reputation refurbished by a season at the Signature, in 1993-94, just before “Three Tall Women” cemented his “comeback.” Horton Foote’s “Young Man From Atlanta,” first seen as part of a Signature season, won a Pulitzer Prize and transferred to Broadway.

Both are grateful for Houghton’s commitment to putting the writer first. “Jim gives the playwright anything he wants,” Albee says. “He follows a straight line toward excellence and doesn’t let anything deter him.”

“Writers there always feel like they’re the center of the universe,” adds Foote, noting that the writers stay involved after their seasons end.

A modest, approachable man with a quiet charm, Houghton’s energy and passion aren’t exhausted by his job as artistic director of the Signature — he also helms the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and advises Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater. (And he has two young children.)

Houghton was an actor and director before transforming himself into the playwright’s advocate. “I realized the plight of the American playwright — they are not generally welcomed into their own process,” he says, adding that in New York, where economics drives the need for hits, everything is magnified.

In 1991, he rented space at the Campo Cultural Center and staged a season of Romulus Linney’s work, using Linney’s ideas as his cornerstone. Houghton had found his calling. “I knew there was something terribly right about this,” he says.

After Linney, Houghton produced seasons of Lee Blessing, Albee and Foote. But Houghton has been careful “never to let this theater be driven by celebrity” so he turned next to the lesser-known Adrienne Kennedy, who had been suggested by Albee. After seasons of Sam Shepard and Arthur Miller, Houghton reached for Maria Irene Fornes, and following Fornes with John Guare.

Houghton and the playwright spend at least a year planning each season, discussing every play the subject has written, without mentioning monetary concerns. (Signature has an annual $2.1 million budget.)

Houghton then approaches the board with projects “no one in right mind would do.” The board doesn’t limit Houghton, in part because he runs a tight operation and helps navigate through various fiscal challenges. (When Signature lost its initial home — it rented space at the Public Theater for two years, Houghton found the current 160-seat home on 42nd Street, west of 10th Avenue.)

“I take the business side of theater very seriously,” he says, “but you can’t do this halfway.”

“No one questions Jim’s authority,” says board president Molly O’Neil Frank. “We’re here to support his vision.”

The result is a play like Wilson’s “Book of Days.” No other New York theater would touch “Book,” with its cast of 12, Wilson says. “They were too nervous. Only Signature is willing.”

Signature can do it, says director of development Kathryn LiPuma, because it has attracted loyal support from foundations. “They understand our mission is unique and important for playwrights,” she says, adding that they’ll step up donations for lesser-known playwrights.

Still, audience development remains a challenge. Signature has 3,800 subscribers, but LiPuma notes the huge fluctuations as people sign on for specific playwrights, which makes it difficult to nurture them into donors. To show Signature’s diversity and hopefully generate long-term interest, Houghton will begin announcing three years of playwrights at once.

Houghton also has a grand vision to expand Signature’s audience and impact. First comes seasons of new works produced by three early- to midcareer playwrights (in a rotating three-year residency). Houghton hopes to raise a million dollars to launch this by 2004. Then would be seasons of world premieres by Signature writers (an idea introduced in Signature’s 10th anniversary season).

If both prove feasible, Houghton will then pursue “my ultimate goal, or perhaps fantasy” — a building housing three theaters (for Signature, new playwrights and world premieres), rehearsal rooms, efficiency apartments, a “killer bookstore” focusing on living playwrights, and a coffeehouse with a space for readings.

“All of it is built around the writer,” he says.

While the costs could be prohibitive, Houghton is undeterred, aiming for Signature’s 20th anniversary season. The space’s multiple programming and flexible subscriber packages would address Signature’s audience development package, he says.

But his eyes are on a loftier cultural purpose. “On some level, this could truly become a national theater,” he says.

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