James Houghton, the founding artistic director of Off Broadway’s Signature Theater, will step down from the organization after a 25-year tenure that has seen the organization’s expansion into a busy theater producer with a $66 million, multi-venue outpost in midtown Manhattan.
Houghton, recently diagnosed with stomach cancer, will continue to teach at Juilliard, where he’s the director of the drama division. Signature has begun a national search for a new artistic director, to be installed by July 1, 2016.
In 1991 Houghton established the theater — which last year was the first Off Broadway company to be awarded the Regional Theater Tony Award — with a focus on season-long programming dedicated to multiple works by a single playwright. Prior seasons have been dedicated to writers including Edward Albee, August Wilson, Paula Vogel, Horton Foote, David Henry Hwang and Sam Shepard.
In 2005 the theater turned heads with an affordable ticket initiative subsidized by corporate sponsors, keeping ticket prices low (currently $25 apiece) for the entirety of each production’s regularly scheduled run (excluding extensions). The program is currently funded through 2031.
The organization’s recent boom — which coincided with the 2012 opening of the three-theater Pershing Square Signature Center, a notable addition to the Off Broadway scene — has included the expansion of programming into three strands. One still dedicates an entire season to the work of one writer, while the Legacy Program produces past or new work by previous playwrights. The new-play focused Residency Five guarantees a small stable of writers three productions each over the course of five years.
The Residency Five playwrights currently include recent Pulitzer winner Annie Baker, Martha Clarke, Will Eno, Katori Hall, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Kenneth Lonergan and Regina Taylor. A.R. Gurney and Naomi Wallace are the current scribes in Residency One (for the first time focusing simultaneously on the work of two writers).
Actor Edward Norton, who starred with Catherine Keener in the theater’s 2002 revival of “Burn This,” has been a longtime supporter of the organization and currently serves as board chairman alongside board president Kate Roche Hope.
Houghton’s last season as artistic director of the Signature will be the theater’s 25th, with a slate still to be announced.