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Jim Houghton — whose work at the Signature Theatre embedded him into the creative legacy of W42nd Street — was permanently honored in Hell’s Kitchen this afternoon, as the city unveiled a commemorative “Jim Houghton Way” street sign.
Houghton, who died of stomach cancer in 2016 after a groundbreaking, decades-long career as the founder of the Off-Broadway powerhouse, was celebrated in a naming ceremony at the intersection of W42nd Street and Dyer Avenue inside Signature Theatre. Special guests taking part in the ceremony included Borough President Mark Levine, State Senator Brad Hoylman, City Council Member Erik Bottcher — whose office was commended for helping to push the initiative through — and artistic alumni of Signature Theatre including Becky Ann Baker, Dylan Baker, Jo Bonney, Martha Clarke, Will Eno, Paige Evans, David Henry Hwang, Marin Ireland, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Timothy J McClimon, Charles Mee, Sahr Ngaujah, Edward Norton, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Lois Smith and Harris Yulin.
Houghton was well known for championing playwrights in Signature’s artist-in-residence program that has produced works from some of the greatest playwrights of the 20th and 21st centuries. In addition to producing years of innovative, boundary-pushing work that would win hundreds of theatrical plaudits (including a 2014 Regional Tony Award), Houghton raised $70 million to build the Signature’s state-of-the art, Frank Gehry-designed theatrical multiplex, the Pershing Square Signature Theatre and public community space.
Houghton’s belief in community and artistic accessibility for all helped pioneer the Signature’s Ticket Access Program to ensure the availability of subsidized tickets for every production. He also served as director of the Drama Division at Julliard for a decade, implementing many instrumental policy changes at the vaunted drama school — including within its infamous audition and cutting process, as well as holding workshops with political and social activists to encourage an “artist as citizen” mindset among students.
“The way that he transformed the audience, and who was in the audience — he was focused on getting people in here,” said actor Edward Norton at the ceremony. “He really thought about other people, he thought about other artists. He thought about how to elevate others. And I don’t know a lot of people like that in this trade.”
“My father’s mission statement was anchored in building community relationships — the art just being a happy by-product of human connection,” wrote Houghton’s daughter Lily — a playwright herself, who grew up around Signature in Hell’s Kitchen — in reaction to the news on Instagram. “To see the way the entire Hell’s Kitchen community rallied to make this a reality would mean everything to him. It is truly the biggest honor I believe he has ever received — because it is the one that so clearly aligns with who he was.” At Tuesday’s ceremony, the playwright thanked “everyone, dead or alive, that participated in Signature in any way — the audience, back of house, front of house, performers, donors, interns, board members, staff, designers, maintenance, security, the bookstore staff, the cafe staff — thank you for raising me,” she said.
“But perhaps the biggest thank you I’d like to give today on my father’s behalf, is to the woman behind his speeches. There would be no Signature or Signature Center without my iridescent mother, Joyce O’Connor, who passed away January 7th of this year,” said Lily.
“My father was really secretly super anxious all the time — he struggled his whole life from extreme dyslexia,” she revealed. “My mother was a wonderful writer and would often write for him. Today I’d like to read a snippet from a speech that she wrote before his death, because I believe it perfectly sums up anything I’d ever want to say today.”
She continued in her mother’s words: “Jim’s life mission was to include and be included. He didn’t build a theater, he built a community center with a lobby at its heart. He envisioned in this lobby, ‘orchestrated collisions’, which I’m sure you all have heard, where artists of all ages and types would intersect with the audience. The lobby was more important to him than the stages, and he requested his memorial to be held in this lobby because to him it was sacred…Someone remarked to me recently that Jim’s death was tragic and I disagree. The timing of Jim’s death was tragic. His life was the opposite. It was blessed. He made a home. He actually made two — both Off-Broadway at the theater, and one at our apartment across the street. And these two homes collided producing an Off-Broadway feeder family. Jim’s life mattered in the deepest of ways. He made a community, He joined a community where he was beloved. Jim always wanted a speedboat and an old truck, and he never got those. But that’s not a bad list of regrets for a life. He was part of something bigger than himself. He knew it. How many people get to say that? How many people get to have their dreams come true? I cherished him. You welcomed us. I’m so happy we collided. Thank you.”
FOOTNOTE: W42ST will change its masthead logo for the rest of the week in recognition of Jim Houghton Way.
Blessings and Love, we are so excited to see, finally, this wonderful tribute to Jim and his family!
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