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Signature Theatre is pushing to honor its founder by campaigning to rename the block of W42nd Street between Dyer and 10th Avenue “Jim Houghton Way”.
Houghton, who founded the repertory theater in 1991 as a venue for showcasing the work of playwrights in residence, died in 2016 after a two-year battle with stomach cancer.
Signature Theatre’s staff hopes to further memorialize Houghton’s impact on the Hell’s Kitchen artistic community and theater world at large, by campaigning for local residents to sign their petition in support of the name change ahead of their presentation to Manhattan’s Community Board 4: “He had a profound impact on the American theatre landscape and left quite a mark on NYC as an anchor of the west side’s cultural development.”
“Jim had two homes on W42nd Street — Signature Theatre, which he founded in 1991 and led for 25 years, and Manhattan Plaza, where he and his wife, Joyce O’Connor, lived since 1995 and raised their children, Henry and Lily,” they said.
Jim’s daughter, playwright Lily Houghton, echoed the family’s longstanding connection to Hell’s Kitchen — “I spent my whole childhood in Hell’s Kitchen. First, in a tiny walk-up on 50th and 10th ave where my entire family shared one bedroom. Then, we were lucky enough to move to Manhattan Plaza, where my family still resides. What a beautiful, magical community — at times I feel like the entire building raised me. I never feel more at home than I do walking down 42nd street.”
She appealed on Instagram for locals to sign the petition and share the link to “help name our block ‘Jim Houghton Way’!”, adding: “My parents founded Signature Theatre and we are forever in debt to the Hell’s Kitchen community. If you live in the area please sign and share.”
Jim Houghton studied theater at Southern Methodist University and began his career as an actor in John Houseman’s prestigious The Acting Company. After working for several years as a performer and director (while waiting tables and doing carpentry work on the side), he found himself cast in a 1986 production of Romulus Linney’s Heathen Valley at the Theater for the New City.
The creative experience would be pivotal to his working relationship with the playwright, whom he would convince to be the first writer in residence at his idea for a playwright-focused venue, Signature Theatre. After getting Linney on board, Houghton managed to bootstrap together a modest budget from a series of fundraisers and earnings from his wife’s (actress Joyce O’Connor) Dawn soap commercial. Houghton and O’Connor were able to raise the $35,000 needed to operate for a season at the Campo Center on Bond Street, where Signature would reside until 1997 when the company moved to Hell’s Kitchen’s Theatre Row on 42nd Street.
Houghton would later go on to raise $70 million to fund the construction of the company’s current home, the state-of-the-art Pershing Square Signature Center, which opened (a block over from their Theatre Row space) in 2012 and was designed by Frank Gehry.
During his tenure at Signature, Houghton’s artistic ingenuity and sharp business acumen attracted both promising new playwrights as well as venerated notables to the theater to mount new works and revisit their greatest hits. To date, Signature has won over 100 theatrical awards, including the 2014 Regional Theater Tony Award (the first given to a New York City theater).
While managing Signature’s season, Houghton also served a decade as the director of the Drama Division at Julliard after taking over from his mentor John Houseman in 2006. Houghton instituted many long-standing changes at Julliard, thoroughly revamping the program’s notorious audition and cutting process as well as emphasizing an “artist as citizen” philosophy by holding frequent workshops with political and social activists.
Houghton’s dogged tenacity to work with the best and the brightest is apparent in Signature’s roster of playwrights, which reads like who’s who of 20th and 21st-century greats — Edward Albee, Annie Baker, Lee Blessing, Martha Clarke, Will Eno, Horton Foote, María Irene Fornés, Athol Fugard, John Guare, Stephen Adly Guirgis, A.R. Gurney, Katori Hall, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Samuel D. Hunter, David Henry Hwang, Bill Irwin, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Adrienne Kennedy, Tony Kushner, Romulus Linney, Kenneth Lonergan, Dave Malloy, Charles Mee, Arthur Miller, Dominique Morisseau, Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, Sarah Ruhl, Sam Shepard, Anna Deavere Smith, Regina Taylor, Paula Vogel, Naomi Wallace, August Wilson, Lanford Wilson, Lauren Yee, The Mad Ones, and members of the historic Negro Ensemble Company: Charles Fuller, Leslie Lee, and Samm-Art Williams.
Upon learning of Houghton’s death, tributes from Signature artists poured in, many reflecting on Houghton’s generosity of spirit and encouraging nature. “Jim was both a great person and a good person. I have not known a kinder soul, a more supportive collaborator, a more generous friend. We sometimes fear that those with hearts of gold lack the toughness to make impossible things happen in today’s world. Jim disproved the cynics, and constantly dispelled my own doubts,” said Tony award-winning playwright and Pulitzer Prize finalist David Henry Hwang.
“Ever since I met him, Jim has been someone who I talk to in my head or in person when I need a dose of artistic integrity and equanimity,” said recent artist-in-residence and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker.
Many tributes echoed Houghton’s profound personal kindness, a rarity in an industry that can be particularly unkind to playwrights. “He always took time with you, he made you feel like your heart was important, like your thoughts were important. Kindness, respect, and clarity were a part of him like eye color and height are a part of the rest of us,” said Pulitzer Prize finalist and playwright Will Eno.
“The best friend of American playwriting is gone,” remarked playwright and Pulitzer Prize finalist Lee Blessing.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner put it — “Everyone who loves theater is in his debt. Jim made American theater smarter, kinder, more human, more representative and more worthy of the world in which we hope to live.”
Houghton’s daughter Lily agrees — “My father had the utmost respect for writers. In my house, playwrights were Gods. He loved his students deeply — they brought him so much joy at the end. I am extremely proud of the impact my parents, and Signature, have had on the community — I hope to continue to spread their enchantment.”