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Stage write

Stage write

By Jeff Gire

The unsung: James Houghton '81 and Erika Mallin, of New York's Signature Theatre Company, accept the Regional Theatre Award at the 68th Annual Tony Awards. In their acceptance speech, Houghton named every writer in residence the theatre has presented. Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions
A Tony Award for James Houghton ’81 and the Signature Theatre Company in New York

“Writers, directors, actors—if we’re stuck here tonight and run out of food, that’s the order of whom we eat.”

Artistic director: James Houghton with playwright Will Eno. Photo by Gregory Costanzo

Not much has changed in the pecking order since Steve Martin cracked that joke at the 2003 Oscars. But, for more than 20 years, one theatre has aimed to change that.

James Houghton ’81 founded the Signature Theatre Company in 1991 in New York on a simple premise: Put the writer center stage. Each season, the theatre focuses on the work of a single playwright, an idea that has recently been expanded to include both one- and five-year residency programs for writers. The theatre gives context to a writer’s previous work and fosters premiers from playwrights that have included Edward Albee, Bill Irwin, Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, and Horton Foote.

Over the years, Houghton’s theatre has grown to three stages, moved into a new building designed by Frank Gehry, and fostered work that won a Pulitzer. Houghton has also helped keep the theatre open and accessible to all audiences with an ambitious ticket subsidy program. Founded in 2005, the Signature Ticket Initiative is a 25-year commitment to make all tickets $25 during a production’s initial run. The theatre estimates that nearly 2 million subsidized tickets will be sold thanks to this program.

SCU recognized Houghton with an honorary doctorate in 2013. And in June, Houghton accepted the Tony Award for Regional Theatre.

“I’m one of those funny people who believes that theatre can change the world,” Houghton says. And he’s helping writers move up the food chain.

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