Before the Pershing Square Signature Center opened successfully at the end of January, adding a new cultural hub to the New York arts landscape, the path to its completion proved challenging. The Signature Theatre Company made the decision to move its headquarters around 2005, when it was selected to be part of a new performing arts complex at the site of the World Trade Center. The company was one of around 100 applications for the center and was the only theater to be selected. However, after several years of waiting for progress, the Signature realized the process was moving too slow—especially given the imminent expiration of the lease at their old home, the Peter Norton Space.
“We felt like we were busting out of our clothes,” says Erika Mallin, the Signature’s executive director. “We had a 160-seat house at the Peter Norton. The cost of business was going up but the number of seats was staying the same. We really needed a way to expand.”
Mallin recalls that the company and the city—who “almost became the real estate broker for the Signature,” according to Mallin—decided to move off the space and see where to move that would make sense. “The cost of doing the World Trade Center site was becoming prohibitive,” Mallin says.
Meanwhile, real estate firm Related Companies had obtained a piece of land on West 42nd Street. In order to build higher on the property, Related would have to put a legitimate theater in its space because of a previous agreement regarding use of the land. The land appealed to the Signature because it provided around 70,000 square feet of a flat plane where theaters could be next to each other, as opposed to stacked on top of one another.
“This was a place that we wanted to have mentioned in the same breath as other cultural institutions in the city that people check out on a regular basis,” says David Hatkoff, the director of marketing and audience services.
Unfortunately, right when the Signature agreed to make the spot its new home, progress again stopped. “Just as we sign on the dotted line, the economy crashes and the building stops, dead stops,” Mallin says. “There was a crane sitting on a puddle I could see from my old office on Ninth Avenue.” The company was unsure about its new center’s future, so fundraising slowed, but executives continued to design the building.
In November 2010, construction started again. “There was this whoosh, a freight train to completion,” Mallin says. “The building went up in I feel like seven months. The economy made it possible to buy commodities cheaper and negotiate labor because no one was working. It went up in a minute. It was a total heart attack special. Everyone was working at breakneck speed. Two years later, essentially, we opened.”
The Signature’s new home contains three theaters and two rehearsal studios, plus a café and bookstore. While the building allows the Signature to run more shows and increase its subscriber base, its mission to focus on the playwright remains the same. “The mission about putting the playwright at the center of the theatrical experience starts with an individual,” says Hatkoff. “You as the audience member are integral to the experience of theater.”
Two of the first three shows to open in the center, Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot” and Katori Hall’s “Hurt Village,” just closed after successful runs. The third, Edward Albee’s “The Lady from Dubuque,” was recently extended through April 15. New productions written by Fugard, Will Eno, and Kenneth Lonergan all open starting in May.
Mallin refers to the new center as “a great urban development story.” She says, “We haven’t changed our direction radically. There was a fear that we would be too big and impersonal, but the response has been that people are loving the fact they can be a part of the center.”