A new, stark white marquee of modern geometric design now illuminates a stretch of West 42nd Street that was dim only a few months ago. This glowing sign belongs to the Pershing Square Signature Center, which opened on January 31.
Current artistic director James Houghton, who is also head of the drama division at the Juilliard School, founded the Signature Theatre Company, an off-Broadway non-profit theater focused on playwrights, in 1991. The company and its resident writers have since been honored with a Pulitzer Prize and multiple Lucille Lortel and Obie Awards, as well as five Drama Desk Awards. Even with its widespread acclaim, the company offers cheap, subsidized tickets through the Signature Ticket Initiative, which works to make theater affordable for anyone who wants to see a show.
The Signature had been operating out of the one-theater Peter Norton Space on West 42nd Street between 10th and 11th avenues since the fall of 1997. In the last few years, those in charge of the company decided they needed to expand in order to strengthen their goal of exploring playwrights’ oeuvres. “The move is part of a long term vision for the company,” says associate artistic director Beth Whitaker. “The mission has manifested itself so far in the one writer per season format, but the hope was always that we would be able to go beyond that and support the generation of a body of work.”
Houghton enlisted actor Edward Norton, who got his start at the theater and serves on its board, to act as co-chair of the capital campaign to raise money for a new center. Through private donations and a $27.5 million contribution from the city, the company raised the $66 million necessary to build the 70,000 square foot center.
Designed by Frank Gehry, the new center houses three theaters and two rehearsal studios, plus a café and bookstore to encourage theatergoers to arrive early to shows or stay after. “With over 70,000 square feet of public space, it really does feel like there’s this energy that doesn’t exist in theaters elsewhere,” says David Hatkoff, director of marketing and audience services. “Everyone is rubbing shoulders with each other, browsing the bookstore, or getting a bite to eat or drink at the café.”
The increase from one theater to three, which will be simultaneously running shows from the company’s three different residency programs, should increase the number of theatergoers in the center. The three stages offer flexibility in staging—a theater can be rearranged as thrust or runway style, depending on the desires of the playwright—as well as the opportunity to explore the work of more than one writer at a time. Of course, more shows running means more demands on the staff. “It’s been a huge growth in a very short amount of time,” Whitaker says. “We’ve added a lot of full time positions to support the increased volume of work.”
While the Signature is known for revivals and full seasons dedicated to one playwright, the new center allows the company to develop its work and mission of strongly supporting playwrights. In addition to the one-year residency program for one playwright and the legacy program for past playwrights-in-residence, the Signature introduced a new Residency Five program in September. The Residency Five guarantees five playwrights—Annie Baker, Will Eno, Katori Hall, Kenneth Lonergan, and Regina Taylor—three productions of their work over the next five years, plus a $50,000 bonus and health insurance.
“We wanted to move to a new space where we could have all three residencies running simultaneously, a place where all of these artists could interact and be in the same space,” Whitaker says. “Everyone coming to see the plays can have an even fuller experience because of the breadth of activity that’s going on, so the experience itself is greater than any one play.” Contributing to this sense of an arts hub is the addition of a Juilliard drama training program based in the center. “People are excited to be in a new cultural destination,” says Erika Mallin, the executive director of the Signature. “It’s new, but we’ve still kept our mission that people are so passionate about.”
The past few weeks have seen extensive amounts of activity for the center. Hall opened her play “Hurt Village” in the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, a 199-seat flexible theater, on February 7. Athol Fugard, the current one-year playwright-in-residence, opened “Blood Knot” in the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre—a 199-seat theater designed to resemble an opera house in miniature—on January 31. Legacy playwright Edward Albee inaugurated the 299-seat End Stage Theatre with “The Lady from Dubuque” on February 14.
While “Blood Knot” and “Dubuque” represent shows typical of the Signature since its founding—revivals produced in close conjunction with the playwright—“Hurt Village” is a world premiere that indicates the direction in which the company is heading. Signature does not plan to lose sight of its original mission to support the playwright, but rather expand into bringing more and newer theater to the city. Says Whitaker, “It’s about having an exciting combination of people, different voices that are going to contribute to and complement each other and add to the conversation and add to the diversity of work in the space.”