NEW YORK — Playwrights who dedicate themselves to working in the American theater can look forward to lives of lonely scribbling, mystified condescension and relative penury -- and those are the successful ones. For real money, even the best-known dramatists typically rely on grants, teaching gigs or scripts for TV and film; for recognition, the tops in the field can aspire to a Tony, a Pulitzer, a published collection, the occasional rave from fickle critics.
As their careers lengthen, they can expect our culture's congenital amnesia to enshroud them, either in the mantle of the one play that made their name or in the outer realms of utter obscurity.
And then James Houghton might give them a call.
"I think every single playwright in this city, maybe the country, is wondering when and if it's gonna happen," said Tony Kushner of the fateful moment when Houghton, the founding artistic director of New York's Signature Theatre, approached him about doing a season of his work to cap the company's 20th anniversary in 2010-11. Kushner, duly flattered, said yes -- a commitment that will require of him a brand-new play and possibly a revival of his seminal two-part "Angels in America."
Why would Kushner, arguably America's preeminent living writer for the stage (and lately a busy screenwriter), give up a year to work at a modest, 160-seat off-Broadway house where every seat sells for $20?
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, August 10, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page News Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Signature Theatre: An article in Sunday's Arts & Music section about the Signature Theatre's specialized seasons focusing on individual playwrights referred to the Negro Ensemble Company as "now-extinct." The NEC is still in existence in New York.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 12, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page News Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Signature Theatre: An article in the Aug. 5 Arts & Music section about the Signature Theatre's specialized seasons focusing on individual playwrights referred to the Negro Ensemble Company as "now-extinct." The NEC is still in existence in New York.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 19, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Signature Theatre: An article Aug. 5 about the Signature Theatre's specialized seasons focusing on individual playwrights incorrectly referred to the Negro Ensemble Company as "now-extinct." The NEC is still in existence in New York.
The answer begins with a simple idea, hatched by Houghton in 1991: Why not turn over a theater to a living American playwright for an entire season? It's a gamble that has gathered remarkable steam: In its 16 years, the Signature has worked with its share of household names (Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, August Wilson). It has taken a fresh look at successful playwrights whose bodies of work aren't widely known or revived: Horton Foote, John Guare, Lanford Wilson, Romulus Linney, Lee Blessing. And it's kept one foot outside the theatrical mainstream with seasons dedicated to Adrienne Kennedy, Paula Vogel, Maria Irene Fornes and Bill Irwin.
The Signature, once a seat-of-the-pants experiment whose first season cost $35,000, may have since grown into an establishment arts organization with a $3-million annual budget and lavish corporate sponsorship, but the programming remains as eclectic as ever. The Kushner season is the most commercial of the company's next four: This week, a season of three new plays by the mercurial Charles Mee kicks off with a production of "Iphigenia 2.0"; next year, the Signature will revive three plays from the 1970s heyday of New York's now-extinct Negro Ensemble Company; and Suzan-Lori Parks ("Topdog/Underdog") is in the house in 2009-10.
It's a commitment that has "filled a niche we didn't know existed," said Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, where the Signature staged some early seasons before it found a home on West 42nd Street. "Signature consistently allows us to view living playwrights as part of a historical continuum of their own work and hence of the American theater."
Houghton, for his part, is quick to dispel the notion that the Signature's main mission is retrospective.
"We're not a museum," said Houghton, a compact man who still looks a bit like the young actor he once was, with swept-back salt-and-pepper hair and a determinedly upbeat air. "While we may do a play that's a revival, we're doing it because it's about moving that play forward. In some ways, the revivals might be the misfits of a writer's body of work -- plays that for whatever reason didn't have a fair shot the first time out."
Indeed, the Signature doesn't have the resources to survey a writer's entire oeuvre, as the Kennedy Center will do next spring by producing all 10 of August Wilson's plays (albeit in staged-reading form). Instead, its seasons are carefully curated, along with the playwright, not to dissect entire bodies of work but to take significant tissue samples. If there's an appropriate comparison from another medium, Houghton prefers the gallery to the museum.
"In the art world, you often get to go and look at a body of work in a gallery," said Houghton from an office with a Hudson River view and walls filled with a striking collection of original photographs by the likes of Mike Kelley, Cindy Sherman and Anna Gaskell. "Having passed through that, both the artist and the public at large learn something."
For Guare, whose season in 1998-99 included revivals of "Marco Polo Sings a Solo" and "Bosoms and Neglect" alongside a premiere, "Lake Hollywood," the view was as jarring as it was eye-opening. "You get thrown back in time to who you were when you were writing that play," said Guare, whose "Landscape of the Body" was revived at the Signature in a special engagement last year. "It's very troubling, as a matter of fact. You're living in that world for a few months, and it can become more real than the present you're living in."