Signature Artists and Playwrights pay tribute to our Founder Jim Houghton
and I are both in Los Angeles and when we found out yesterday afternoon we left work early and met up downtown to talk about our beloved mentor and producer and brother and friend. As I drove to meet him I realized I was driving through a world without Jim. Even though I'm on the West Coast, it felt markedly different.
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. The other people I talk to in my head at moments like these are my favorite artists--Chekhov and Agnes Varda and Thomas Mann. But Jim is always there hanging out with them, because his rigor combined with his lack of anxiety about money or fame or good reviews (or at least the lack of anxiety he projected in my presence) and his kindness and searing intelligence always brought me back to myself, and what I really wanted, and what I really believe in. And now even though I can still converse with him in my head he is no longer a phone call or text away. That's another thing about Jim. He was always a text away, wherever you were in the world. A family member. I remember last summer during the run of JOHN he met my mother and he told her that I was driving him crazy but that he still loved me. And she said: I feel that way too!
There's another amazing thing about Jim that is hard to articulate without the fear of offending people who aren't Jim. But this is something I've discussed with other female artists who have worked with him and they feel the same way...it sounds so simple but in fact it is so unusual and important: he wasn't scared of women. He liked women. Not in a flirty way. Not in a performative, pat-yourself-on-the-back way. Not in a condescending, teacher-y way. He just had respect for us and our vision. We were his sisters. We were his colleagues. He took us seriously. It takes being around a male mentor and leader who takes you seriously to realize how many others haven't taken you seriously in the past. That man has created and revitalized the careers of so many female artists and he did with such modesty and respect. I admitted to him once that I was interested in directing my own work at some point and he never stopped reminding me of it and asking me when I wanted to do it. That was an extraordinary thing. I wish he could have led a workshop called How to Be a Man in Power Around Women. I wish he could have led so many workshops on so many things.
I remember almost every conversation I ever had with him in his office because those conversations were always honest and intimate and vulnerable and invigorating. I always wanted to write when I walked out of there. I valued everything he shared with me about his life and he always gave me the best advice about mine. He gave great notes. When everyone in the audience was moaning in early previews about how dark and quiet my play JOHN was, he told us that we should dim the lights even more. He was right. And he never lorded how right he was over us.
There is so much else to say but I'll stop here. I'll just start addressing Jim himself, in my head, like I probably will for the rest of my life. Thank you my brother. I love you.
There's no way to express how great a loss this is, for everyone. The best friend of American playwriting is gone. Also, one of best people I ever knew.
Laura Callanan (on behalf of Romulus Linney)
When Jim first approached Romulus about the idea of a full season of his plays, he told Jim to sit down -- he'd feel better in a minute. Romulus went so far as to write Jim a long letter about all the reasons why it wouldn't be so easy to start a new theater focused on playwrights. At the end of Signature Season #1, Jim gave Romulus back the letter, glued to a framed memento: all the programs from the Season #1 plays.
Romulus always said that Jim had the producer's gene. He could get people to work together. He could make difficult things look easy. He could make the impossible happen. His Signature season was one of Romulus's proudest moments. Jim made that happen.
He was indeed an extraordinary person and as caring as anyone I ever met.
Jim was the best person I’ve ever known. He was a true visionary genius, a very practical philosopher, and a leader in every sense of the word. He was also someone you could call up and say, “Hey, Jim, guess what? I got stung by a bee today.” Or, “I made my daughter a desk.” 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. I can’t remember if he actually put his feet up on his desk, but it always felt that way, that he wasn’t in a rush, that you didn’t have to put on any act, that things were good, and then Jim would look out the window and say something you’ll remember for the rest of your life. He’s going to be missed in the plainest most real way that someone or anything can be missed. The only upside, and maybe there isn’t any upside, is that there are hundreds of people, it’s really probably thousands of people, who got to know him and work with him and love him and be loved by him and were inspired by him and learned good, true, noble things from him, and we will all be trying and trying to be a little bit more like him for the rest of our lives and a world that is even a tiny bit more like Jim Houghton is a much better world. And I hope and like to think that all our sincere but bumbling efforts to continue his work will make Jim smile a very humble but real smile.
Hallie Foote (on behalf of Horton Foote)
About Jim.....what can I say? He changed my Father, Horton Foote's, life. He supported him as an artist and in that first downtown space we all spent that magical 1994-95 season working on his plays unfettered and happy. He empowered the writer. He empowered ALL of us collaborating in the process. And the greatest thing was, my Father became part of this larger Signature family. It extended back to when he was going to see the first seasons of Romulus and Lee and Edward. And continued on through John Guare, and Arthur Miller and Sam Shepard. He reconnected with Edward and Arthur. He and Romulus became close, he and John became close and so did he and Sam. And of course, the O'Connor-Hougtons and the Footes were big extended families. Particularly when we were all living in NYC.
Jim continued to invite my Father back. THE LAST OF THE THORNTONS, THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL, THE ORPHANS' HOME CYCLE and THE OLD FRIENDS. Who does that? Not many. I think he prided himself on continuing the legacy of these writers. He was loyal to his writers and they were to him. The Signature spaces grew, but his core tenet of focusing everything on the writer never changed. For that, I am deeply grateful to this extraordinary man. I know I speak for my Father, as well, as I write this.
Paula and I are both shattered by the news of Jim. A very hard day for us. A devastating loss for theatre in America. But more - I truly did lose my big brother. With all his responsibilities and later, with his very life in danger, he still found time to care for Paula and I at a very personal level. Most importantly, for my work as a playwright.
Jim Houghton believed by saving the past you create the future.
Jim kept the reputations of playwrights alive.
Jim was supposed to be here for decades more.
I think the first words I ever heard Jim when he called me in the spring of 1997 were: Could we meet?
We did hours later at a coffee shop on the corner of W 42nd st and 11th Avenue, not exactly a theatrical hub.
Jim was shining. My first image of him was that of a man in love with the world, a world he was creating.
Signature seasons had redeemed the reputation of Edward Albee who’d been out of favor for two decades. Thanks to Signature, Horton Foote was re-discovered, finally appreciated. Signature believed not in a playwright’s hits but in a playwright’s career, in making an audience aware of the range of a playwright’s life work.
We talked about Tennessee Williams, floundering around the last 20 years of his life without an artistic home.
He wanted to name me Signature’s 1998/99 playwright. My god – Follow Edward, Horton, Sam Shepard, Romulus Linney, Lee Blessing, Adrienne Kennedy. The upcoming 1997/98 season would be Arthur Miller’s.
But shouldn’t a theater that gives playwrights a home have one of its own? Signature had just lost their space at the Public Theater. Before that, trundling between various downtown spaces.
‘Those days are over. We have a home.’
We left the coffee shop and went next door to a bodega. 'This is it.' Shakespeare didn’t look at the Globe with more pleasure.
I said ‘Jim, shoppers are in the aisles pushing carts, taking food off the shelves, waiting in line at the cashier. In what aisle will Signature be performing?’
‘No worry! The bodega lost its lease. Signature will take it over and open Arthur Miller’s season in September.’
‘But, Jim, this is May.’
And then it was September. Arthur’s The American Clock
opened beautifully in the sparkling new Signature Theatre which would be its penultimate home.
We got to work.
Jim wanted the last slot of my season to be my three Lydie Breeze plays that had never been performed together. As we got closer to production, Jim realized that project was too big for Signature to pull off. ‘Did I have another play no one had seen?’
‘Then write one.’
Six weeks later we went into rehearsal with Lake Hollywood
Sam Shepard had given me one piece of advice before my season began. ‘Hang on. Seat of the pants. It’s the ride of your life.’
I did hang on.
I did have the ride of my life.
a few years later he wanted a new play from me. He produced A Few Stout Individuals
. In 2006, he produced a perfect revival of my 1977 play Landscape of the Body
The best thing had happened to me. I was a Signature playwright.
Last May’s opening night was the last time I saw Jim, standing in the light waving to the audience who cheered him and the dazzling production.
I can’t believe that Edward Albee, Maria Irene Fornes, and Adrienne Kennedy would outlive him.
He was supposed to be here for decades more.
My heart goes out to Joyce, to Lily, to Henry.
The happiest I ever saw Jim was when Henry won the lottery that got him an apartment on the West Side or prouder than when Lily got into Bennington.
I can’t imagine New York without him.
David Henry Hwang
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. As an Artistic Director, he was something of a throwback to the early days of not-for-profit theatre: giving playwrights complete authority over their productions, founding a theatre rooted in values of community and family, with ticket prices affordable enough for the middle-class, and little interest in commercial subsidies or transfers. Jim managed to prove that the highest standards of our field can still yield enormous success. We are so lucky for every moment he was with us. Now he remains in our hearts and memories, in the theatre he founded, and in the many lives he made better. Jim will always be my inspiration, and I will always cherish his friendship.
During my Signature Season when Jim talked to me it wasn't that show biz impersonal chatter......he actually talked to me and looked at me...he always made me feel he wanted to do my plays totally to my liking. His production of June and Jean that he directed is one of my favorite four productions. He was totally a person not a producer. He had no show biz persona . I liked him.
He was also very kind to Adam when we did Sleep Deprivation. I never doubted for a moment that it was important to him that my plays were done right. Often when you work with people there comes a moment when you realize they have a different agenda. That moment with Jim NEVER came. He wanted what I wanted. Years later when Estelle and I did Madame Bovary he was exactly the same. He was in tune with what was right for you....what you were hoping for. He understood how having my picture on the wall made me feel. I could say to him it makes me feel like a movie star like in the movie lobbies of my childhood .....and he understood.
I found him to be quiet, but he was a great man. And I have lost a very, very great friend.
Jim created the Signature Theatre out of a beautiful, original idea, born of his unswerving certainties that dramatic writing is serious writing which merits and rewards sustained, in-depth exploration; and that theaters should be homes for artists, not factories for manufacturing marketable product. What never ceased to amaze me was Jim's cheerfully unstoppable determination to give his best ideas and strongest convictions immediate, palpable, actual existence. He made wonderful things happen, enlisting in his schemes the eager participation of artists, audiences, patrons, all of us drawn in by the clarity of Jim's visions, by his assumption that worthwhile effort will be rewarded, and of course by his astonishing gift for friendship. Jim shared his entire being with his colleagues; he was joined in this joyfulness, openness, generosity and presence by his magnificent wife, Joyce, and by his beautiful kids Lily and Henry. The time I spent with Jim, as a colleague and a friend, are among my life's brightest, happiest moments, and I'm going to miss him terribly. Everyone who knew him and who worked with him will miss him - and that's a staggeringly large number of people. 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.
My first experience with Jim, apart from saying hello and admiring the work he did, was when he agreed to let Matthew Broderick and his family use the old Signature space to host a memorial for Matthew's mother, who had recently passed away. It was a very hard time for the family of course, and also for me, since she was one of my best friends, a mentor, and had been, since I was sixteen years old. That was almost thirteen years ago. But Jim's kindness in helping us arrange the memorial, his light touch helping with the logistics and giving everybody his emotional support and the benefit of his kind heart -- and also the ease and naturalness of his kindness on that occasion -- always stayed with me. And that's how he always seemed to me. Kind, human and supportive. That's how he was as a colleague, that's how he was when he approached me about the Residency program, that's how he was when we talked through how that residency would work for me, and for Signature, and that's how he was when he produced my Medieval Play.
I had a very specific, somewhat elaborate idea of how that play could be produced. I never dreamed it would actually get done the way I imagined it, but that's exactly the way he got it done. I don't think I've ever had as much fun working on a play before or since. It was one the happiest experiences I've ever had in the theater -- and I've been lucky enough to have a very glad experience, in the end, with every one of my first play productions. Even when Jim expressed some anxiety about the length of the script, he did it with characteristic gentleness and kindness. And when the script didn't come down as much as he thought it should --even though I agreed with him -- his fallback position was the same as his starting position: Unconditional support. For people who thought the play was too long, maybe that doesn't sound like a great trait in a producer. But it was to me. It wasn't unconditional surrender: It was unconditional support. He said what he thought, and he said it again when it began to worry him, and when he had said it enough, he let me do what I could do, and gave me his support. The result was a genuinely delightful experience for myself and the cast. And, once we hit our stride anyway, the audience -- I think.
I don't know how to put this exactly, but Jim was not merely supportive and persistent. He was REASONABLE. This is a rare and precious trait in any field, but especially so in the field of arts administration. When you are the artist, and the person producing your work and paying the bills for it is reasonable with you, it's a miracle. Because your wishes and opinions are not often based on reason, but on an attempt to follow an instinct that others might not share or understand, because you just can't articulate it well enough. Jim found it reasonable to trust the artists he supported. So you trusted him right back, and your reward was that he was reasonable with you. Sometimes you even found yourself being reasonable with him, too -- or trying to be.
I don't know how he built so much without being an impossible person. Usually it's the impossible person who builds the great working institutions of this world. Usually impossible things are done by impossible people. Where are all the other kindly, reasonable, good-hearted, gentle and quiet builders of our city's great cultural institutions? I know they exist here and there. I don't mean to disparage those who make great contributions without sharing all of Jim's personal qualities. And I wasn't a close friend, just a friend and colleague; maybe in private he could be as difficult and obnoxious as everybody else I know well. But I never saw a trace of it myself. And for me, to combine achievements of that magnitude with the personal characteristics that marked his professional interactions, is in my experience nearly unheard of.
I find it hard to be immediately philosophical and celebratory about Jim's life, and all he achieved, under the shadow cast by his death. I don't like to think about that gentle, energetic, enthusiastic and very persistent man struggling with the hand he was dealt, and having to endure what he was made to endure. I have no philosophy that helps me understand or accept what seems to me to be a grossly unfair, premature end. I envy those who do. It's easy to imagine, but hard to really share, what his family and close friends must be going through today. I can only hope that the love and good wishes from Jim's friends and colleagues can be of some comfort; that the love and support he gave to his friends, colleagues and audiences, coming back to him and his family now with all the force that love and gratitude can muster, will bring some comfort; and that the ocean of generosity and fellowship that seemed to bubble from Jim all day long, without ostentation and seemingly without end, can somehow be a source of comfort and solace in this terrible and trying time, and in the time to come.
With many, many loving thanks to you, Jim --
I think it's all been said here--and very beautifully. I've been feeling overwhelmed and I've been going almost every evening for the past week to the free outdoor music concerts at Lincoln center-- looking at all the people, thinking about their lives, and remembering Jim. And I think he will be remembered, by me and by others, forever.
Rebecca Miller (on behalf of Arthur Miller)
In the nineties, I remember my father, Arthur Miller, speaking with excitement and admiration about this "young director," Jim Houghton, who was about to put on a revival of The American Clock
at the Signature Theatre. Arthur had total faith in Jim, who was hugely important to the resurgence of his work in this country. I am personally very
grateful to him.
Very few people are possessed of authentic artistic talent, brilliant institutional vision, leadership skill and deep commitment to service. Jim did and inspired me as much as anybody I've ever worked with. Many of the best experiences of my career flowed from collaborating with him. He elevated everybody around him, as artists and as people.
Constanza Romero (on behalf of august wilson)
Jim Houghton, my theater brother, you so openheartedly helped me get my footing in the world of New York theater. During the August Wilson season at Signature you helped me develop my self confidence as the executor of the estate, while we bonded over late night wine bars and our common predilection for dark chocolate. It was a wonderful time, hearing August's words on Stage, produced with such love, care and attention, while I was still grieving the passing of my husband.
At this point I think of you, Joyce. The last time I saw you, it was a beautiful afternoon, just a few months ago. Jim and I were chatting in your living room, you always so welcoming! You left us to chat and catch up and within that space of time, without knowing this way our "goodbye", Jim continued to give me terrific advice about the estate projects coming up. I cannot thank you enough for your generosity, Joyce sharing Jim with the multitude of playwrights and theater artists that love him, that owe him their place in the American Theater. Oh Joyce, Henry and Lilly, your loss is truly huge, the love I witnessed in your family, exemplary. My heart and Azula's is with you today and always, as is our love. Please include us in the loving arms of the Signature family that surround you.
Oh my brother Jim, I love you!
A great and kind man
A brilliant visionary
I cannot find the sufficient words
the meaning of Jim
And cannot give enough thanks
For having him in my life
When I first met Jim two years ago, he said something to me in our initial meeting that no artistic director has ever said to me: "To hell with the critics." For a playwright like myself, who has written on the periphery of American Theater for twenty five years and almost always alongside an antagonistic press, his words were a gift I didn't realise I'd been longing for all my life: unwavering support and encouragement for the work I was doing. Jim gave me a true home within his theater and this home will always, always reside in my heart.