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Signature’s Mission Shouldn’t Be Singular

Norton3 Actor Edward Norton, a board member of Signature Theatre Company in Manhattan, introduced its founder and artistic director, James Houghton to reporters recently when the company announced plans for its next four seasons, which include subsidized tickets costing $20. The following is an adaptation of his remarks.

In the 16 years I’ve been involved with Signature, I have seen in Jim Houghton a very special combination of qualities. By that I mean it is very rare to meet people who combine real artistic talent with institutional vision. Those qualities don’t often go together, but when they do—in people such as Joe Papp—you end up getting not just one great play or one great production but something lasting that we didn’t know we needed until we got it. That is one of the things I most admire about Jim.

Perhaps more than that, though, is the spirit of service he brings to his mission. He has an almost Joseph Campbell–like sense of why we do what we do. He repeatedly asks, “Why do people come to the theatre? Why are we doing this? What is it we are doing for other people?”

I was talking to him about what he was trying to do at Juilliard as the director of the acting program. He said, “You know, I really need to institute a dramatic-theory class in each year of programming. I don’t want actors who graduate from Juilliard just thinking about their career. I want actors who graduate to understand why they are doing what they are doing, who they are serving, and how they are serving them.” I thought that was so extraordinary, because generally in the arts you get personalities, you get egos, you get careers, and you get a focus on successes. It is so rare that you encounter someone who infuses the entire enterprise with a real spirit of service and a sense ofSignature_2 mission to contribute to the community.

As he has from the beginning, Jim is looking much further ahead than people tend to look. He is shaping the arc of a journey with real vision across more than just a single season. More important, his initiatives are making theatre available to people at an affordable price. What I am most excited about as a board member and a New York theatregoer and theatre lover is that Jim is confronting that question of “Who are we doing this for?” Are we doing this only for rich white audiences, for only people who can afford Broadway? Or is theatre going to remain a vital part of the entire community? Is theatre in New York going to be something that people can experience from all walks of life, from all places in life, and from all points of life? Is theatre for all of us, or is it just for the very few?

If you look at what Jim is doing here, you will see he has confronted that question and said resoundingly, “No. It is for everybody, and it needs to be for everybody or else it is pointless. It will become a museum piece; it will be something for a rarefied few in our city and community.” If that were to happen, then theatre would lose its voice, because we would not speak to people in the way that we should be speaking to them. To keep theatre vital, we must make reaching out to all people a priority.      

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