The Pershing Square Signature Center
(© David Gordon)
The Pershing Square Signature Center
(© David Gordon)
The gleaming new Pershing Square Signature Center, situated on 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues and nestled in the base of the recently-constructed MIMA building, is more than just a space for great plays.

True, the $75 million complex designed by master architect Frank Gehry contains three auditorium-style theaters, a studio theater, a rehearsal studio, a bookstore and a café. And just this season alone, the Center will serve as the home for works by such great playwrights as Athol Fugard, Edward Albee, Katori Hall, Kenneth Lonergan, and Will Eno.

But just as importantly, "the Center is setting a new bar for public-private partnership," says the company's artistic director and founder James Houghton. "This is something that's only possible when you live in a city as dynamic as New York. It's a communal expression of the city's riches."

Indeed, New York City was the project's largest funder, donating $27.5 million. "Not only will we see an awful lot of great theater here, but the Center is a key part of our strategy for revitalizing the far West Side," Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told the crowd at the official opening on Tuesday, January 31.

Pulling together the funding for the Center was a gargantuan undertaking, with major contributions coming from the Pershing Family Foundation, Time Warner, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Ford Foundation, Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, John and Alice Griffin, and Margot Adams, whose gift honored family friend Romulus Linney, Signature's first resident playwright.

"In the middle of the worst economic downturn in living memory, you have to go out and get money to let us play dress up and pretend to be other people," says actor Edward Norton, who was chair of the capital campaign. "We have assembled a community of people who have a phenomenal spirit of service to New York and their fellow citizens, especially when the arts are being cut across this country."

James Houghton
(© David Gordon)
James Houghton
(© David Gordon)
The impetus for the Center was more than just the need for a new physical space after the end of a 10-year tenure at the Peter Norton Theatre. It was about creating a place that could allow the company's mission of producing American plays to expand. "We will be able to provide homes for writers of all ages," says Houghton. "In just five years, you will see 45 works by our writers-in-residence. And we will see the wisdom and context and the hope of our ever-evolving narrative."

In addition to celebrating the work of one playwright every year -- this season will feature Fugard's Blood Knot, My Children! My Africa! and The Train Driver -- Signature is instituting two new initiatives this year.

The Legacy Project will feature the work of past Signature playwrights -- starting with Albee's The Lady of Dubuque starring Jane Alexander -- and its Residency Five program will not only provide productions for emerging writers such as Hall (whose Hurt Village opens later this month), but will give each of them a cash award, health insurance, and full access to the company's resources. "Our goal is to empower a writer and build a body of work," says Houghton.

That dedication to the written word is appreciated by many who have worked at Signature, such as former resident playwright John Guare. "Usually, you're only as good as your last play, but not here," says Guare. "Signature revived the career of Horton Foote. It restored Edward Albee to his rightful place of prominence. And I think of people like Tennessee Williams, who in the last 20 years of his life had no base, no home. I know this place is going to be a world center of great theater."

Fortunately, audiences of all kinds will also be able to witness these works, since tickets to all productions for Signature's inaugural season at the Center are $25, which is part of the company's "Ticket Initiative: A Generation of Access. " Says Houghton: "The audience is no longer in a defensive mode because someone had to save money for a month to come. This way, a more spontaneous engagement occurs."