Once upon a time, a young actor met an older playwright. That story might have many possible outcomes, but on this particular occasion, its results were extraordinary. The young actor's name was James Houghton, and he was cast in a play by Romulus Linney, at a grungy off-off-Broadway theater. Like many before him, he found Linney's playwriting of great interest, and wondered why this distinguished writer, with productions on Broadway and in other notable venues to his credit, had so little public recognition that he was still working in a do-it-yourself showcase mode, focusing his own lights and folding his own programs.
But unlike those who had previously pondered that cultural question, Jim Houghton decided to do something about it. He scraped up some money — his actress wife had just done a dishwashing-detergent commercial, which helped — and put on, not a single production, but a season of plays by Romulus Linney, in, improbably, a Japanese calligraphy center on Bond Street. Some critics came, who knew the value of Linney's plays from previous encounters; I was one. A small public came. A reputation was launched. And suddenly there was a company, named Signature Theatre, which had a newly established tradition: to celebrate a different American playwright each year, by presenting a full season of his or her works, old and new. Traditions can be born very quickly, especially if everyone thinks they're a great idea.
Signature's great idea guided it through those bumpy first years, trafficking in names big and small. Jim, piloting it, was audacious and unafraid. He convinced the likes of Edward Albee and Arthur Miller to lend their presence to his enterprise. He conjured up the unjustly neglected works of Adrienne Kennedy, Maria Irene Fornes, and Horton Foote. Kennedy's harrowing Sleep Deprivation Chamber (cowritten with her son Adam) copped a Best Play Obie Award. Foote's Young Man From Atlanta snagged a Pulitzer Prize. Signature's reputation swelled and burgeoned. Soon it had its own home, the Peter Norton Space far west on 42nd Street.
Not every work Signature premiered was a prizewinner; not every work it revived got perfect handling. But that wasn't the point. The great joy that Signature brought the New York theater was its sustained attention to the writers it saluted: Instead of paying lip service to the writer's brand by reviving only famous works, it asserted that any creator's life must have more to it than a single title, that an artist was a person, not a one-shot marketable commodity. Jim Houghton built Signature to affirm that our playwrights were in it for the long haul, and that we needed to be there for them.
And to say he built it is no understatement. Just as Zelda Fichandler had built Arena Stage, through three levels of expansion over four decades, to affirm that professional theater had a permanent home in Washington, D.C., Jim Houghton found that his care for playwrights' long careers needed architectural sheltering. His dreams for Signature soon outgrew the Norton Space (now the home of the Pearl Theatre Company). Magically, his capacity for realizing those dreams seemed to grow with them. Suddenly, Signature had hopped across 42nd Street and a block east to a splendacious new home designed expressly for it, with three theaters of varying shapes and sizes, plus a giant central lobby that includes a bookstore, a refreshment stand, and a concierge desk in lieu of a box office.
Signature's simple program expanded to meet this newly expanded space. While it continued to select an established playwright per year, it now continued producing work, old and new, by its previous selectees. It added a set of four-year residencies for mid-career and emerging playwrights. It had already expanded its range to include director-creators and performer-creators among its choices, so that the works of Martha Clarke or Bill Irwin now rubbed shoulders with those of Albee and Miller on the one hand, Annie Baker or Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins on the other. Best of all, with the advent of the August Wilson season, Jim's persuasiveness brought off a fiduciary miracle: sustained corporate support for a low-priced "Ticket Initiative," keeping prices low to bring multigenerational audiences face-to-face with these multigenerational artists.
But that, too, was only the framework of the artistic reality Jim had animated. Just as Zelda Fichandler had nurtured a company of artists devoted to Washington and its audiences while expanding the bricks and mortar of Arena Stage, Jim nurtured a phalanx of playwrights, serving them variously as surrogate parent, confidant, provocateur, and support team leader. The news of his death brought an outpouring of grief from Signature artists — you can sample it on the tribute page at the theater's website — that evoked the loss not of a producer, but of a beloved family member or best friend.
Zelda's passing, too, provoked grief of that personal degree, slightly muted in that her years with Arena Stage were further in the past; it had been a quarter-century since she stepped down as artistic director. She had gone on to a second career, overseeing the Acting Company, a national touring company, and enjoying preeminence as a spokeswoman for the resident theater movement. Jim, only 57 when he died, could not look back over so many decades. But he could and did look around him, at the crowds thronging the Signature's lobby, at the list of works discovered and rediscovered, at the joy on playwrights' faces because his dream of righting the injustice done to one of them had come multiply true.
Though troubled and always financially beleaguered, America's theater thrives. In part because of Zelda, a thousand regional theaters stand where we once had a bare half dozen. Because of Jim, New York has an awareness of playwrights, and the sustained respect their work deserves, that had dimmed to a flicker before he set to work.
"What drew us to the way we went?" Zelda once asked, rhetorically, while presenting the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society's now-annual Zelda Fichandler Award. There was, she answered, "simply a change of thought, a new way of looking at things." That defines, perfectly, what visionaries supply. We have lost two visionaries who, to our incredible good fortune, turned out also to be theater-makers and institution-builders. Their institutions live on. But the theater as a whole constantly needs reawakening, reenvisioning. So these two huge losses make me ask: Who will supply the next change of thought, the next new way of looking at things? The American theater's vision department has two major vacancies. If you have a true vision, and the grit to bring it to life, now is the time to apply.
Michael Feingold has twice won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism, most recently in 2015 for his "Thinking About Theater" columns on TheaterMania, and has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism. He serves as chairman of the Obie Awards and has also worked as a playwright, translator, and dramaturg.