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 from 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 West 42nd Street and Eleventh 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 twenty 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 theatre 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, María Irene Fornés, 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.
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 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 it’s hard to see the 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. That sounds like advertising but it’s true—Jim is a great and lasting example of how to be a person. And I hope and like to think that all our sincere but bumbling efforts to continue his work will make Jim, wherever he is and in whatever form, smile a humble but very real smile.
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 Theatre 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 theatre and this home will always, always reside in my heart.
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.
David Henry Hwang
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
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 theatres 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 theatre is in his debt. Jim made American theatre smarter, kinder, more human, more representative and more worthy of the world in which we hope to live.