18 February 2012

The Signature Center

After 14 years at the Peter Norton Space on West 42nd Street near 11th Avenue, New York City’s Signature Theatre Company opened what it designates as the first new theater complex in Manhattan since Lincoln Center, the Pershing Square Signature Center at 42nd and 10th, on Tuesday, 31 January, just in time for the company’s 20th anniversary season with a morning ceremony featuring New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, architect Frank Gehry, and actor Edward Norton (who chaired the theater’s capital campaign). STC’s first production of the season, a revival of Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, opened for previews the same evening. (I’ll be seeing that show on 22 February and an ROT report will follow.) The new complex, which contains three theaters as well as other facilities for the company, was designed by the Los Angeles-based Gehry. Located on three of the lower floors of a new highrise residence and hotel (Yotel New York At Times Square) at 480 W. 42nd Street, New York’s first “green” Off-Broadway theater is part of the 63-story glass tower that’s known as MiMa (for the Middle of Manhattan), which opened last spring. (Gehry had no association with the design of MiMa itself, created by the Miami-based architecture firm of Arquitectonica.) With the Signature Center, the company inaugurates several new programs, including playwrights’ residencies.

The Signature Theatre Company, founded in 1991 by James Houghton, devotes each season to the work of one playwright. (New York’s Signature Theatre Company shouldn’t be confused with the award-winning Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, which produces musicals both old and new.) Usually the playwrights spotlighted are living and the season includes at least one new work, either a world première or a New York début, but circumstances have occasionally interfered. For the 2006-07 season, for example, STC announced that the selected dramatist would be August Wilson and that he would introduce a one-man piece, his newest work after completing the 10-play cycle on the African-American experience. Wilson died of liver cancer in October 2005, after the announcement, and the Wilson estate threatened to withdraw the plays. STC was able to negotiate an agreement and presented three Wilson plays, all revivals. Again in 2009, as STC was developing Horton Foote’s nine-play series about his father, The Orphans’ Home Cycle, the dramatist died after completing the scripts (produced in association with Hartford Stage in Connecticut, where they were first presented). Foote died in March and the Hartford production débuted in September, so the author never lived to see the epic work on stage. (STC has also occasionally presented seasons of plays by mixed authors, such as the Negro Ensemble season in 2008-09 and the seasons of 2000-01 and 2001-02, which were dubbed “All-Premiere Celebrations.”)

In November 2005, STC launched its Ticket Initiative to provide low-cost tickets to patrons. The troupe lined up a group of sponsors to subsidize the program, which initially offered all seats at $15 each for the originally-scheduled run of every production. (Extensions revert to the standard Off-Broadway price, approximately $75 now.) Subscribers got the whole season, usually three plays, for $15 per show and single-ticket purchasers got the same price at the box office and on line. Eventually, the ticket price rose to $20 a seat until 2010, when the original program expired. STC negotiated with new sponsors and the current cost of all seats for the initial performances is $25. One of the reasons I’ve gone back to STC so often, even if I’ve subscribed to other theaters in the same season, is that the cost is so much lower than theater of its quality at another company. Now called the Signature Ticket Initiative: A Generation of Access, the program is scheduled to continue until 2031.

The troupe, which has won numerous awards and accolades since its earliest seasons, gets consistently good to excellent reviews in the New York press and presents strong, well-acted, -directed, and -designed productions of first-rate plays by a variety of important writers, from Romulus Linney to Adrienne Kennedy. I haven’t subscribed to every season, but it’s the only company to which I’ve returned over and over again and enjoyed almost all its presentations. I’ve occasionally questioned the theater’s choice of script (Edward Albee’s Occupant and Lanford Wilson’s Book of Days, both in 2002), but never the stage work it generated. Several have been extraordinary theater experiences, namely The Orphans’ Home Cycle, an astounding event from every perspective (see my reports on ROT on 25 and 28 February 2010), and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (11 December 2011 on ROT).

The playwright in focus for a Signature season has always been engaged in the production process (with the obvious exceptions), but the new Signature Center will allow the company to expand the residency programs. The original "one writer/one season" program is now called Residency One. The initial residency was established 20 years ago to provide the dramatist freedom and support, and afford New York audiences a full experience of an accomplished artist's body of work. This program continues this season with the works of Athol Fugard (Blood Knot, My Children! My Africa!, and The Train Driver). The Legacy Program, originally marking Signature's 10th anniversary, invites past playwrights-in-residence to present revivals of established works or new plays. In the past, this was an occasional special program of STC, but with the expanded facilities, it looks like it will be a seasonal addition to the company’s offerings. This season, the Legacy playwright is Edward Albee (subject of the 1993-94 STC season) with The Lady from Dubuque as the first Legacy production at the Signature Center. (I’m scheduled to see Lady on 9 March and will report on the production shortly thereafter.)

A third program facilitated by the new complex is Residency Five, Signature's latest endeavor. Residency Five will give a group of emerging writers an artistic home and provide them the opportunity to build a body of work with three full productions over the course of their five-year residencies. The first young dramatists with productions this season are Katori Hall (Hurt Village), Will Eno (Title and Deed), and Kenneth Lonergan (whose previous work includes This Is Our Youth at Second Stage, 1998-99) with an as-yet unnamed new play; two other writers also have residencies but aren’t represented on the 2011-12 Signature Center’s stages: Annie Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation at Playwrights Horizons, 2009-10) and Regina Taylor (Crowns at Second Stage, 2002-03).

Though STC currently reaches out to schools and to young artists through the Theatre Development Fund and other organizations, offering meetings with professional artists and special performances, the company has no education program in place now. The limited space in their previous facilities restricted what the troupe could manage, and the planning, financing, and building of the Signature Center has been a consuming occupation for the past seven years. Starting Residency Five and mounting multiple stage productions at the same time where they had been used to doing only one at a time—previous seasons usually comprised three or four plays while 2011-12 includes seven—surely has meant a complete rethinking of STC’s management and administrative practices as well. But a spokesman for STC announced that an education program is on the theater’s agenda for the near future now that its permanent home is a reality and the Ticket Initiative has been guaranteed for 20 years to come. As for when such a program might begin or what it will entail, that remained unspecified, however.

STC was originally one of the arts organizations selected in 2004 to take up residence in the World Trade Center Performing Arts Center. Gehry came on board at that time, designated as one of the architects of the proposed building. But by 2007, when, among other impediments, those plans couldn’t be financed, Signature had to look for another space. The lease on the Peter Norton Space was scheduled to expire last year, and STC got the chance to obtain extensive space in the new building being developed by the Related Companies. Plans for the green space also had to keep the costs low, so Gehry planned to make substantial use of traditional materials with raw finishes in innovative ways. The architect designed the complex using mostly concrete, glass, and 45,000 square feet of plywood. “That’s the same plywood you would buy at Home Depot!” remarked Artistic Director Houghton, and to prevent the common building material from looking cheap, the plywood, a motif of Gehry’s design for the Signature Center, was treated, stained, and warped in unusual ways.

Before moving to the $66 million, 70,000-square-foot, Signature Center, the theater had limited facilities, with a single performance space at the Peter Norton and administrative offices about a half mile away on 9th Avenue at 45th Street. The new complex houses three theaters, two rehearsal studios, state-of-the-art backstage and technical services, and new administrative offices. (While large scenery pieces are still built off site, the Signature Center includes tech shops to serve the three houses.) In addition to that work space, the new complex includes a common lobby housing a café and bar and a bookstore. The three theaters are the 299-seat End Stage Theatre, modeled on the Peter Norton Space, a proscenium stage; the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, an adaptable space that can be reconfigured for each show for the best performer-audience relationship, seating from 199 to 249 spectators; and the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, resembling a miniature opera house with 191 seats.

On 2 February, I took a tour of the new complex, conducted by David Hatkoff, STC’s Director of Marketing and Audience Services. The theater’s been giving these tours for some time, but only since last month have they been able to do it in a completed building rather than a construction site. (Some of the décor is obviously not yet complete, of course, and there are parts of the space that are still off limits to visitors, but the building is finished. Construction noises can still be heard over the conversations, but some of that, at least, is set-building going on—the set for Albee’s Lady from Dubuque in the End Stage, for instance, is under construction now, even as the play is being rehearsed.

The Pershing Square Signature Center’s entrance is off the 42nd Street sidewalk at the southeast corner of 10th Avenue, under a glass marquee that identifies the theater complex with giant, illuminated signs. The small ground-floor lobby, where the box office is located, is dominated by a plywood-clad staircase leading to the larger upper lobby (5,500 square feet) that contains entries to the three theaters. (There’s also a pair of elevators.) STC intends to use the second-floor lobby, which includes a “concierge desk,” the small bookstore (devoted to STC, its writers-in-residence, and the productions), bar, and café, for informal gatherings. “It’s like a big loft,” said Hatkoff, “with different rooms.” The walls, white-washed with unpainted wood trim, are decorated with black-and-white murals of the playwrights who’ve had seasons at STC. Near the entrance to each theater is a large panel, including a video screen, with all kinds of information, photos, maps, and quotations concerning the play in progress there, the playwright, and the writer’s past work and relevant life experiences. (Outside the theater housing Blood Knot, for example, the panel displays a lot of information on apartheid, the political system against which Fugard worked for a large part of his life and which is at the heart of the 1961 play.) There are also three large interactive video panels (85-inch iPads, Hatkoff called them) that present the history and mission of STC through photos, artist bios, and other background material.

This lobby, through which the actors, crew, playwrights, patrons, and visitors must all pass, is designed as a place where artists and spectators will mingle. “There’s no stage door” at the Signature Center, pointed out Hatkoff, “no back door through which the actors can sneak in and out”; everyone goes through the lobby. STC will use the bookshop to host book club meetings and the café and bar will both be open before and after the shows, so the company expects the lobby to be a hub of activity beyond just waiting for the theaters to open their doors. In fact, the company hopes that the artists, technicians, patrons, and visitors will get into impromptu discussions there. Hatkoff recounted seeing young playwright Will Eno in conversation at the bar with his senior colleague Edward Albee and described an enthusiastic reunion of director Patricia McGregor, in rehearsals for the Resident Five staging of Hurt Village, and Athol Fugard, whose My Children! My Africa! McGregor had directed earlier in her career. “You can be in any of the theaters,” exclaimed Houghton, “and there’s another event—a collective event—that’s happening in the lobby.” The building, open to the public, will be accessible from 10 in the morning until 12 midnight after performances.

The largest of the three new theatres is the End Stage, also the most like the smaller (160 seats) Peter Norton Space. In both houses, the width of the audience seating is the same as the width of the stage so there are no seats with partial views cut off by the edge of the proscenium. Within walls of plywood which Gehry has cracked and shaped, the raked seating rises from the edge of the stage platform. The shaped wall panels are painted to fade to black as they near the stage, creating a transition from the auditorium to the scenic space of the performance. The idea, according to Houghton, is that “as you experience it in the room, one end its [sic] very understated and low key, and as you come to the back of the room it becomes extremely dynamic and sculptural.” The End Stage Theatre débuted on 14 February with Albee’s Lady from Dubuque (on stage until 25 March), to be followed by Lonergan’s new play, scheduled for 15 May to 24 June.

Named for the late playwright who died in January 2011, the subject of signature’s very first one-playwright season and a long-time friend and supporter of the company, the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre is also the company’s most flexible venue. The courtyard style of performance space, with its long history in Western theater history, can be arranged in multiple configurations to accommodate the most appropriate relationship between the performers and the audience. The Linney can be adjusted as an “end stage” theater, a modified thrust stage, a runway, a flat-floor format, and many more formations. The current production, Katori Hall’s Hurt Village, uses an “alley configuration,” with the stage in the center, stretching from one end of the room to the other, and the audience risers on two opposite sides. STC can conform the Linney, inspired by the Royal National Theatre's Cottesloe in London, to just about any shape a playwright can devise. The theater has a row of second-level gallery seats overlooking the stage that encourages the performers to work with the whole space and the small house places spectators in a close relationship with the actors. The Linney was inaugurated by the Residency Five production of Hurt Village, which opened on 7 February (running through 18 March) and will later house two of the current Residency One writer’s plays, Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! (1 May-10 June) and The Train Driver (14 August-23 September), the New York première of the South African dramatist’s latest work.

The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre is the most intimate of the three theaters, intended to engulf the audience in the world of the play. Reminiscent of a tiny European opera house, the Griffin, with a single three-row balcony, places the audience as close to the stage as possible, creating an intense and intimate performative experience. Though the seats are fixed, the stage platform is removable so that the performance area resembles a black box. (Blood Knot, for instance, is performed on the floor level, without a stage.) The auditorium has shaped plywood panels which frame the proscenium in overlapping waves and wrap around the front of the balcony creating a ceiling under the lighting bridges above the seats. The panels, acoustically designed to saturate the theater with clear sound, are dark brown, causing them to disappear as the house lights fade to black. “The Jewel Box is my favorite theater,” effused Residency Five playwright Will Eno. “It reminds me of a drawing of a theater that would appear in a children’s book. It’s small and elegant.” The Griffin opened with Fugard’s Blood Knot (the Signature Center’s inaugural production) which will be followed by the world première of Eno’s Title and Deed (8 May-3 June).

Next door to the Linney, the Studio, the second of the new rehearsal spaces (Rehearsal Studio 2), can also serve as a performance venue (as the Studio Theatre). A black-box space, it can seat up to 99 spectators for informal or workshop presentations. STC plans to continue presenting readings in its new home—the Residency Five writers are guaranteed three full productions but there will be readings and workshops in addition—and I imagine those will take place in the Studio. (In fact, I just recently received notice of the first reading, of Eno’s new play, earlier this month in the Studio Theatre.)

All the foregoing are facts and more-or-less objective observations. My subjective impression of the new theater complex at first glance is that it seems a little cold and stiff. In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout proclaimed, “I don't much care for the high-ceilinged public areas of the Pershing Square Signature Center, which are stark, boxy and uninviting . . .,” though the New York Times’s Charles Isherwood described the complex as “light-filled, handsome and spacious” and added that it’s “a spectacular shot in the arm” for STC. (Other theater reviewers, commenting in their notices for Blood Knot earlier this week, were generally enthusiastic about the Signature Center.) For all the activity STC predicts—hopes—will blossom there, all the white plaster and blond wood, and the big, white rectangular light boxes that illuminate the lobby, it’s not quite a warm space. The acoustics of the theaters all seem fine: we had no trouble hearing Hatkoff from the stages even though, as he proudly proclaimed, he’s not trained in vocal projection. (None of the theaters is wired for amplification except for sound and technical effects: the actors have to rely on their natural equipment.) But in the lobby, which the company intends to use for group events as well as informal gatherings, there were two glaring acoustical impediments. It doesn’t seem that holding a private conversation in the lobby would be hard, but any time someone shifts a chair in the café and bar area, the scraping resounds across the lobby like a magnified nails-on-a-blackboard screech. (Hatkoff, when asked about this annoyance, said the company already had plans to pad the chair legs to prevent the scraping. We’ll see if that’s sufficient.) At the same time, whenever one of the guides or greeters in the theater tried to make a general announcement for the tour participants, unless I was standing within two feet of them, I couldn’t hear a thing they said. If STC plans meetings or lectures in the lobby space, they’ll need to attend to both of those annoying issues—particularly, I’d think, the latter.

In the end, though, a theater’s only real value is how well it serves the art; no one goes to Times Square to hang out at the Winter Garden or the Marquis. “Our intent was to fashion a space that captures the rough-and-ready and experimental spirit of the actors and playwrights that will inhabit it,” said Gehry of the “elegant yet modest new home” he conceived for STC. “The drive for me was to create an intimacy between the performer and the audience, and to create a space that encourages the innovation that Signature is known for.” I’ll soon be seeing two productions in two different houses at the Signature Center, so I’ll get an idea shortly how well Gehry did by the art of theater—if the spaces themselves perform as well as the troupe’s actors, directors, writers, and designers always have. But for now, despite the company’s and Gehry’s wishes, it’s not a place I’d head to to hang out, have drink or a snack, or meet up with friends.

[Though the Signature Center’s correct address is 480 W. 42nd Street, the other parts of the building in which it’s housed have different street addresses. In case anyone tries to look the various premises up (and as a matter of curiosity), MiMa, the residence and commercial building whose entrance is at Dyer Avenue, gets its mail at 450 W. 42nd Street; Yotel New York At Times Square, the European-style “pod” hotel (which isn’t really in Times Square despite its full name), has its entrance around the corner from STC, at 570 10th Avenue. However you look at it, though, they’re all within the same building.

[The names of the Signature’s new theaters, as you might guess, are all a matter of money. The Center’s name, for instance, became the Pershing Square Signature Center in January when the Pershing Square Foundation gave the theater $25 million, the largest gift the foundation, established by hedge fund manager William Ackman and his wife, Karen, ever made to a nonprofit arts organization and the largest private donation Signature received for this project. With the gift went the naming rights. The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre was named for the late playwright when philanthropist and Signature board member Margot Adams made a gift of $5 million to the Signature Center in honor of Romulus Linney. (Adams made the donation in memory of her husband, actor Mason Adams, who died in 2003.) The theater had wanted to name one of its performance spaces for its founding playwright-in-residence because he’d been a strong supporter of the company since its start. Signature named the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre in September when investment banker John A. Griffin also donated $5 million to the company in honor of his mother. Alice Griffin reviewed theater for
Variety, Theatre Arts magazine, and WNYC, the NPR outlet in New York City; she taught English and drama at Hunter College, and eventually headed the graduate English Department at Lehman College in the Bronx. Even names for parts of a space go to the highest bidder: the Diller-von Furstenberg Grand Staircase cost the family foundation of Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg $3 million. (The City of New York, which was also instrumental in helping STC secure the space in MiMa, contributed $26.5 million toward the construction of the Signature Center.)

[The website for the company is http://www.signaturetheatre.org and for the Pershing Square Signature Center itself is http://www.signaturecenter.org.]

1 comment:

  1. The Signture Theatre Company announced today that its founder, James Houghton, died at his Manhattan home of stomach cancer on 2 August 2016. Houghton, who stepped down as STC's artistic director at the end of this season, fought the disease for two years before succumbing at 57. He's the recipient of many awards and honors for his work in theater, embodied in the accomplishments and mission of Signature, which won the 2014 regional-theater Tony under his guidance.