Friday, December 2, 2011

A "Signature" identity

I've seldom been as inspired by sheer artistic passion as I was on Dec. 1, having lunch on a bare plywood stage, looking out at an auditorium stacked high with cardboard boxes, at what in two months will be 20-year-old Signature Theatre Company's new home on West 42nd Street.

Lunch on the stage in the soon-to-be-finished End Stage Theatre at Signature Theatre
It was a press preview of a $66 million complex designed by Frank Gehry that will include - deep breath - three auditorium theaters, a studio theater, a rehearsal studio, administrative offices, a bookstore and a cafe. 

All this will be in service to those of us who make sense of the world through words spoken in a big dark room, who inhabit a neighborhood of voices and walk just one block from crazy, who approach the work half-crippled with fear and electrified by arrogance, in equal measure. "Theater begins with the written word," Signature's founding artistic director, Jim Houghton, told us.

The entire complex, he said, will support Signature's dedication to the playwright -- seasons that focus on the early and current work of a single writer who is in residence and engaged in the creative process and five-year residencies for several playwrights that focus on new work."Every square inch of this place is tied to mission," he said.

The opening is scheduled for February 2012, kicking off a season of work by Athol Fugard, Edward Albee, Katori Hall, Will Eno and Kenneth Lonergan.

Playwright John Guare talked about Signature's artistic legacy. "Signature revived the career of Horton Foote. It restored Edward Albee to his rightful place of prominence in the American theater," he said, adding that Tennessee Williams, in the last 20 years of his life "had no base, no home" to nurture his creativity. "Signature is so unfashionable" in producing a range of a playwright's work, he said. "Usually you are as good as your last play," he added.    

Architect Frank Gehry: "With all the insanity going on in the world, it's nice to be involved with sanity."
Gehry, whose design includes a dramatic canopy at street level and a lobby that will serve as a crossroads for the center, praised real estate developers the Related Companies, whose 63-story apartment/hotel tower houses the Signature Center. He also mentioned the City of New York, which contributed an astonishing $27.5 million to the project. Signature Executive Director Erika Mallin, who has shepherded the project since she arrived in 2007, has worked in the mayor's office.

A rendering of the Signature Theater lobby, next to the tools and materials that will make it happen.
Among the dramatic initiatives at Signature is its Access Ticket program, which will make tickets available at every performance for $25. This can't happen without the generosity of donors and among the major gifts announced were $5 million from John and Amy Griffin to name one of the theaters after John's mother, theater writer Alice Griffin; a $5 million gift from writer Margot Adams that will name the main theater after Signature founding playwright Romulus Linney and $3 million from Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg to name the lobby grand staircase.

In keeping with the spirit of the ticket initiative, which seeks to answer the question of actor and board member Edward Norton - " Is theatre for all of us, or is it just for the very few?" - I'd like to make a suggestion about the bookstore. 

I am as passionate about books as I am about theater, and about theater education. Signature said its bookstore will carry playscripts and books about the worlds portrayed onstage -- apartheid during the run of an Athol Fugard play, for instance. If tickets are $25, then why couldn't every book in the bookstore be available for $5? Why should a person who has spent $25 to see a play be stalled by the $25 price of a book or the $15 price of a playscript? But who would subsidize the Book Access initiative? Possibly individuals who feel as strongly about the written word as I do - or perhaps foundations that have literacy as part of their mandate.

Signature Theatre -- is it worth a thought?

1 comment:

  1. Looking forward to reviews-by-Solange of their inaugural season. Thanks for this sneak peak to whet the appetite.