March 30, 2013

An Exchange Between Signature Theatre & Me

Even before it opened the Pershing Square Center complex last year and turned it into a prime hangout for theater lovers, the Signature Theatre Company was beloved for focusing an entire season each year on the work of a single playwright, redeeming the reputations of some further deepening our appreciation of others. 

And so perhaps you, like me, were a little dismayed when you got the news that the 2013-2014 season will feature world premieres by multiple playwrights. Now there is no question that all of them—August Wilson, Martha Clarke, Regina Taylor, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins,  Edward Albee, Will Eno, David Henry Hwang—are terrific playwrights.  
Albee and Wilson have had previous Signature seasons devoted to their work and Hwang is currently in residence. The others are excellent additions to Signature’s new Residency Five program, which champions currently less-renowned playwrights. And the company has done all-premiere seasons before, from 2000-2002 when it introduced new works by Romulus Linney, Horton Foote, Sam Shepard and others.
And yet, I couldn’t help worrying that Signature might be abandoning the singular one-writer focus that has always made it so special. So I summoned up my courage and asked if I could talk to the company’s artistic director James Houghton about what was happening.  
It turns out that Houghton is traveling but he was gracious enough to take the time to send me a reassuring response that I now get to share with you.  Here’s what he said:

It was always our plan for David [Henry Hwang], as our Residency One playwright, to have three productions, as all our Residency One playwrights do. We had originally announced KUNG FU for Fall/Winter, but since we’re developing this piece with Chinese collaborators, and the scale of the project is so enormous, timing on all fronts made it make the most sense to do it in early 2014. This is really a change of just a couple of months to make sure we have time to develop the piece with the attention it deserves, with the parties we wanted to work with.

We’ve also found since opening the Center that it really makes sense to have our Res One writers with us for 14-18 months, instead of the traditional 12 months. It deepens the relationship and the commitment we make to each other, and gives some breathing room for each production, and has resulted in some exciting overlaps of Res One writers (like it did for David and Athol Fugard this past season). I imagine this overlap will continue to be the case going forward.

We’re looking at next season’s All Premiere line-up as a chance for our Residency Five program to catch up – since the program is about building new bodies of work, we always knew it would take three full years to fully launch, and next season will complete that launch, with four full Res Five productions (Taylor, Clarke, Eno, Jenkins). That, in combination with the continued Res One presence of KUNG FU and the new Albee and the Wilson piece, meant for this one year only we wouldn’t be introducing a new Residency One playwright. We don’t view this as a change in mission at all, and we’ll absolutely be announcing a new Residency One playwright for the next season.

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