The Signature, writ large

An Off Broadway institution makes a huge expansion.

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  • Photograph: Signature Theatre Company

    The Signature Center

    The Signature Center

  • Photograph: Signature Theatre Company

    The Signature Center

    The Signature Center

  • Photograph: Signature Theatre Company

    The Signature Center

    The Signature Center

  • Photograph: Signature Theatre Company

    The Signature Center

    The Signature Center

Photograph: Signature Theatre Company

The Signature Center

The Signature Center

When surveying the state of their art, theater folk tend to accentuate the negative. But New York's Off Broadway world has actually been in a boom of late. Several of the city's key theater institutions—including the Public Theater, Lincoln Center Theater and Atlantic Theater—have undergone major structural renovations to their venues. But none of these leaps forward is quite so dramatic as that of the cherished Signature Theatre Company, which is about to inaugurate its brand-new headquarters: a custom-designed, $66 million theatrical multiplex to be known as the Signature Center.

Founded by James Houghton in 1991, the Signature operated at first out of a rented 79-seat theater; in 1997, it moved to a warm, wide-staged 160-seat venue on 42nd Street, west of Tenth Avenue. "Even though the roots were humble, the vision and mission were big," recalled the actor Edward Norton, a longtime friend of the company, at a press conference last fall. "It had chosen to address a fundamental need in the American theater."

More than any other troupe in town, the Signature focuses on exploring and celebrating playwrights in depth, with whole seasons often devoted to works by individual living writers. "If you go to the Metropolitan Museum, you can see a show about how Georges Seurat moved through his career to get to pointillism," Norton explained. "But we've never had the opportunity to examine bodies of work in the theater in the same way." Our experience of artists like Edward Albee, Tony Kushner and August Wilson, he said, is enriched "when we are able to see what they were doing, and what the threads were that they were pulling through that work, over periods of time."

Now the Signature has finally moved into a home base equal to its lofty ambitions. Designed by star architect Frank Gehry, the Signature Center comprises three major Off Broadway spaces: a 299-seater mainstage; a 199-seat venue in the style of a miniature opera house; and a malleable courtyard space named after the late dramatist Romulus Linney. The company is keeping the sponsorship initiative that caps ticket prices at $25 during all of the Signature plays' initially scheduled runs, and is expanding its mandate by commissioning three new plays apiece, over the next five years, from a quintet of writers—the so-called Residency Five—on the cusp of major fame: Annie Baker, Will Eno, Katori Hall, Kenneth Lonergan and Regina Taylor.

The primary focus of the company's first season in its new digs, however, will be the work of Athol Fugard, who turns 80 this year and who is best known for plays about the effects of apartheid on the people of his native South Africa. The Fugard series begins Tuesday 31 with a revival of Blood Knot, which introduced the playwright to America in 1964 and which Fugard himself is directing. (Colman Domingo and Scott Shepherd star as half brothers with different skin colors.)

The choice of Fugard was surprising for a company that has previously stayed within the literary borders of the United States. But Kushner, last year's Signature Playwright-in-Residence, defended the choice at the Signature's press conference. "This is not an abandonment of the endangered species that are American playwrights, but an expression of gratitude for the profound impact that Mr. Fugard's work has had," Kushner said. "His plays were among the very first to insist that the theater could address itself directly to fiery, dangerous politics while remaining serious, deep, complex, contradictory. He showed us that outrage—or an outrageous, appalling injustice—need not cripple articulation or art."

In addition to the three Fugard plays and three Residency Five plays scheduled for 2012, the Signature will also be presenting work by Albee, who returns to the troupe this year under the banner of Legacy Playwright-in-Residence. "I have had periods that I have been in fashion and much longer periods of being out of fashion," Albee noted recently, adding that he had been "verboten" in New York for years when the Signature devoted it its 1993--94 season to him. (A revival of Albee's 1980 Broadway flop, The Lady from Dubuque, begins previews on February 14, starring Jane Alexander.)

Taken as a whole, the Signature Center represents the most prominent addition to the Off Broadway landscape since the 2004 advent of 59E59 and Dodger Stages (now New World Stages). But the Signature's curatorial vision and mandate may make its growth spurt even more significant to the theater world at large. "I know that whenever I come to the Signature, I will be seeing very, very good productions of extraordinary plays that matter," said Albee. "This theater takes chances with every production and, surprisingly, almost always succeeds."

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