Paying Tribute to Jim Houghton

Jim Houghton and drama students in 2015.

 (Photo by Gregory Costanzo)

There was an outpouring of love, gratitude, and sorrow when Jim Houghton died. Send your own to journal@juilliard.edu.

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Once in a great while an individual has a transformative impact on an institution, and so it was with Jim Houghton. As the Richard Rodgers Director of the Drama Division, he literally revolutionized how the art of dramatic acting is now taught at Juilliard.

I first met Jim when he was a candidate to succeed Michael Kahn as head of the Drama Division. I vividly recall that, of all the final candidates, he was the only one who spoke extensively about the educational process as it related to students. He said they needed a safe place to test their skills. They needed to embrace not only the concept of excellence but also how their humanity shaped their art. He wanted Juilliard students to explore a wide artistic world that included dance and music—and most important, he wanted his students to experience joy in their work and in their lives.

Such an impressive agenda was just the beginning for Jim’s tenure as Juilliard’s drama head, from 2006 to 2016. He and I met weekly to discuss various matters related to the division and to Juilliard overall. He was a passionate advocate for having the drama students become involved in the larger school community, developing various outreach programs in coordination with individual students that would challenge Juilliard actors to use their art to change the world for the better.

Jim also brought his vision to create new traditions for Juilliard drama that will, no doubt, prevail for many years. I was wonderfully amused and somewhat skeptical when Jim told me, with a mix of medieval monasticism and chutzpah, that he would take each fourth-year graduating class to a retreat where they would live together and be prohibited from speaking for 24 hours. Only Jim Houghton could have pulled that off! Now, this tradition has become a veritable rite of passage, wherein our drama graduates put the professional world aside for a day or so and examine their own motivations and beliefs before they plunge into a new chapter in their lives. The humanity of this idea exemplifies the brilliant and caring vision that Jim brought to all he addressed.

Other innovations that he developed have become standard practice at the school:

  • the final round callback weekend, in which about 50 final candidates for admission, culled from more than 2,000 applicants, spend a weekend with Juilliard faculty and students and are observed not just as artists but as colleagues and community members;
  • the creation of Juilliard’s Drama MFA program in 2012, where Jim pushed valiantly and successfully to integrate both undergraduates and graduates into one unified program in which younger students could learn from their older peers and the master’s students could experience the risk-taking that a 17-year-old was capable of, according to Jim;
  • a deep and effective commitment to student diversity for drama students: during Jim’s tenure, the number of actors of color grew impressively, coupled with the staging of plays that relate to the themes of racial diversity in America and around the world;
  • the readdressing of overall dramatic presentations at Juilliard, with an emphasis on much more public exposure for our Playwrights Program and the integration of classics with contemporary works throughout the four-year educational cycle.

This list could go on, and there was much that Jim still wanted to achieve. My wife, Elizabeth, and I had the privilege of seeing him just one week before his death. In speaking to Jim’s beloved wife, Joyce, we understood that he was exceedingly weak and would probably be able to visit with us for only 30 minutes. As usual, Jim exceeded our expectations. For two hours, with absolute clarity and intensity, he set out what still needed to be accomplished for the division: the renovation of the drama spaces on the third and fourth floors; increased scholarship assistance for all drama students; he even presented ideas for the 50th-anniversary gala for the Drama Division, 2017-18.

Elizabeth and I ended our visit deeply moved by Jim’s courage and determination. In a world that trivializes so many aspects of our daily lives, we witnessed an integrity and passion for a cause that exemplifies the very best of the human spirit. Even at the edge of death, Jim put his students first.

I have lost not only a remarkable colleague but also a cherished friend. For those of us who remain, it is important to intensify our commitment to Jim’s legacy and his sense of humanity. All of us who knew Jim Houghton well have been deeply touched by his values as we embraced his unique and caring persona.—Joseph W. Polisi, President

Jim left us with the same grace with which he lived his life. Even in his final days, he was fully engaged, passionate, fierce, connecting deeply with all around him, advocating for students and dreaming of next steps for the Drama Division. The pain of losing him is very great but the joy of having known him is greater. His generosity of spirit, his artistic vision, his warmth, his deep sense of empathy are all shining examples of a life well lived. We are very lucky to have had him in our lives.Ara Guzelimian, Provost and Dean

At our first meeting as students with the faculty, Jim asked us to raise our hands if we felt like we did not belong in that room or our admission to Juilliard had been a mistake. Some shy hands slowly rose and Jim proceeded to shake each one, stating that not only was there no mistake, but that we were meant to be in this school.

Jim had the ability to really see you as an individual and listen carefully and honestly to what you had to say. All this accompanied with a goofy and unique sense of humor and childlike curiosity for the people around him. He was also a motivating force in opening dialogue and participation for a more diverse student body. As a Hispanic woman I can attest to the fact that Jim made me feel like my voice was important and valuable. He said more than once that the people on stage should always reflect the beautiful diversity of humanity, something like the crowd of the 1 train.

Days before his passing, Jim asked how things were going, and I replied with a funny picture and a brief account of what I had been working on at the Guthrie Experience program. He didn’t write back for a couple days. After receiving the devastating news that he had been transferred to hospice care, I wrote a short message and told him that I loved him dearly and thanked him for his mentoring and leadership. Incredibly enough, he texted me within minutes, apologizing for not getting in touch sooner. He referred to my first day of audition, and I was amazed that after three years that memory was as vivid in his mind as it was in mine.

Our sense of loss is tangible. But we must remember that a spirit like Jim’s is free and alive in the hearts and memories of all who knew him. Let’s honor and celebrate him by practicing what he taught. You did so much Jim—let us take it from here.Isabel Arraiza, Fourth-Year Student (Group 46)

Jim was that rarest of things—a great man who was also a good man. As a leader and visionary I admired him without bound; it was an honor to work for him and with him. As a man, I loved him like a brother.Richard Feldman, Associate Director of the Drama Division

I could list all the practical ways Jim changed my life. He gave me my first internship (I met Arthur Miller!). He gave me my first job out of grad school (on the payroll at Juilliard, and with health insurance!). And so on. But the moment I want to share is the day I came into his office to chat about some routine issue, but my child was in the hospital and I suddenly became overwhelmed. We stopped the meeting and he brought me some water. He listened to me, understood what I was going through, and made me feel better. Jim knew when to be a teacher, when to be a mentor, and when to be a friend.Sam Gold (Directing ’06)

Jim was passionate and kind. Never held a grudge, always quick to let go of anger. Could challenge and praise in a single breath. Loved animals; those elephants! I will miss his smile, his hugs, his grace; and oh, how I’ll miss “Hey, sister!” And so much more.Rebecca Guy (Group 7), Faculty

Jim’s reputation as an extraordinary producer, theatrical visionary, and human being started when he was a teenager. We both lived in San Francisco, where I was doing plays with his brother at the University of San Francisco. Jim raised money for his high school by producing two musicals, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar, and having them performed at U.S.F. His big coup was getting a donation from Frank Sinatra! Yes, that was Jim, thinking big at 16. A leader and theatrical visionary like him comes along once in a lifetime.Deborah Hecht, Faculty

When I think of Jim Houghton, the word family comes up again and again. His devotion to his wife, Joyce, and children, Lily and Henry, was his number one priority in life. Witnessing that love was truly profound and deeply moving to me. In those moments, I saw the true goodness of this man and what made him a remarkable human being. His generosity and openness also led to the creation of countless other families. His relationships with writers, directors, designers, and actors spanned across generations and across the world. He loved artists and loved—perhaps even more—getting to create the conditions for them to thrive and take flight. He loved people. To be with Jim even for a brief time could be a powerful and life-changing experience. One of his greatest legacies will be how he made everyone feel that they were a part of a family.Katherine Hood, Administrative Director, Drama Division

For so many of us, Jim was our emotional, ethical, and artistic compass. His faith in the arts and in the people he spent time with—be it a playwright, student, or coworker—was devoted and resolute, no matter how rigorously he was tested. I have never known one person who enriched so many, and I don’t mean enriched in a fleeting way. If you spent time with Jim, you always walked away a better person.

For me, Jim was family. He was the son my father, Romulus Linney, had always wanted, and the brother I had always secretly prayed for.

Jim made us all feel less alone. He encouraged us to align ourselves with the person we wanted to be, and to realize that growth. Until Jim’s death, I didn’t know that such grief could be so fiercely intertwined with such profound gratitude.Laura Linney (Group 19), Trustee

Many, many people knew Jim Houghton far better than I did, but I did know him as an advocate and a mentor for the two years I was a Juilliard. What I know of him is this: in a world that values bottom lines, he valued playwrights. Actors. Community. Human beings. Not just for the length of a show, but for their careers, their entire lives. What I know of him is this: his illness was never a secret, it was never verboten to speak of, it did not cast a pallor over his enthusiasm and strength as the figurehead of the organizations he steered. He lived every ounce of every single day, an inspiration to us all to the very last moment.

What I know of him is this: he often said wise things, and I sometimes had the great good fortune to be in the room when he said them, and the lucky foresight to write them down. I present these quotes now exactly as I transcribed them, without editorialization or comment. I have often referred to and will continue to refer to them in times of uncertainty.

I also know this: he was a generous man. He would want you to know these things, and believe them, and believe in yourself in the world, even in the world after him.

  • Go through the door that’s open, not the one you think should be open.
  • There is so much clarity looking backward, but few assurances looking forward.
  • Look for the moments when something drops in.
  • Plan for the future, but don’t get too far ahead of yourself.
  • Theater is not owned by anyone more elevated than you.
  • Be so busy that you can’t get in your own way.
  • Don’t get so beaten up by the business that you build walls and isolate yourself and become bitter.
  • When you’re in a rehearsal room with a writer, anything can happen.
  • If you start a theater company, it’s got to be about more than just hearing your own voices talk about how shitty and wrong everyone else is.
  • If you resent your day job, your artistic experiences will become less and less satisfying.
  • Delegate, delegate, delegate. Clarity is not ego.
  • Interest in something does not stake a claim that you think you’re the best at that thing. So express interest without fear.
  • Have no shame about the clarity of your vision and your role.
  • Don’t try to come up with something that doesn’t exist. Do what you want to do. Follow your impulses. Find your way.
  • Connect, collide, interact.
  • The idea you have in your head is a valid and good thing.
    Chelsea Marcantel (Playwrights ’16)

Jim’s leadership of the Drama Division reflected his great generosity of spirit and his compassion for young artists struggling to meet the high demands of their training. These qualities have inspired us for the past decade and will inspire us in the years to come.Elizabeth Smith, Faculty

The idea of submitting Jim as head of the Drama Division came after seeing him laugh his face off with our kids at the Big Apple Circus. When Jim laughed he was all in. That’s how he lived his life. His leadership exceeded my greatest expectations. He was responsible, fervent, and brave beyond measure. Jim invited change. He invited everyone to the table. And he led by example, always. Jim’s life was a breathtaking circus and he was the most humble master of ceremonies.

My favorite things about Jim: 

  • He loved underdogs. He believed in the impossible and made dreams a reality. He took chances and gave others second chances.
  • He loved the circus, waterfalls, Halloween, clam dip, and dance breaks. 
  • Jim was silly and invited people in on jokes. David Sedaris’s “Big Boy” brought him to tears. 
  • He was dyslexic yet devoted his life to words, stories and storytellers. Words he loved to use: sister, brother, fierce, engage, immersion, bummer.
  • Jim built families: Juilliard, Signature, every play he produced, and above all, his beloved Joyce, Henry, and Lily.
  • He constantly surprised me. When in crisis Jim was the kindest in the room, always taking the high road. And when change was needed, he was the most rigorous. 
  • Jim taught my daughters a perfect stage slap and a hilarious fake cry.
  • He saw the best in everyone: actors, writers, colleagues, and friends. He was intensely loyal. 
  • Jim was brave of heart, wise of mind, and true of spirit. Salt of the earth. The bee’s knees.
  • He was the brother I always wanted.
    Kate Wilson, Faculty

After Jim addressed a difficult topic with the first-year class regarding racism and communication, tensions were high and the students were pretty raw, but he was eloquent, thoughtful, and deeply caring. Afterward, he asked how I thought the students received his counsel, and I said to myself, “Wow, the artistic director is interested in what I think!” I was caught offguard in the best way by his humility and concern.Christine Caleo, Faculty

Jim Houghton made a challenging and difficult time for Jaye [Dougherty’s late wife, longtime faculty member and ballroom dancing teacher Jaye Miller Dougherty] and myself easier through his compassion, generosity, and willingness to accommodate whatever the moment needed. As if that wasn’t enough, he continued that generosity, compassion, and loyalty by allowing Jaye’s work to continue by putting his trust in me to do it. He is one of the true Stars of the Juilliard Star Ball and will continue to shine over the whole community.Steve Dougherty, Faculty

As a friend he was considerate—as in kind, patient, and understanding. As a leader he was marked by consideration—as in deliberate, prudent, and thoughtful. I consider it an honor to have known him.Deborah Lapidus, Faculty

A minor specialty of Jim’s that deserves tribute: his hugs. Jim excelled at the full-body enfolding hug, unusual for a smaller guy. Jim’s hugs said: I have faith in you, I like having you here. But most importantly, they said: stop a minute, there’s plenty of time for a hug. They said: take a moment to be present in this hug; hugs are important. Jim often talked about the work at Juilliard as a “practice”—Jim’s hugs were a beautiful practice. We miss them.Jenny Lord, Faculty

I am deeply grateful for the encouragement and inspiration that Jim gave to us all.Charlotte Okie, Faculty

There is a school of thought described in prose by authors Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette that depicts the journey of a man as one that is formed by four basic archetypes: Warrior, Lover, Magician, and King.

The Warrior can be recognized by qualities such as determination, sharp reasoning, appropriate action, abundant energy, martial arts (Jim studied stage combat), and, most importantly, finding the courage to move forward through failure, defeat, or uncanny odds. 

The Lover attends to the safety of others, providing warmth, care, sweetness, and passion while balancing and honoring life-affirming desires and pleasures in both simple and complex forms. The Magician spins stories, creates illusions, restores wonder and amazement, entertains, persuades, and fully embraces life’s paradoxes.

The King archetype is the most difficult and is rarely achieved in a single lifetime because to actualize it, a man must integrate all of the other qualities into one single archetype. In all of these roles there exists the positive and negative forms. The King in his negative form can be seen as the “tyrant”; using power to amass more power at the expense of others. The King in his positive form harnesses the positive energies of the four archetypes and uses them to serve the community, providing for others while retaining a sense of humanity, humility, and humor.

Only a few swift months ago, Jim met with the Drama Division faculty for our end-of-year retreat. We were at Signature Theatre and although he was thin and frail, Jim ran the meeting with his typical style, and the only reference to his current struggle was when he told us with a warm smile that had he known at the time of his interview how important the position at Juilliard would be to him, he probably wouldn’t have won the job. We laughed the gentle laugh of shared humanity, the meeting unfolded as usual, and Jim proudly spoke about upcoming plans that would enhance our work and improve the experience of our students. This was Jim Houghton.Mark Olsen, Faculty

Jim’s leadership of the Drama Division reflected his great generosity of spirit and his compassion for young artists struggling to meet the high demands of their training. These qualities have inspired us for the past decade and will inspire us in the years to come. Thank you, Jim.Elizabeth Smith, Faculty

I was amazed and honored to experience the bravery of Jim Houghton. He was brave in his career, brave in coming into the world of training new actors, brave in creating his theater, brave in learning from everyone, and overwhelmingly brave in his dealings with illness. I had my own bumps and bruises with medical procedures and his truly uplifting advice was always, “Hang in there.” It was something he knew how to do. And do well. I think he lived by one of Shakespeare’s rules: “No profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en.”Wendy Waterman, Faculty

Zelda Fichandler, the chair of the N.Y.U.’s graduate acting program and the most profound artistic thinker I have ever met, had just retired, and I found myself longing for a voice that could take her place. [ed. note: Fichlander died a few days before Jim Houghton.] My fear was that it didn’t exist; that the voice that could lift and inspire actors to believe they can change the world with their art, with a sense of grace, collaboration, and respect, was a gift too rare to ask for again. Then one day I walked into Room 301 and heard Jim Houghton speak to a circle of his students. My heart soared. I had found that voice. All was well in the theater world.Janet Zarish (Group 5)


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