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James Houghton 1958-2016

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Head of the Drama Division and Signature Theatre

James Houghton became the Richard Rodgers director of the Drama Division in 2006.

 (Photo by Gregory Costanzo)

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James Houghton, the Richard Rodgers Director of the Drama Division and the founding artistic director of the Signature Theatre, died at his home in Manhattan on August 2 after a two-year battle with stomach cancer. He was 57 and is survived by his wife, Joyce O’Connor; children, Henry and Lily Houghton; parents, Joan and Sherrill Houghton; a brother, Scott Houghton, and three sisters, Susan Devine, Lynne Houghton, and Trish Line; and numerous extended family members and friends.

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In announcing the news to the Juilliard community, President Joseph W. Polisi wrote, “Our heartfelt condolences go out to Jim’s family, the Signature Theatre family, and all his friends and colleagues at Juilliard and around the world. In his 10 years with us, Jim animated the division with a spirit of community, generosity, rigor, and humanity. He profoundly changed the culture of the division and the lives of all of the young artists who had the privilege of working with him. His reach extends beyond the current student body to our alumni and will affect future generations of theater artists.”

Houghton was appointed to head the Juilliard Drama Division in 2006, following Michael Kahn’s retirement; the program was established in 1968, with John Houseman as director. “A crucial piece of the puzzle for me is how to bring the humanity into the training and how to demystify it,” Houghton reflected in a September 2007 Journal article. “One of [my] chief goals is to create an environment that people feel relatively safe to work in, but challenged at the same time. An environment not based on fear, whether that’s of being cut or of not achieving, but on spending each and every day here truly investigating the craft and your inner instincts as an artist.”

To help achieve that goal, Houghton revamped the audition process by adding a comprehensive three-day callback for the 50 finalists who make it past the initial rounds. “We really need to be certain about those we take,” he told The New York Times in 2007, “because I’ve eliminated the cut system,” referring to cuts that were made at the end of students’ second year in the program. “I felt it was instilling the wrong kind of fear—the fear I want students to experience is of going too far, of challenging themselves, of exploring deep inside themselves.”

During his decade at Juilliard, Houghton made several significant changes to the program, most notably adding a four-year Master of Fine Arts degree program that’s tuition-free in the fourth year; making the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program a central part of the division, with new opportunities for actors and playwrights to collaborate; and launching the Professional Studio, which is hosted by Signature and which gives Juilliard’s actors and writers a bridge to the profession.

A strong proponent of the concept of the artist as citizen, Houghton also introduced twice-monthly community meetings for drama and playwriting students with politicians, activists, and artists; among the many guest speakers were Horton Foote, James Earl Jones, Congressman John Lewis, Anna Deveare Smith, alumna Laura Linney, Frances McDormand, and Bill Irwin. He also instituted Points of View, a course of study designed to help the students see their training in a larger historical, political, and artistic context, and a two-day retreat for the graduating actors. 

James Joseph Houghton was born in San Francisco on September 4, 1958. He earned a Bachelor of Arts from Santa Clara University in 1981 (and was given an honorary doctorate by the school in 2013) and a Master of Fine Arts in acting from Southern Methodist University in 1986. He began his career as an actor, winning a spot in the Acting Company, Houseman’s prestigious classical theater group, when he was fresh out of S.M.U. But he soon turned his attention to directing and theater administration and, following in the footsteps of his mentor, eventually took the helm of Juilliard Drama.

Houghton founded the Signature Theatre Company in 1991 with the aim of devoting each performance season to the works of a single playwright. Among the writers honored have been Edward Albee, Horton Foote, Athol Fugard, John Guare, Adrienne Kennedy, Tony Kushner, Arthur Miller, and August Wilson. Houghton directed a number of world and New York premieres at Signature, including Bill Irwin’s Mr. Fox: A Rumination, Horton Foote’s The Last of the Thorntons, and Edward Albee’s Marriage Play. He stepped down in the spring of 2016 due to his declining health. During Houghton’s tenure as Signature’s artistic director, it became the first New York City theater to win a Tony Award for regional theater, and it built a new home, the Pershing Square Signature Center, a three-theater complex on West 42nd Street.

From 1999 to 2003 Houghton served as artistic advisor to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and artistic director of the O’Neill Playwrights Conference; he was also the artistic director of the New Harmony Project from 1996 to 1999. In 2012, he was honored by the Acting Company with the John Houseman Award, in 2015 he won a special Obie for sustained achievement, and in May he won a lifetime achievement Lucille Lortel award.

In an Alumni Q&A for the Juilliard website, Alex Sharp, who, just one year after graduating from the Drama Division, in 2014, won a best actor Tony Award for his role The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, was asked to name an inspiring person from his student days. He answered: “Jim Houghton. What he has done inside and outside of Juilliard, in his career, and how he conducts himself in a room—it was inspiring and educational.”

In announcing Houghton's death to the Drama Division, Kathy Hood, administrative director, and Richard Feldman, associate director, wrote, “We will go forward as a community, carrying on his vision and embodying his spirit as best as we can in all that we do.”

>To read tributes to Houghton, go here.

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