A Conversation With James Houghton


Nurturing the Art of Theater

When President Joseph Polisi announced in April 2006 that James Houghton would succeed Michael Kahn as the Richard Rodgers Director of the Drama Division, he proclaimed that the appointment signaled a “new era” for the program. And for Houghton, who is just beginning his second year at the helm of the division, it is a new era in an already distinguished career. He began as a performer before moving into directing, where he found a niche as a champion of playwrights. In 1991 he founded the Signature Theater Company with a unique vision: that of devoting each season to the works of one playwright. The company has flourished, becoming one of New York’s most acclaimed and vibrant theatrical institutions. Houghton’s tenure at the Signature (which he continues to direct), as well as his position as artistic advisor to the Guthrie Theater and a four-year stint as head of the O’Neill’s National Playwrights Conference, gives him a unique history as a nurturer of creative artists. And as Juilliard’s Drama Division celebrates its 40th anniversary, it makes him the ideal person to lead the division into its next era. Last May, recent graduate Anna O’Donoghue sat down with Houghton to talk about his first year on the job and what the next years might bring.

James Houghton is the Richard Rodgers Director of the Drama Division.

(Photo by James Moran)


Anna O’Donoghue: What’s this first year been like?

Jim Houghton: It’s been exciting. I truly love the students, and I love the potential the place has. The faculty and the staff have been extremely generous and the administration very supportive. I think we’re doing a pretty terrific job as a division of nurturing the craft and the art of the theater. We still have a lot of work to do, because we can reassess where we are and ask the same question that was asked 40 years ago when the division was created: What is relevant training now? We’ve started to make some serious strides in that investigation.

AO: So what have been the biggest surprises of the year? What did you expect when you took the job?

JH: One of the biggest surprises is that I’m here at all! I wasn’t pursuing this position, but when it came along, I found myself drawn to it. What’s also been surprising is how much I’ve been enjoying it—connecting with the students and the faculty and trying to crack this puzzle of what is relevant to training young actors and writers in the field today. I thrive when I have a puzzle to solve, and I’m enjoying the process of tackling all the facets of the division. But it’s challenging in that it’s a lot, and the question is, where do you begin? When I was offered the job and decided to go forward with it, I had thought I would hold back and take a year to observe. But my instincts took over, and I immediately recognized that there were environmental things related to programming, structure, and infrastructure that I could address immediately. So that was a surprise and a challenge, stepping forward and making those changes so soon—like redefining the probation system, eliminating the second-year cut, and changing the overall engagement with the students—working on a cultural shift. A crucial piece of the puzzle for me is how to bring the humanity into the training and how to demystify it. One of the 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.

AO: You were trained as an actor; how did that experience affect you?

JH: I was in a three-year program at Southern Methodist University, and it was enlightening, intense, challenging, frustrating, painful, and wonderful. It’s an intensive inner search—not only of who you are as an artist, but who you are as an individual, because they’re interlinked. You really have to stare things down about yourself in order to delineate between what is a choice and what is a habit. For me, the training was incredibly meaningful and fruitful, and it continues to be. That kind of intense work has a profound effect on the individual.

AO: What do you think it is that makes an actor?

JH: Well, there’s craft and there’s gift, and the two come together. The craft is the easy part to understand: it’s a series of tools you work with to communicate and inhabit character and story and understand the overall context of your work. The other component, which is a little headier, is really about instinct, creativity, and imagination. While there are a lot of exercises and ways to tap into that, at the very core, there must be talent, instinct, and inspiration living within somebody who happens to be a good actor.

AO: Do you ever miss acting?

JH: Not really. I have more opportunities to flex my creative instincts than any one person could ask for, between the work I do here and my work at Signature Theater Company and the Guthrie.

AO: How does your work in the field inform the way you’re approaching the program here?

JH: In every single way. It’s essential that whoever is sitting in the chair of director of the Drama Division be in the profession, because that link is what distinguishes Juilliard’s program from many others. There’s a visceral and a practical connection to the daily realities of the profession that helps shape policy, down to selection of the artists, and helps demystify the field.

AO: You mentioned that we have a long way to go. How can we keep moving forward?

JH: The most important thing is to be questioning ourselves constantly and to put a structure in place that forces that. Dealing with this much humanity in one space is a tall order, but it is vital that we continue to challenge ourselves to imagine, to reinvigorate, and to reinvent. The faculty has been tremendously generous in their openness to change; they are fiercely committed to making the best program possible, and they’re here for the students 100 percent. So we’ve been asking these questions together, and that’s been incredibly exciting.

AO: What are some questions you’re asking right now?
JH: A broad range—from minute, simple things to really far-reaching ones. We’re very good at the basic components of the craft: speech, movement, Alexander Technique, etc. But one area that is lacking is the literary track: a textual analysis of the scripts we bring to life. For anyone involved with the division, whether playwright or actor, the training is an opportunity to develop and flex particular muscles, and there’s a skeleton underneath all those layers of muscle—that’s the literary piece of the puzzle. It’s what keeps you standing, what the muscles rest on and work through. So I really want to figure out how to integrate that part more aggressively throughout the training. We live in a world where everyone is multitasking. They’re literally doing five things at once: IM’ing someone, text messaging, watching television, writing a paper, and listening to music at the same time. It creates a culture that might be less sympathetic to that intense study that is required for that “skeleton.” Because we’ve been trained to do things quickly, instant gratification is a constant. But textual analysis isn’t like that; it’s long, intensive work. I want to instill in the arc of four years of training a consistent track that addresses that skeletal piece.

AO: Speaking about your initiative to create a strong literary track—how does your devotion to writers inform the Playwrights program here?
JH: Without any doubt, we have one of the strongest playwriting programs in the country. Chris Durang and Marsha Norman [the program’s co-directors] have a unique approach; they have found the perfect balance of creating structure but not imposing too much on the creative process in a very intimate and exclusive program. My background makes me extremely sympathetic to what Chris and Marsha are trying to do. Already we’ve integrated that program much more into the body of the Drama Division. Just having labs every other week with the entire division’s participation has made a big difference; now every actor going through the program will, in essence, have a four-year master class with Chris Durang and Marsha Norman on participating in the creation of work for the theater. When student actors leave this place, a big portion of their work is going to be new material. Now, over the course of four years, they’re going to come across multiple plays, multiple writers, and begin to develop relationships with them. We’re planting seeds that will be crucial to the overall health and development of the field.

And that’s what I’m working on with the faculty and staff now: planting seeds and experimenting. This past year we were able to accomplish a lot, through providing more roles for the students, more challenges, more engagement, eliminating the second-year cut, and expanding the labs. But we need to experience these changes for a while to really see the ebbs and flows. The shifts have had a lot of positive influences, but there were some inevitable bumps along the way—all of which are fixable, but they lead to more questions.

Other questions I’m asking are: What other programs could be aligned with the Drama Division? Should we offer an M.F.A.? How do we continue a relationship with the extraordinary students who have passed through this institution in 40 years? I’m excited about trying to connect to them, no matter what their experience was at Juilliard, positive or negative, and no matter what they’re doing now, in or out of the field. So my hope is to engage with many of those people as possible, across the spectrum.

AO: I hope you do, too.

JH: It’s going to take time. It’s easy to pluck out the Kevin Spaceys and Patti LuPones, and it’s important to celebrate those people, but it’s equally important to dig deep into the alumni pool and find out how they are doing—how the work was relevant to them as their lives have developed and continue to evolve. You know, Kevin Spacey was here years ago, and he was just here recently talking to the students. He doesn’t have to be here, but he feels a connection. I’m certain that if we reach out even to people who had a really rough time here, and truly listen to what they have to say and engage them collectively, we can make it a different program.

When I first got here, there was this real concentration on “group this” and “group that.” It’s fine to be loyal to your particular class, but each class is part of a much larger whole, which is the division itself. That’s why you’ll see photographs of every student out in front of our offices. They’re a daily reminder that you’re part of an entire collective, and that collective is part of an institution, another collective. And that institution is part of a city, etc. It sounds a little precious when you spell it out that way, but in fact, it comes down to individual responsibility and individual potential: as an individual, you can make a difference within that community. Your actions have consequences, both good and bad, and when you step out of this institution I want you take responsibility for your part of the deal. Often there is a notion that the powers are “against” or “for,” and that you have no course of action other than to move where you’re driven. I believe just the opposite: that you are shaping the theater through your actions, and that the theater is shaping, on some level, society. So you can’t remove yourself from responsibility to the whole community: you are part of the community. And when you take that on and back that up with major training and you’re willing to have a point of view, that can create a very interesting artist and a very interesting member of the community at large—whether that community is defined today as your ensemble at Juilliard; or, when you leave, as a particular project you’re working on in the field; or as an entire city or country.

AO: With what skills or qualities do you want a writer or an actor to leave the program?

JH: I want to see actors and playwrights coming out of this school with an absolute passion and joy connected to the craft of theater-making. I want to see them having honed their instincts, developing what is uniquely their point of view, and I want them to walk out of here having a process that they can lean on—that they leave this school with a treasure chest of instinct and tools to back up that instinct. But more than anything—or in addition to that, and central—is a passion and a joy.

AO: What do you see as the Juilliard legacy? And where do you want the institution to be 40 years from now?

JH: I couldn’t possibly imagine that. Because I think a legacy reveals itself when looking back, not looking forward. A legacy is defined through the integrity of day-to-day decisions and how they relate to an overall mission. That’s why it’s so important to define relevance on a daily basis; every decision is bounced off that question of what is relevant. That’s why somebody like me—who’s sitting in this chair for now, who’s in the field—will be making choices instinctively that are contextualized within the field. I’m not projecting what the field is; I’m in it. And I’m here in this setting, at Juilliard, too, and they feed one another; they’re not separate. My hope is that we stay honest in that endeavor—if we’re constantly questioning and shaping and creating a living, breathing organism—which it should be, ever changing, ever questioning—then hopefully the cumulative power of that creates a legacy as you look back.

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