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Signature Theater Company steps into the MacArthur 'genius' breach

September 20, 2011 |  1:40 pm

James houghton 
Any disappointment that the 2011 MacArthur Fellows Program bestowed no “genius” award to a playwright or director was soothed somewhat by New York’s Signature Theater Company’s thrilling announcement about its inaugural Residency Five program.

This initiative guarantees three full productions of new plays by five early to mid-career playwrights, who will also receive “a significant cash award, full health benefits, a stipend to attend theater" and full access to the theater’s staff and resources.

The playwrights selected — Annie Baker, Will Eno, Katori Hall, Kenneth Lonergan and Regina Taylor — must be pinching themselves, wondering if they had died and gone to Sweden. If this is what socialism looks like, please, someone, sign me up!

Annie baker 2A word of praise for the visionary leadership of Signature’s founding artistic director James Houghton, who has created an institution that’s wholly devoted to nurturing and supporting playwrights as they “build a body of work." (Imagine such generous long-term thinking in an era of strafing quarterly reviews.) Residency Five is part of the expanded programming that will be presented at Signature Center, the off-Broadway company’s new Frank Gehry-designed home. How refreshing that the fruits of Signature's impressive fundraising campaign for its new theater haven't gone to real estate alone, as is so often the case these days. For all those artistic directors sitting pretty in underutilized show palaces, fancy new digs needn’t entail eviscerating one’s artistic soul. 
As nonprofit theaters continue their slip into commercial producing, offering such bold new ventures as “dynamic pricing,” whereby they can charge an arm and a leg for their latest musicalization of movie cheese, it behooves us to spotlight the integrity and noble drive of Houghton and his team.

It's especially gratifying to see Baker (“Circle Mirror Transformation” and “The Aliens”) and Eno (“Middletown," "Tragedy: a Tragedy") included in Residency Five. These deliriously wayward talents are unlikely to conform to Broadway’s straight and narrow any time soon, and yet they're too talented to have to depend on the kindness of low-budget strangers. I’m eager to get to know Hall, whose play "The Mountaintop," a fictionalized account of the last night of Martin Luther King Jr., opens on Broadway in October. And Lonergan (“This Is Our Youth,” “The Waverly Gallery,” the film “You Can Count on Me”) and Taylor (“Crowns,” “Drowning Crow”) are exactly the kind of playwrights — no longer emerging, not yet veteran — who deserve this kind of boost.
Now as for the MacArthur Fellows Program, surely there is no shortage of deserving “genius” possibilities in the theater world. For the 2012 list, how about Christopher Shinn, Melissa James Gibson, David Greenspan or Young Jean Lee for playwriting? As for directing, why not start a file of candidates with Daniel Aukin, Leigh Silverman and Sam Gold? It shouldn’t be hard to compile at least a dozen more names, especially if you open it up to include companies, such as Rude Mechs. Surely an ensemble — think of the collective brain power! — can be a “genius” too.


Theater review: "Poor Behavior at the Mark Taper Forum

Theater review: 'Pride and Prejudice' at South Coast Repertory

Theater review: 'Cabaret' at UCLA's Freud Playhouse

-- Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

Photo, top: James Houghton.  Credit: Jennifer S. Altman/For the Times 
Middle photo: Annie Baker. Credit: South Coast Repertory