Signature Plans Move to Space in MidtownOct 23, 2008
After a wearying five-year search in which the Signature Theater Company was promised a new home at the former World Trade Center site and later in a community college auditorium on West Broadway, the organization now plans to move to a tower under construction on West 42nd Street, a few doors down from its current home.
The Signature space, to be designed by Frank Gehry, would be at the base of a 58-story, 1.2-million-square-foot hotel and residential building being developed by Related Companies at 10th Avenue, near the strip of theaters known as Theater Row. The building was designed by Arquitectonica.
In 70,000 square feet of contiguous space to be known as the Signature Center, the Off Broadway company would operate one theater with 299 seats and two with 199, one of which would be flexible. The theater now has just one 160-seat auditorium, at 555 West 42nd Street in Clinton.
The new space of the Signature, which specializes in seasons devoted to single writers, would have two rehearsal studios, a cafe, a bookstore and offices.
“It’s an ideal spot for us in the heart of the theater district,” said James Houghton, Signature’s artistic director.
Kate D. Levin, the city’s cultural affairs commissioner, said the location made sense for the theater, which has been in the neighborhood since 1997. “They can activate a portion of this building in a really meaningful way,” she said. “They’ve got a compelling vision and track record.”
Although Mr. Gehry’s firm will no longer be designing a free-standing building, Craig Webb, one of the architects, said he was excited about the project: “It’s a modest proposition, but I think there’s a possibility to create some great little theaters.”
Foundation work on the building started last November and is expected to be completed in two months, Related said. Work on the superstructure is scheduled to begin in January. By providing space to a theater, a developer gains the right to build more square footage than is typically allowed under the zoning law.
The theater’s new space is expected to cost $60 million. Related is to provide the core and shell, and the Signature is to be responsible for the interior. A $20 million fund-raising campaign is planned, to be led by Richard J. Schwartz, a former chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts.
Mr. Houghton said that the Signature’s board had raised about $6 million and that he hoped the city would be generous with its support. The Department of Cultural Affairs has so far committed $9.5 million, Ms. Levin said.
Fund-raising is bound to be a challenge, given the tough economic climate. Mr. Houghton said Related had offered the Signature a 10-year bridge loan of $10 million to “help us get started” with the “hard and soft” costs of the project. He said he expected the theater’s annual operating budget to increase to $9 million from about $4 million.
Last year the city backed out of plans to help relocate the Signature to a new performing arts center at the former World Trade Center site on the ground that having two institutions share a limited space was too complicated and costly, at an estimated $700 million. (The Joyce Theater, which is devoted to dance, remains the sole tenant planned for that building, also to be designed by Mr. Gehry, although that project has yet to move forward.)
The Signature then settled on Fiterman Hall, part of Borough of Manhattan Community College, diagonally across from 7 World Trade Center. The hall had been heavily damaged by falling debris in the terrorist attack of 9/11. The project also proved too costly, at a projected $360 million, for the theater component.
The Signature is hoping to establish a new presence on 42nd Street in the spirit of the National Theater’s complex in London: a gathering place with several different kinds of theaters where artists and audience members can congregate between performances. That thinking, that a critical mass of theaters can create a dynamic cultural district, inspired the creation of Theater Row. The Signature’s entrance is to be at ground level, with the stages on the second floor and some offices on a mezzanine.
The theater’s lease at 555 West 42nd Street is up in 2011. It hopes to open in its new home that year, with construction of the theater to begin this summer.
Founded in 1991, the Signature has featured the work of Edward Albee, Horton Foote, John Guare,Paula Vogel and August Wilson. The current season centers on productions from the history of the Negro Ensemble Company. Suzan-Lori Parks, the Pulitzer-winning author of “Topdog/Underdog,” will be the theater’s next focus, and in 2010-11 the Signature will highlight Tony Kushner, another Pulitzer winner, in its 20th-anniversary season.
According to the Department of Cultural Affairs, the Signature says it is the ninth-largest nonprofit theater company in New York City.
Mr. Houghton said that although the Signature had been enthusiastic about the prospect of moving downtown, he was not disappointed by how things turned out. “We worked rigorously to try to make that happen,” he said of the ground zero project. But “sometimes you end up right where you should.”