“The arts are not for the privileged, but the many…. Their place is not on the periphery of society but at its center…. They are not just a form of recreation but are of central importance to our well-being and happiness.” So wrote Norris Houghton in a 1967 essay entitled “The Arts and Government” that advocated for more government funding to American artistic endeavors. Having been actively involved with American theatre and television for over four decades, Houghton knew his subject well.
Born in Indianapolis on December 26, 1909, Norris Houghton was enamored with the theatre from an early age. In 1917, his grandfather took him to see a production of The Taming of the Shrew, starring E.H. Sothern and Julia Marlowe, which Houghton called “the outstanding event of my winter.” He found “the whole event very jolly, especially when the pots and pans began to fly.”
After graduating summa cum laude from Princeton in 1931, Houghton made the bold choice of pursuing a career in the theater, even though Princeton offered him a graduate fellowship. He dived headfirst into the chaotic world of the professional theater, working as a freelance set designer, stage manager, and director between 1932-1939, most frequently with the University Players Guild, a Cape Cod-based theater where many freshly graduated thespians congregated. A Guggenheim fellowship in 1934 enabled Houghton to study abroad, and his choice of subject and site, again a bold decision, shaped some of his most important later work. Little was known in the West about the emerging Russian theater, and Houghton’s acceptance as a rehearsal observer to Konstantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre put him in touch with the leaders of the new movement. His account of this experience, Moscow Rehearsals: An Account of the Methods of Production in the Soviet Theatre, published in 1936, was highly praised both as a study of the emerging theater in Moscow and as a critique of the American stage.
Houghton became art director for the St. Louis Municipal Opera in 1939, a job he held until the outbreak of the Second World War, during which he served as junior-grade lieutenant in the United States Navy Reserves. After the war, Houghton spent three years as an associate editor at Theatre Arts magazine, and two years directing productions for the Elitch Gardens theatre in Denver, before launching the off-Broadway Phoenix Theatre in New York City, in partnership with T. Edward Hambleton, who Houghton once said “resembled a big cuddly stuffed bear, the companion of one’s nursery days.” The first “off-Broadway” theatre of its kind, the Phoenix aimed to produce more affordable, less commercial productions to be performed by a cadre of permanent actors in a given season. Between 1953 and 1959, Hambleton and Houghton together mounted dozens of critically acclaimed plays at the Phoenix, including Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Ibsen’s The Master Builder, Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of An Author, and Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan.
In 1959, somewhat dissatisfied with the duties of a producer, Houghton sought a forum to express his artistic ideas, and Vassar proved just the right fit. Through a colleague at Barnard College, where he had taught for five years in the 1950s, Houghton met President Sarah Gibson Blanding for tea, where, “as she wafted the smoke of cigarette after cigarette my way,” she offered him a position on the faculty at Vassar. He accepted only under the condition that he could continue working part-time as a Phoenix producer with Hambleton.
But no sooner had Houghton arrived in Poughkeepsie for the 1959-60 academic year than he left for another Russian sojourn sponsored by the Guggenheim Foundation. Under a “cultural exchange agreement” between the United States and the Soviet Union, he was granted unprecedented access to the reclusive regime’s artistic scene. The trip led to Houghton’s second book about Russian theatre: Return Engagement: A Postscript to Moscow Rehearsals (1962). In 1936, he had published Moscow Rehearsals: An Account of the Methods of Production in the Soviet Theatre.
After the death of Professor of Drama Mary Virginia Heinlein ‘23, in 1961, Houghton succeeded to her position as director of the Experimental Theatre, a job that, he wrote, “was so filled with managerial functions that I had little time for the reflection and meditation I’d imagined were the life’s blood of academia.” In addition, when Houghton arrived at Vassar in 1959, he recalled his impression of “Vassar girls” from the late 1920s:
In my undergraduate days I never had a Vassar girlfriend. Although many of my friends did, generally without complaints, the Vassar students I met seemed formidable and inclined to be bossy; besides they were apt to be better dancers than I…and they “knew their way around,” which put me at a double disadvantage.
But as a professor, Houghton saw Vassar students differently:
The young women seemed a little less formidable than the girls had in 1931. The self-confidence I found so intimidating in their mothers’ generation had been replaced by self-centeredness…, but these girls also appeared more vulnerable—or maybe it was only that I felt less so… They were even biddable, perhaps because “women’s lib” had not yet arrived.
In general, Houghton found his Vassar students unimpressive dramatists: “during my five-year tenure the drama majors were not a flamingly talented lot,” he observed in his autobiography, Entrances and Exits: A Life In and Out of the Theatre (1990). But he admired the “techies” for their unparalleled work ethic, especially Elizabeth Villard ’69 (who would later join the Vassar Drama faculty) and Marjorie Kellogg ’67, who moved to New York and enjoyed a successful career as a Broadway set designer. He also complimented the acting promise of his student Etain O’Malley ‘63, a niece of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III. Despite the dearth of real talent in Houghton’s time, he fully expected that from an academically prestigious institution like Vassar, and fostered no hopes of changing it. “I had no desire to turn my bailiwick into a professional school,” he wrote, but “that didn’t mean that I had no convictions or plans.”
Norris Houghton became director of the Experimental Theatre in 1961.
Houghton immediately identified several problems with Vassar’s drama curriculumhe Heinlein’s final season contained the three mainstage shows she directed herself and ten smaller, student-led projects, and Houghton thought the department tried to mount too many productions each year. Emphasizing process over product, Houghton believed, would truly teach the students something about theatre; with so many productions, “no one really had time to learn how to act.” Under Houghton’s direction, each semester had just three productions.
Professor Houghton also thought Vassar students needed a counterbalance to the drama department’s “trio of doctors”: Dr. William Rothwell, Dr. Evert Sprinchorn and Dr. Seabury Quinn (Hougton found Quinn particularly “absentminded”; he “once took his convertible Volkswagen to a car wash and forgot to put the top up and close the windows.”). Subsequently, Houghton used his connections in New York to expose his students to both the guidance and the glamour of working professionals. In 1963 he arranged for the actress Mildred Dunnock to lead a series of master classes; in later years he hired the performer Anne Revere, the comedienne Dorothy Sands, choreographer Janet Reed, speech expert Elizabeth Smith and directors Joseph Anthony and Milton Katselas (whose “sex appeal” charmed the students, Houghton reported).
Another problem Houghton solved was the absence of male actors to supplement the female talent. To solve the problem, he secured funding from President Blanding to create a “small, paid, young men’s acting company in residence, recruited from recent graduates of reputable theatre schools.” According to Houghton, Vassar chose the six best candidates and hired them; although successful, the program lasted but a year.
Vassar’s theatre spaces, too, earned Houghton’s criticism. He felt cramped in Avery Hall with the Classics department, the Social Museum and various offices. He supported the longstanding desire for a new wing of Avery “to provide us with a small flexible laboratory theatre, that would give us, through double duty, additional rehearsal space, plus increased dressing rooms and office space.” Despite approval by the Board of Trustees, the funds never materialized for this venture, and Houghton, as of 1990, remained slightly bitter that the proposed “wing” was never built.
Houghton himself resided in a small stone house on the Astor estate in Rhinebeck, just a short drive from Vassar. His acquaintance, Mrs. Brooke Astor, upon hearing her friend would be teaching in Poughkeepsie, at once offered him the unoccupied gatekeeper's house. Mrs. Astor occasionally fled to her Rhinebeck estate, called Ferncliff, living in what everyone called the “sports palast,” which Stanford White had designed at the turn of the century. On one occasion he attended a luncheon where then-ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson was urgently whisked away by a government helicopter landing on the front lawn. When, two years later, Brooke Astor sold Ferncliff, Houghton lived in more conventional faculty housing nearer to campus, residing on Vassar Lake Drive.
At Vassar, Houghton began to feel stifled by the slowness of academic politics, and the resistance he received from the Faculty Curriculum Committee, who feared that he sought to “professionalize” the Drama Department (Houghton maintained he had no such plans). “I began to feel that recurring need to look for an exit,” he wrote later. “It was as if I lacked air.” Suddenly an opportunity presented itself in the chance to open a new branch of the State University of New York system in Purchase. A colleague of Houghton’s, Abbott Kaplan, had been charged with establishing a college of arts in Purchase, and asked Houghton if he would head the theatre arts division of the new school as a Dean. According to his former colleague, Evert Sprinchorn, professor emeritus of drama, Houghton told President Simpson of the SUNY offer in hope he would insist on doing whatever were necessary for him to stay at Vassar. However, Simpson simply wished Houghton well in his new venture. Professor Sprinchorn suggests that Houghton didn't mean to leave Vassar: academia suited him his course load was relatively light; he enjoyed the freedom at Vassar; and Poughkeepsie was a short train-ride away from New York City, his creative hub.
After spring semester 1967, however, Professor Houghton left Vassar, and for the rest of his academic career Dean Houghton remained at SUNY Purchase, hoping to foster “young Renaissance men and women.” Students of art “were to achieve performance-level mastery in their chosen field and to acquire a general education.” The SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Theatre Arts continues to hone Houghton’s vision, yearly producing accomplished, well-rounded actors and actresses; its notable alumni include Melissa Leo, Edie Falco, and Stanley Tucci.
It seems that at Purchase Houghton was able to achieve the elusive theatrical “experiment” he struggled with while at Vassar:
I seemed unable to restore to Vassar’s Experimental Theatre the excitement of the twenties and early thirties, when its inspired founding director, Hallie Flanagan, was at the helm. Since that time it had never truly justified the word “experimental.” Were the times that different? Were the 1920s and ‘30s more open to artistic experiment than the early ‘60s? .... Perhaps a new definition of “experimental” was needed for a new generation, but if so I never discovered it.
Norris Houghton died peacefully in 2001 at the age of 92. Of his lengthy career “in service to the theatre,” he wrote, “Should ‘service to the theatre’ smack of duty, I must quickly add that it was performed out of love. And so, while it has not brought me great riches or fame, it has, like a requited love, given me some very special satisfactions...and I never grew bored.”
Houghton, Norris. Entrances & Exits: A Life In and Out of the Theatre. New York:
Limelight Editions, 1991.
Return Engagement: Postscript to the Moscow Rehearsals. New
York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1962.
Moscow Rehearsals: An Account of the Methods of Production in the
Soviet Theatre. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Co., 1936.
Vassar College Special Collections. Norris Houghton Biographical File. Folder 1.