Alumni News

Houghton Talks Women in Theater, Grief, and Cats

Many playwrights consider the theater and its network of artists as a home and family. For Lily Houghton ’17, however, this notion is particularly literal.

“I grew up deeply enmeshed in the theater,” Houghton, who is the daughter of Signature Theatre founder James Houghton and actress and writer Joyce O’Connor, said.

However, when it came time to decide where to attend college, Houghton knew that a liberal arts school would better serve her educational needs than a conservatory.

James Houghton, Lily Houghton, Joyce O'Connor
Lily Houghton with her parents

“My parents encouraged me to study liberal arts,” Houghton said. “Which is funny because my dad was head of drama at The Juilliard School, a conservatory, at the time. But liberal arts is how you find yourself.”  

Houghton’s parents had both attended conservatories after completing undergrad at liberal arts colleges themselves. Additionally, other theater professionals with whom Houghton spoke echoed her mother and father’s encouragement towards a well-rounded education.

“As a writer, I feel that you can’t write unless you have certain life experiences, and if I were in college just for theater experiences, I feel like I’d be writing boring plays,” Houghton said. “My whole philosophy around writers is that they should be good people first. I knew liberal arts would help me grow as a person and an artist.”

Building upon her want for new experiences, Houghton decided on Bennington as a way to both enjoy an environment away from Manhattan and make a name for herself independent of her father’s reputation.

“My dad and I were really close,” Houghton said. “And I knew I was probably going to end up in a city, so I wanted something completely different.”

For Houghton, touring Bennington was love at first sight.

“It’s just so stunning,” she said. “It’s such a privilege to be on that campus, and that’s something I hope Bennington continues to extend: the opportunity for more people to have access to that campus and education.”

Women in Theater

Houghton recently received an emerging playwright commission from Seattle Repertory Theatre’s the Other Season, which will be developed beginning in fall 2018. In true Bennington fashion, Houghton notes that her Plan in clinical psychology, theater, and creative writing influenced her as much as her playwriting courses.

“I took at least one playwriting course each term,” Houghton said. “But the majority of my classes were with Dina Janis, who is still a mentor to me.”

Houghton’s journey at Bennington also included defining for herself what it meant to be a woman working in theater.

“I hadn’t come to terms with that before,” Houghton said. “I was raised by a great man in theater, but I had to discover what it meant to be a successful woman in the same field.”

Grieving in Community

As incredible as Houghton considers her education and experiences at Bennington, her time in college coincided with personal tragedy.

Houghton and her parents
Lily Houghton and her parents in Bennington

“I had an intense time, not because of Bennington but because of my circumstances,” Houghton said. “At the end of my first

year, my dad was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, and by the August before my senior year, my dad died.”

Bennington’s small campus network and her father’s prominence in the theater community made mourning a public experience. After the summer, Houghton decided to return to Bennington to direct her senior thesis production of Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land.

There are big decisions to be made when a tragedy strikes. Do you stay home? Do you go back to school? I promised my dad I’d go back, and I did. I’m so glad I did.

Lily Houghton '17

The process of staging Dry Land gave Houghton a crash course on how the arts, and theater in particular, can be both an outlet for grief and a place to heal: themes that carry into her current writing.

“Bennington is a place where the hardest things that have ever happened to me have happened,” Houghton said. “It’s also the place where I was saved a little bit, particularly by the friendships and community there.”

Showing Up to Listen

After her father’s death, Bennington’s administration reached out to Houghton asking how to best support her.

Lily Houghton and Cat
Lily Houghton and her cat, Rosie

“It sounds silly, but Bennington let me bring my cat,” Houghton said of her now 18-year-old rescued calico tabby mix. “So Rosie came up and did a year of college with me. She became part of my community. When anyone else was having a hard time, I’d leave my door open so people could come in and spend time with her.”

Around campus, friends also supported Houghton, driving her to and from the train station in Albany and accompanying her to her father’s memorial.

“I’m pretty articulate about some things, but I don’t know if I could say how much Bennington has given me,” Houghton said. “My mission in life now to show up and listen, and that’s what people did in my dorm room after my dad died.”

Houghton’s work honors her “strong and amazing” Bennington peers. Her play Dear, which she wrote while studying abroad her junior year, is loosely based on the motivations of lesser-known female serial killers, and it is also Houghton’s rallying cry for playwrights to include diverse, well-rounded female characters in their scripts.

“There aren’t many plays about college women that aren’t about girls who are really hot, or someone’s girlfriend, or a sassy teenager,” Houghton said. “So I wrote this play as a way to push back on seeing these same types of roles over and over again.”

During Houghton’s senior year, Dear was produced at the University of Michigan and had readings in London, New York, and beyond. In May 2017, shortly before graduation, Houghton signed with an agent and has been working as a playwright ever since.

“It’s been wild, and it’s all because of a play I wrote that came from all aspects of my Plan, in literature, theater, and psychology,” Houghton said. “I don’t think I’d have done that if someone was like, read a lot of plays, only study plays, and try to find your voice.”

Though Houghton grew up in the company of notable playwrights like Edward Albee and Arthur Miller, she finds that the people she meets in real life, and at Bennington in particular, inspire more of her work.

“I’m in a writer’s group called Youngblood, which is part of Ensemble Studio Theatre, which meets weekly and offers a community,” Houghton said. “When I applied, I wrote about wanting to show up, talk, and listen. That’s definitely a Bennington philosophy, and Bennington is where I’ve gotten my best plays, work, and lessons on how to be a good person.”


By Natalie Redmond, Associate Writer