Todd London: In Search of the Artistic Home

January 17, 2012

This content is sourced from HowlRound.com.

Jamie Gahlon has asked theater artists from around the country to talk about their personal search for an artistic home. Todd London kicks off this new series.

What makes an Artistic Home?
It’s a great question, and one that we, as a field, have yet to answer precisely. The answer will differ, too, for each artist, which is something I want always to keep in mind. Just as there’s no one way to create work for the theater, there’s no one replicable model home. That would be suburbia, not art.

Home is a metaphor, of course, and it’s a feeling. For me a home’s the place where, as Robert Frost put it, “When you have to go there, they have to take you in.” It’s a place you can rest, a place you can think, a place where, however much conflict you experience, you also share a common language. It’s a place where family feeling resides. It’s a place you can put your own stuff on the walls or at least have a say in where the furniture goes. You’re not a visitor in a home, so you can host your friends and colleagues, and when you go to the door to let them in, they feel your sense of belonging. And maybe it’s a place where you can bounce off walls, fight, fume, lose yourself, lie sleepless and then sit down to a meal, look around the table and know that you’re still all right, that you can let loose and still be loved.

Ok, so if that’s some kind of partial, vaguely romantic description of a home, at least some of those things should apply to an artistic home. A place to rest, think, find common language and family feeling. You can help shape environment in your artistic home, or at least decorate the space. You’re a host there, not a guest. You can invite friends, colleagues, maybe your own audience. People sense your belonging. And you can sometimes lose your shit there, and know there’ll still be food on the table and some loving looks when you sit down to it. And they have to take you in. That’s baseline; you don’t question your welcome. You don’t have to earn it again and again. They take you in, or you’re already in. Probably you’ve got a key. Your are, say it again, a host not a guest. No pleading through the crack in the door, no applications through the slot.

Also, a home—artistic or otherwise—is, for most of us, shared space. Homes are a seat of self-determination, but they are also spaces of common living. That’s key, because so many of our longer-lived theaters were started for companies, or at least groups, of artists. Now, too many of them are really only homes for a single person—the artistic director.

Where there are no acting ensembles, playwright companies, corps of directors, salaried resident artists, etc., there’s really only one artist at home, and he (usually he) is the boss. Everyone else is an employee, essentially a temp. Everyone else exists to serve a single artistic or organizational vision. There is no artistic self-determination, separate from this lead artist. No surety of belonging. We’ve tried to gloss over this fact by learning to call everybody else on staff an artist, even when most of us (myself included) are actually administrators. We may have lots of art in us, but these theaters aren’t homes for our art. We may be artists in our souls, but we’re not in our practice. That’s a digression and a diatribe.

But to repeat: a home is meant to be shared. And—here’s maybe a litmus test—if the artists aren’t to some large extent determining their own artistic projects and practices—it isn’t their home.

Where and how did you find yours and what does it mean to you?
I have to admit, I don’t think I’ve found one. I know that’s probably strange to say, because I’ve been the artistic director of New Dramatists for 15 years. But that’s not my home, exactly, because I don’t make work there. I don’t select the writers or collaborators, and I don’t curate, don’t choose what gets worked on. I help make the home, but it’s not for me.

We all—the whole staff at New Dramatists—first and foremost try to make the space welcoming, hospitable. We do whatever we can to make it homey—haimish, to use the Yiddish—to trick the 50 resident playwrights into letting go of their usual guest status, in order to feel their ownership of the place. But no, it’s my workplace, my community, and my favorite spot in the American theater. It’s the place I’ve found that brings the greatest number of my disparate skills and passions together. Nevertheless, I’m an administrator there and, while the environment and community feeling and program structure are a big part of my life’s work (you could say, though I wouldn’t, my art), the artists in the house are playwrights. They are the ones who do the making, the creating. I’m a writer, but I find it nearly impossible to write in the building, though many playwrights tell me it’s a powerful space to write in.

So, I’ve answered the question in the negative. Here’s another try: as a writer—of novels and essays, mostly—I haven’t found a home, other than, for a time, a writing group, and for a longer and more perfect time, my actual home with my actual family. I’m safe here, and (late at night) I can be quiet here (I’m home as I write this). I can listen deeply and feel lots of different things and write, or try to write, whatever I want. And the love that surrounds me—from my wife and my sons—and the generative energy—from my books, the pictures on the walls, the bowl of apples and the leftovers in the fridge—these make my artistic home, the place I can imagine and create.

How can one create and/or build an artistic home for others?

In random, associative order, and with full awareness of how pretentious every word that follows will sound:

1. Ask them what they need and want in the house.
2. Don’t make the rules for them; make the rules with them.
3. Sustain the relationships over time.
4. Figure out ways to allow for quiet and then for community.
5. Have snacks available, and don’t charge for them. In fact, keep food around everywhere. You’ll know it’s becoming homey when the artists start bring food in on their own, feeding each other, potluck style.
6. Let artists lead their own art, which means making mistakes and also making magical things that they have every right to celebrate and own.
7. Don’t take credit for the work of other people in your house.
8. Identify and strive to defeat your own narcissism as an administrator/facilitator (I’m revealing myself here).
9. Put hospitality first.
10. Put making community among artists first, too.
11. And then put artistic freedom before both of them.
12. Stop telling other people what to do and how to do it.
13. Fill the house with intellectual and creative resources.
14. Keep beautiful things around.
15. Imagine that every moment in the space is an opportunity to learn more about the world and get filled up with something that makes each artist in her own medium overflow with the desire to dramatize for the world what she thinks/feels/sees.

There are lots of others, but I have to add this one, and I’m really serious about it, even though it sounds like I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for Godspell too long:

16. To make an artistic home for others, you have to make a place of love for the art in others.

That’s it. You have to love the art in others more than you love yourself in the art (to twist Stanislavsky), and you have to remind yourself day after day that the reason you’re doing this (I’m talking to myself, which is a kind of preaching to the converted) is because you want to live in that love. You want to live in the feeling of world becoming art and art speaking back to world.

How do we make a loving world for art to happen in? It’s part of the same big question: how do we make a loving world? I promised pretension, and there you have it. I won’t, though, take it back.

What is the artistic home of the future?
I wish I knew. I’d start right to work.

The ones I’m currently envisioning aren’t reliant on buildings or corporate, institutional structures. They are reliant on loose and intimate networks of artists, sharing work with each other, teaching each other, and making work together.

Why do we get into the theater? I figure there are two abiding reasons: to express ourselves in a world of immediate bounce-back (as opposed to the profound solitary silence of, say, writing novels), and to be with other creative, expressive people. So in a way—sorry Sartre—home is other people.

I’d like to create a national artistic home that has no fixed address, no money-sucking physical plant, no top-heavy/top-down business model. One that can live everywhere and that can inspire people who live inside those kinds of models to want to breathe different air and be with each other in a different way. Artistic homes are made of people, and those people have to have relationships based on mutual trust and respect, awe, shared aspiration, reciprocal inspiration, and a love of the art in each other. That’s the future I hope to see.

I’m calling my future artistic home “The Third Bohemia,” after the most shockingly beautiful description of artistic community I’ve ever read. It’s by Maurice Browne, who founded the first real arty Art Theater in the U.S., the Chicago Little Theatre in 1912. Browne tells us there are three Bohemia’s: the real place, communities like those in Bloomsbury or Greenwich Village in the nineteen-teens, where people sleep with each other’s partners, and this third one:

The inhabitants of the third [Bohemia] seldom know where they live; they are too busy making beautiful things, which they give to one another for they have no money. They have, however, wealth and health, for the deeps which surround their shores are rich with treasure of many colours and the tides are strong and their tang savoury. They are fisher-folk, those inhabitants, fishers of men and of their own hearts, and dredge jewels from uncharted seas.

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