London's Calling

July 3, 2013

Todd London in his office at New Dramatists (photo by Susan Johann)
Todd London in his office at New Dramatists (photo by Susan Johann)
This content is sourced from Theatre Communications Groups's American Theatre magazine.

In the summer of 2009, during the final day of Theatre Communications Group’s National Conference in Baltimore, Todd London—writer, scholar and artistic director of the venerable playwrights’ organization New Dramatists—was called up onto the stage of the Hippodrome Theatre to receive TCG’s first Visionary Leadership Award. Since then, the award has been given out annually to “an individual who has gone above and beyond the call of duty to advance the theatre field as a whole, nationally and/or internationally.”

London stood on the stage with his trademark shock of curly gray hair and glasses, wearing jeans and a striped shirt. He enumerated “the many gifts TCG has given me”—beginning more than two decades before with the assignment to travel the country with TCG’s longtime executive team Peter Zeisler and Lindy Zesch in preparation for his landmark 1988 study The Artistic Home. London proceeded to preach a sermon that was familiar to anyone who had encountered his voluminous writing over the years in the pages of this magazine—that is, a speech about the “very American friction between institutional energy and individual exploration”; the conflict between organizations and independent artists.

And as London delivered his speech, there was, under the veneer of calm professionalism and level-headedness in the room, a certain sense of surprise. As he said at the outset of the talk, when he was informed about the award, he couldn’t help but think, “Now I know how Sally Field felt.”

Fast-forward four years: London is sitting in his cluttered office in the converted 44th Street Lutheran church that houses New Dramatists, the “non-institution” that he has been stewarding for the past 17 years. He offers you a cup of tea, complete with a fork to stir it. (He can’t find a spoon. “I pull out all the stops, baby,” he laughs.) Surrounded by pictures of historical theatre luminaries (Chekhov and Olga Knipper, Oscar Wilde, Ibsen), London seems downright embarrassed as he talks about winning the inaugural award.

“It surprised me,” he allows. “I’ve always felt in some ways that I was the enemy. I mean, I certainly believe I’ve made a contribution here at New Dramatists, and in my writing. But when I think about being a visionary in the field….” He trails off and thinks for a moment. “I don’t know what that means.”

He sips his tea. “I mean, that’s the nature of writing. The times you usually hear something from anyone, they’re pissed off. So, to think that somewhere in the field there was enough of a broad consensus….” He trails off again.

“Made a contribution to what?” he says, seemingly to no one in particular. “I don’t truly know what it was. What would people say my contribution has been?”

Institutional not-for-profit theatre insiders would probab1ly scoff at London’s question—“the lady doth protest too much,” and all that. After all, this is the guy who posts plentiful and regular pieces of writing on Emerson University’s Theatre Commons website, HowlRound (including “A Lover’s Guide to American Playwrights,” a series of celebratory New Dramatist speeches he adapted for his regular column). In 2009 came the publication of the much-vaunted Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, which London co-wrote with Ben Pesner for Theatre Development Fund. This past spring, London’s collection of 30 years of articles, The Importance of Staying Earnest, was issued by NoPassport Press, and next up is An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art, a wide-ranging documentary history of American theatre that London edited and that TCG Books has slated for publication this summer. If there is anyone who has singlehandedly—one might even say doggedly—tracked the development of the resident theatre movement over the past three decades, it’s London.

And then there is his work at New Dramatists. The 64-year-old institution originally saw the light of day via an impassioned letter that self-described “struggling new dramatist” Michaela O’Harra sent to veteran Broadway playwright Howard Lindsay in 1949. In it, she lamented the problems of “working alone with no adequate or stimulating exchange of craft information possible.” Lindsay took the bait, raised $5,000, and offered New Dramatists its original home: a coatroom in the Hudson Theatre.  

Other than its relatively new digs, the institution has not changed all that much, and London seems content to keep it faithful to its scrappy roots, while working as the official cheerleader. “I’ve always believed that if the work coming out of New Dramatists was vital in and of itself, the vitality would be recognized by the world outside,” he enthuses. “If we really believe that, then it’s inevitable that the playwrights here are going to do stuff that will blow people’s minds.”

Still, for all of London’s success in the not-for-profit theatre world, there is also clearly a disconnect. For as much as he is an enthusiast when it comes to the individual artist (not just playwrights—though that is his bread and butter—but directors, actors and designers as well), he has also cast himself as the official gadfly of the institutional theatre—the critic from within, the carpenter ant of the resident theatre movement, cutting “galleries” into the institutional grain, providing passageways to various sections of the establishment nest.

“There are certain fundamental experience that we have as theatre people that we always go back to. It’s those things—the collective?and the individual expressive ideal—that I’m constantly looking for and trying to recreate.”

“I don’t really know anyone who does what I do. I’m not a normal artistic director; I’m certainly not a theatre artist; I’m not even a critic—I mean, I hate criticism.”

London was born in Chicago in 1957. His mom had show-biz inclinations (she was a nightclub singer) and his father had theatrical ambitions as well. Soon after he returned from World War II (where he was an army medic and involved with the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps), the elder London quickly made his way to the Pasadena Playhouse and enrolled in its School of Theatre Arts. 

“I don’t know if he really wanted to become an actor, or if it was just a lark,” ventures London junior. After completing his studies, London’s dad returned to Chicago and embarked on a less-than-successful career as a car salesman and advertising man.

For his part, young London got the theatre bug early on. “When I was eight, my parents enrolled me in a musical theatre camp run by two sisters, Sulie and Pearl Harand. They were my first role models,” he laughs. “They were mythic figures in Chicago—the camp was grafted onto a Jewish socialist experiment. Everyone shared the parts; everyone got a song. And it was the first camp to integrate—old Lefties ran the place. 

“It was one of two primal initiating experiences for me in the theatre,” he adds.

The other came a little more than a decade later, while London was pursuing an undergrad degree at Grinnell College in Iowa. One day, a professor named Sandy Moffett handed him an armload of theatre journals, including The Drama Review and Yale’s Theater

“I had this musical theatre background, and all of a sudden Sandy exposed me to the Open Theatre, the Living Theatre, Meredith Monk, Richard Foreman, André Gregory,” he says, enumerating the granddaddies and mommies of the American avant-garde. Inspired by his reading, that summer London attended a month-long workshop with Richard Schechner’s Performance Group. Under the tutelage of Schechner and his designers Jim Clayburgh and Jerry Rojo, London was immersed in experimental performance and an early ’70s version of theatrical communitarianism.

“I always felt that there was a connection between the Harand camp experience and the Performance Group workshop,” London says today, “the experience of creating work as a kid in a safe, familial setting, and then entering an adult theatre world of collectivity, experimentation and idealism.

“I think that there are certain fundamental experiences we have as theatre people that we always go back to,” he adds. “And it’s those things—the collective and the individual expressive ideal—that I’m constantly looking for and trying to recreate.”

One thing that London has not been trying to recreate is the experience—or more properly, the product—of The Artistic Home. The brainchild of TCG’s late director Zeisler, the book aimed to address a specific issue that had come out of a national symposium hosted by the organization three years earlier—that is, how to alleviate the “artistic deficit” in producing organizations. The argument at the time was that board members would be happy to raise funds for theatres, but only if they were clear on what the artistic leadership’s vision was all about. As one theatre’s trustee said at the time, “Funds can be raised if we know why they are needed.”

Zeisler and his associate Zesch decided that a yearlong investigative project needed to be undertaken. They would travel the country, not only picking the brains of artistic directors about the present state of regional theatre, but also offering them an opportunity to reevaluate the past—and, more important, dream about the future.

But Zeisler and Zesch needed a scribe.

The job more or less fell into London’s lap. After graduating with an MFA in directing from Boston University, he was having the first of many identity crises: “‘Will I be a writer, or will I be a director?’ I was going back and forth about that all the time.” By the end of his time at B.U., London was disillusioned not only about directing (“I was doing what we would now call ‘devised theatre,’ and the faculty were having none of it,” he remembers), but also with theatre in general. 

“I decided to escape. I went to get a Ph.D. in literary studies at American University in D.C., fully expecting to be an English professor,” he says. But divorcing himself from the theatre was more difficult than he expected. Soon he was working as guest director at then-brand-new Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and literary manager at Arthur Bartow’s New Playwrights Theatre. It was around this time that he also started finding a voice as a writer. 

“It was completely serendipitous,” London remembers. “I took a class while doing my doctorate called ‘The Art of Literary Journalism’ that was taught by Doris Grumbach. Our first assignment was to review a film—I remember it was the movie Diva—and after we handed in the assignment, Grumbach came into class and said, ‘I don’t agree with anything this student says, but it is exemplary.’ And she proceeded to read my review out to the class.”

Soon, London was writing book and theatre reviews for a D.C. weekly, the Washington Tribune, edited by a man who’d heard Grumbach read the Diva review in class. “I fell into it,” he claims. “I never wanted to be a critic—still don’t.” 

Meanwhile, he was drifting away from directing. 

“The bottom line is that I realized that I don’t like making anyone do anything,” he laughs. “Ultimately, directing is about coercion and manipulation. And mediation. I had spent a lot of time being a mediating presence in my family, and I didn’t want my professional life mirroring my personal life.” 

London directed his last show at Woolly Mammoth—John Patrick Shanley’s Savage in Limbo—in 1987, and the show (which featured the toupee-adorned artistic director Howard Shalwitz) was a hit, garnering four Helen Hayes Award nominations. All the same, London was not looking back.

“I knew it was the last show I would ever direct,” he says. Fittingly, the last song for the curtain call was Rickie Lee Jones’s “Company”:

So, I’ll see you in another life now baby
I’ll free you in my dreams
But when I reach across the galaxy
I will miss your company.

Eventually, London made his way to New York (“I followed my girlfriend, who was an actress, and she promptly dumped me three months after we arrived”). He eventually landed a job with ART/New York. And soon, he was introduced to Zeisler and Zesch, who snatched him up for the Artistic Home project.

“I think Peter wanted to directly address a statement that Frank Hodsoll [then chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts] made around that time regarding what he saw as a ‘national artistic deficit,’” London says. Indeed, a concurrent NEA white paper claimed “artistic deficits” may have been deliberately planned by artistic and managing directors in order to make ends meet. “There is concern that financial stability is being achieved at the expense of the art form,” the study said.

Zeisler, Zesch and London traveled the country for a year, assembling forums of artistic directors, finding out what they wanted and needed as artists. London compiled the material and The Artistic Home was published in 1988. “Peter and Lindy were teaching me so much. I wasn’t judging. I just concentrated on trying to articulate what I heard over the year. But still, part of this whole endeavor was rubbing against me in an abrasive way.”

When the TCG board reviewed a draft of the book, London was struck by a disparate response: The artistic and managing leaders praised the book and were enthusiastic about its strategic potential. Some senior artists in the room, on the other hand—notably JoAnne Akalaitis, John Guare and Maria Irene Fornés—were skeptical, questioning the theatres’ commitment to making real homes for artists. This was a painful moment for London as a young writer, as he listened to his report being challenged by artists he revered. For London the field observer, it was an “a-ha” moment that lasted 25 years.

“I suddenly realized that there was this deep rift between the heads of some LORT theatres and leading independent artists. And those artists were having none of it.” Soon afterwards, London became managing editor of American Theatre. He started to examine this division in print, effectively revising (or, as he puts it in his new collection of essays, “unwriting”) the book. In the process, London latched onto the themes that would be constants for the next quarter-century: the institution versus the individual artist; the bureaucratization of the artistic spirit; the role of art and criticism in American society. 

Many of these signal essays are collected in The Importance of Staying Earnest, and it’s remarkable how consistent London’s views have been. Whether it is the essay “Theatre on the Couch,” written in 1989, or “The Art of Theatre,” written in 2002, it’s impossible not to hear London’s consistent—one might even say nagging—voice, repeatedly asking: Why is it that theatre matters? And what can institutions do to assure that individual artists—who are, after all, the ones who make theatre—are supported, nourished and given opportunities to reach broader audiences?

For his own part, London has made an effort to practice what he preaches since assuming the position of artistic director of New Dramatists in 1996. (“I saw the job listing in ARTSEARCH,” he remembers, “and I said, ‘That’s my job!’”) London sees New Dramatists as a step toward what he calls his “search for idealism,” or, as he calls his ideal artistic home in a recent HowlRound article, “The Third Bohemia.” London borrows the term from Maurice Browne, founder of “the first real arty art theatre in the U.S., the Chicago Little Theatre in 1912.” According to Browne, there are three Bohemias: the actual place in the Czech Republic; the freaky, experimental communities like Bloomsbury or Greenwich Village in the early part of the 20th century; and a 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 colors and the tides are strong and their tang savory. They are fisher-folk, those inhabitants, fishers of men and of their own hearts, and dredge jewels from uncharted seas."

“I see New Dramatists as that kind of retreat,” London explains. “A place for artists to share work with one another and make something together. It’s what I wish all institutions could do: embrace collectivism and idealism. 

“Ultimately,” he adds, “it’s an attempt to participate in cultural democratic politics. It’s the act of working together in a self-examining process that allows for the voices of individuals to affect the collective. It’s a practice that is both theatrical and democratically vigorous.

“I just want playwrights to be amazing versions of themselves, and allow them to sing their songs,” he continues. “They live at great personal cost. They give up a lot to write themselves into being. 
“Basically, I never want to be alone, and I don’t want anyone else to be alone either.”

When you ask London about influences and role models, he shifts uncomfortably in his chair. “Ugh,” he moans. “There have been so many and so few, you know? I mean, I don’t really know anyone who does what I do. I fall between the cracks. I’m not a normal artistic director; I’m certainly not a theatre artist; I’m not even really a critic—I mean, I hate criticism.”

In a way, trying to understand his personal influences was part of the idea of editing An Ideal Theater. The new TCG collection has taken a decade to research and assemble, and in many ways it is London’s love letter to artistic innovators who managed to successfully straddle the individual/institutional divide. When he speaks of the theatres he has included in the book—Arena Stage, El Teatro Campesino, Theatre 47, Bread and Puppet, the Actor’s Workshop, the Group Theatre—London exudes the enthusiasm of a teenaged fan talking about his favorite rock groups. And when he lists the people included in the book as his own influences—Hallie Flannagan, Herbert Blau, Zelda Fichandler, Harold Clurman—he almost immediately undercuts himself: “It’s presumptuous for me to even utter their names. I mean, they’re the founders, the real visionaries. I wish I could be like them. But in comparison to these people,” he laughs, “I’m just a schmuck.”

No, London is not a founder, nor is he a critic or an artist (though, to be fair, his novel The World’s Room was published by Steerforth Press in 2001, and he’s at work on a second book of fiction). However, in the early 21st century, when theatre needs more than ever to identify its real raison d’être, a gadfly-cum-champion such as London might just be exactly what the art form needs: critiquing from within and pushing the community to do the best it can, while never losing sight of its collectivist roots.  

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