London's Calling: From His Post at New Dramatists and in His Growing Body of Writing, Todd London Relishes the Role of Gadfly
Nunns, Stephen, American Theatre
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 probably 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 StayingEarnest, 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. …