Friday Phone Call # 61

Todd London

Today I get a chance to talk with one of my heroes, Todd London. Todd is in the middle of a transition from his position as Artistic Director of New Dramatists to a new role at the University of Washington in Seattle. I was glad to catch up with him to hear what the new job is, how he came to it, and what's in store there. But I also asked him to talk about the transition at New Dramatists and was surprised and impressed at how mindful and well planned the handoff has been. It is a revelation to hear him talk about that process in detail.

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Todd London
Todd London.
Photo by University of Washington. 

Transcript

David Dower: Hello, Todd.

Todd London: Hi, David.

David: This is Todd London, who has now announced publicly that you're—what's your new job title?

Todd: My new job title is Executive Director of the School of Drama at University of Washington, Professor of Drama and I—there's some language about the Floyd Jones' Endowed Chair. So, I'll learn it.

David: But it's a lot to carry.

Todd: It is, it is.

David: Is it a position that exists already, Todd, or is it ...

Todd: Yes. It is a position that exists already. It's been held, except for the endowment, which is brand new. It's been held by a woman named Sarah Nash Gates for twenty years, and she's been the executive director and is now a retiring professor. And I think in acknowledgement of how wonderful she is and has been one of the great patrons of the School of Drama at the University of Washington, Floyd Jones has created this endowment for the chair, for the executive director in Sarah's honor, to a certain extent. That's a great thing to walk into.

David: So, I'm really eager to get into the nuts and bolts of what that's gonna be, but I wanna talk a little bit about transition period first. You did a really beautiful thing when you sent around the news that you were taking this position. You also celebrated Emily, and can you talk about what that is and also how you guys pulled that off? That's beautiful.

Todd: Well, I'm happy to talk about that. So, you're talking about Emily Morse, who came to New Dramatists—where I came to New Dramatists in '96. In 2001, Emily was a resident director here, along with Michael Garces, who is now the artistic director of Cornerstone. John Steber, who is now our Lab Director, and Susan Fenichell, who was originally I met in Seattle many years ago. She's this wonderful director. And we wanted to keep them all, but in fact we found a way to keep Emily shortly after that. And she became, ultimately what she became, or her title is Director of Artistic Development at New Dramatists. So she's been in that role for thirteen years. About seven years ago, about six years ago, we created a Succession Plan both for the Executive Director here at New Dramatists, Joel Ruark, and for me, artistic director. The successor to Joel has subsequently moved on, but Emily remained, and we've been working really closely together that whole time. So, we did this ...

David: You guys have been working out of a plan the whole time.

Todd: We've been working out of a plan for six years, I'd say. And it wasn't an indefinite plan. So, it was, we joked, it was if Todd or Joel gets hit by a bus plan. Because I had no plans to move on, though we knew that it was possible at any point for something to happen. And that, you know, New Dramatists, because of the seven year residency program for playwrights and because it's a sixty-five year old community, it really is a community, and relationship is at the heart of it.

So you don't just bring someone new in at any point. And also over the last, I think it's related to the fact that over the last ten or twelve years, we have done a lot to build longevity in our staff. So it used to be like many small rag-tag organizations. Certainly in New York, a place that was run by young people who would move on after two or three years. And, occasionally, an executive leader would be here for six, eight, and finally, I think the longest was twelve years. And so, what we did was we tried to create, bring everybody up, create maternity and paternity leaves, create higher salary levels. All kinds of things that were designed to keep people, to build on the longevity of institutional memory, and also to build on the depth of the relationship with the writers who are here for seven years.

So the community turns over every seven years, but it was very strange to have a staff that turned over at that time. So that was one of the things, and also we just knew that Emily was extraordinary, and that, as I was getting more focused on organizational matters, on field issues, Emily was working more and more closely with the playwrights, and very intimately with them on their specific plays, their professional lives, and even the way that their professional and personal lives inter-penetrate and work together. And she became so clearly the best friend of every playwright here, and the helper and guide and partner of every playwright. So it just made perfect sense.

So we created the plan, and then, you know, I don't have the sense—I'm maybe lying to myself—that she was waiting for me to leave, but we brought it up from time to time. We talked about it, and I was very aware, and I think she was that I was trying to both make room for her and also do whatever I could do to prepare someone who is so different from myself to do whatever she would need to do when and if the eventuality came that I would leave.

So, then this job opportunity came up, and it happened, not quickly, but over a period of a few months and she and I were talking before anyone else, really, in the organization knew that it was a possibility. Then the word started to spread. The succession plan had been created in conversation with our fifty resident playwrights at that time, with our board, with the rest of the staff. So the staff knew it was going to happen, the board had ratified it. The writers had completely bought into it because they love her and know that she's the right person.

That's the long answer.

David: No, but see, this is one of the hardest things to do in this business. These kinds of transitions are—and I don't know, we become addicted to or habituated to the kind of, somebody's leaving, search process happens, somebody ... we hire somebody to take us in a new direction or we hire somebody to keep us moving in the way we're going, if we're happy in the way we're going. But it's all external to most of the stakeholders, always to the artists, but it's also a mystery how it happens. It doesn't involve collaboration through the process of it.

Todd: This was actually ... This was completely open and collective over ... And because the writers change, I found, at least, that I was reminding or letting the new writers know every year that, "This is Emily. She's our director of artistic development. And she is the person who will lead New Dramatists when I move on." Not that she wasn't leading it from her position, but ... It's been a really interesting thing, in some ways.

David: Let me say, when I heard you say that several different times. I heard you introduce her ... A couple different times you introduced her either to me or to people in front of me, around me. You said that and each time I thought, "Oh, isn't that cute that he says that." I never actually had the sense that it was fact, based on a plan, that had been developed with the entire community. Did you guys make that up? The process or was that something that you found somewhere or someone knew how to do?

Todd: Oh, no. I don't know ... In fact, the person who left... It actually started, interestingly ass-backwards, which was, the person who was our director of advancement had previously worked with us. And when we brought her back to work with us again, part of her negotiation was that she wanted it to be really clear that she was being groomed for the executive position, should it ever open. And the way that we work here, we try to keep a total balance between artistic and administrative. Well, we're all administrators, but to the side of development and finance and administration, so we have the same... The staff sizes are equivalent, the salaries are equivalent. We would not hire a development person at a higher salary than the artistic equivalent.

At that point, we were like, "OK, well that doesn't make any sense unless we create the same plan for Emily, and we elevate her salary to what the head of development is asking." It just made so much sense. In some ways, it was even more organic because Emily and I had been working so closely together.

I turned out that it was the one that lasted. We made it up a little bit. I am thankful every day of my life in ways that I never would have expected that I learned a little a lot at the feet of Peter Zeisler, who is one of the founders of the Guthrie and ran TCG for twenty years. Because, Peter, even though he was the kind of "grr" manager of the American Non-Profit Theatre, he really stressed the sense of equivalent, structural equivalents leading with the art, not with the management. Succession and long-term thinking and planning about the health of the organization. So it was in me, and, to our board, they didn't understand at first what we were talking about. And then they got it utterly. It's been actually harder for us to create a board succession plan than a staff one.

David: Yeah. Huh. Is the board more in the traditional mold of a board of a non-profit arts organization? Because you guys, at New Dramatists, you're so not the normal model that you're able to ...

Todd: The board is not. The board is very, it's a very familial board even though they raise a lot of money, and they really govern now. But it's sixty-five year old organization, and there are people on the board, who had been on it for sixty years. Then there are new people all the time. We tend to ... There are lots of ways that we don't do what boards do, like term limits and rotations. And we've been less effective at leadership training because once we find someone like our current chairman, for example, or our president who are great leaders though very different from one another. We need to hold on to them.

David: We have to name them. Name check them.

Todd: Oh, Seth Gelblum is our chairman, and Isobel Robins Konecky is our long-term president and the mother of us all here. It's like now that I've found you, I won't let you go, which is great in some ways and in other ways, institutionally, it doesn't always make as much sense because you really need to plan for the future.

David: Well, I just love this story. It's not the story we hear. I guess I didn't really have any sense of it, as well as I know you both and the organization and I've been listening and following along and all the writers and every other thing, I literally had never heard that it was an actual plan. And that you were living it. I think that's so great. And also, so you ... Let's put the lie to so many assumptions about transition because you guys were working together that entire time with this plan in place, and were comfortably working together and things took their natural course, and it worked.

Todd: And we would sit down from time to time and be like, "Here's what I think you need to know." And she would be like, "Yeah, but you're not going anywhere..." There was not a sense of ... I mean there was a sense of ongoing-ness, but she's been doing her own job, which is many jobs, and I've been doing my own. And we've been really aware of how different we are. It was an interesting day for you to mention this because we met with our writers. Our writers have and executive committee, which is all volunteer—whoever wants to be on it, can be on it. Right now, about half of our playwrights are on it, and that means, if we're lucky, we get ten or twelve people at a meeting every six weeks or so. And we had a big meeting today. We have about elven or twelve of the writers there, and one of the things- we were doing two things—one was planning this semi-annual all writers meeting that we have here where we get maybe thirty-five  of the fifty writers in the room for four hours together, and they're really powerful and really beautiful, and mostly they're about sharing art and talking about art and also doing some of the business of the organization.

At one point, as we were planning the meeting, I said, "I'd love to have ..." So the seventh year writers, the outgoing ones, J.T. Rogers is one, and I think I can say this without breaking confidence. He was like, "You know, it would be... It was really great for me when I was coming in to hear from the writers who were going out and how they used the place, what they learned, what they saw."

So we created a moment in the meeting, the all-writers meeting, where the seventh years would talk about their time here to the whole group. I raised my hand and I said, "I'd really like ... This is going to be my last all writers meeting. I'd really like fifteen minutes to talk about what I've seen and this place, and how I've seen it evolve." Then someone got the idea of doing a closing ritual that was an internal passing of the torch from me to Emily at the end of this meeting, even though it's six weeks before I actually leave.

There's this way in which these things, they filter through the dramatic sensibilities of the writers, and they want to create ceremony or ritual around it. It's just so moving to me.

David: Yeah, all right. So where are you going? You're going to Seattle. You're going to University of Washington. You're going to a job that already exists. What's the focus of that?

Todd: The focus of the job or of my decision to go?

David: Let's look at the job first.

Todd: Well, the School of Drama at the University of Washington, which has a great history, and I've been tracking colleagues and friends that have come out of that for maybe twenty five years. It has really struggled through a recession that hit the school very hard in 2008. And the previous, the early 2000s. It has some great faculty that seems to work together very well, in part, I believe, because they've really pulled together through some of the hard times.

Where the University and the arts were getting fifty percent cuts across the board. It was major difficulties. And they're really, as I think Seattle theatre community does too, has a sense of itself as being coming back. And not coming back that they ever lost vitality, but they were struggling with so much real struggle—real financial and other problems. So it feels like a very hopeful moment.

The school is undergraduate BA program, which is really about theatre as part of the humanities. It's a graduate, an MFA program, in design, acting and directing. And then there's a PHD program, which is a wonderful program that is really about theatre history and scholarship in and really also about fostering generalists and teachers. Actually, all the graduate students, with the exception of the designers who work in the shops, they all teach during their time here. So it's also about building teachers within the profession. Or developing teachers.

So my work will be over-seeing the work of the department. I'll be doing some teaching. And I think some of the things that they've really identified as wanting to do, is to connect more deeply with the Seattle theatre community, which is full of UW grads and also the national theatre community. That's the basics of it.

I have my own focus.

David: So, what drew you, in your own path, how does this fall into your own inquiry at this point?

Todd: It falls pretty keenly into it. I have felt that I really wanted to understand something deep about theatre that is partly understood through the work with playwrights, which is really about the impulses from making theatre, about the roots of theatre, about what theatre really is. So there has been part of me, there was a gasp and a "get out of here now" that came up in the writer's executive committee meeting at New Dramatists when I said this. But there's part of me that really wants to expand beyond playwrights and playwriting.

David: Yeah, I have that same problem.

Todd: It was this, "Get out of here!"And I've always loved acting. I was a child actor. I've always thought about the world, a little bit, through the metaphor of acting. I'm really interested in the theatre as an important part of the humanities. And I've become, by accident, even though I was trained in literary studies as a doctoral student, I've really become a bit of an amateur historian, an accidental critic, and writer about the theatre over the years. I'm interested in all aspects of the actual practical making of the theatre and also the scholarship and also the way that it infuses a life with a way of thinking about relationship and collaboration and people and space together and community and all those things.

More specifically, I've been working in this incredible theatre laboratory for eighteen years, which is New Dramatists, which is all about how do you transform an idea, an inspiration, an impression, a desire into actual theatre and what is the process that you enter to make that happen?

I wanted to really expand my sense of laboratory. Furthermore, I feel, because I've been occupied with the field and the profession, I'm really interested in a couple things. One is that, we don't, in our field, really have ongoing laboratories. We don't have things like, the Moscow Art theatre studios that were ... Where Stanislavski and Meierhold and Myagkovski did research, that sat side by ... There was teaching involved, but it wasn't all about delivery of services to students, and it sat within a theatre, but it wasn't all about what was going on the stage. We don't have an MIT media lab in the theatre. We have places like New Dramatists, we have places like Sundance and The Lark, and they tend to be shorter term. New Dramatists is an exception in this. But they tend to be laboratories for projects and not for a set of inquiries that may lead anywhere.

I'm also really interested, at this moment, in the fact that I don't believe the theatre is all about the individual voice or all about group creation, but it's actually about the meeting of individual artistry and group genius. And it seems like in the theatre as it is, we always have to pick. We always have to say, "Devised work is where it's at. Playwriting is where it's at." I actually believe that, like the great theatre companies of history, it's always a marriage of individual genius and group genius.

So I'm interested in finding ... I was interested in finding a place where my laboratory could sit side by side with that of faculty, of students who are learning, and of resident and guest artists. So, the dream in my head is to help take what is there at this amazing university and to help build a laboratory that is for the field, for the students, for the city of Seattle. That we can join each other side by side and cross-pollinating research. Real research for the theatre, not just, "My research is when I direct my plays." I'm really interested in that.

Finally, I think we're at a moment where nobody really knows how to train artists for the theatre because we don't know what the theatre is going to be even in five years, let alone fifty years. And everything that it was fifty years ago, it no longer is. We don't know whether we're training for repertory companies, we don't know whether we're training for film and television, the internet, we don't know whether we're training for ensembles or for things that we haven't even thought of. The only way to get at true artist training now is across disciplines, so I love the fact U-Dub is ... I'm going to be ... To me, one of the great gifts, the divisional dean Betsy Cooper meets every month with the head of the art gallery, the head of the world series presenting program, the head of the music school, the art school, the dance program, and the school of drama—I'm probably leaving someone out—all together.

It's all about finding inter-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary learning and connection. That's it. That's why I'm ... That's how it fits with what I'm thinking about.

David: It's a big big adventure.

Todd: It is a big adventure.

David: You know, I'm reminded that we talked so much about Zelda Fichandler, but I'm reminded about her story about how she decided to move to NYU from Arena when she decided it was fully time to leave Arena and commit fully to NYU. She described it to me as a process of waking up on a morning and discovering the questions she was currently asking weren't best answered in the context in which she was working. So she went to find the context for her questions. It feels like that's what you've done. You found a way.

Todd: I do feel that. I really do. It goes back, maybe this is too personal, between us on this call, but I doubt it. I remember when I did an interview with Jamie Gahlon of HowlRound for the blog in search of the artistic home. I wrote something about, or I said something about how New Dramatists isn't really my artistic home. It's the home to the writers, and where I live is in my writing, and there's no home for that, except for my desk at home.

You had said something or written to me that you were moved by that admission. I think that, ultimately, that is part of what's going on for me personally, which is, eighteen years of—for maybe seven or ten years of that—creating a space or unpacking an energy at New Dramatists that could be communally ignited by the writers in each others' work. That was my laboratory. That was something I really wanted to know that I could put my money where my mouth was and create a home for artists in the American theatre. And then I was doing other projects that were really laboratory project for me in addition to my work here.

I came to a point then, really in an instant, last summer, after a year in which I'd finished two books, my son went to college, my mother died, and I was suddenly ready for something new. And I knew the laboratory had to be mine as well as other people. I didn't want it to be just mine, and that's why I didn't just want to be a professor or a writer, and I didn't want to leave myself out of the laboratory. So, I couldn't just stay at New Dramatists.

David: You just said that phrase I think I resonate with it, and I think Deb Cullen in an earlier phone call, she was talking about leaving, it's amazing how it happens in an instant. And it's not like then you storm out. It's like, "Oh, I'm suddenly free, and now what?" 

Todd: Right. It didn't happen ... The recognition happens in an instant, but how to make your life over takes a long time. And how to leave ... This is a painful ... I am ready to leave, but the leave-taking is painful. This place has been a home to me, it's been, with the exception of my blood family, the longest relationship I've had in my life. It's been with New Dramatists, and it is the place I found myself, and it is the place I met my wife, and it is the place I've raised one son, and I've raised another for seven years. Coming here, and hanging out in the front office. My life has been here. My friends are here, and this is ... My closest colleagues, this has been the place, and to ... I forget somebody, I think it was Emily, used the phrase to consciously uncouple. It's a real struggle.

David: Yeah. There continues to be on both the up and the down side. That uncoupling with Z Space also found ... I found ways to reconnect and remain connected with Z Space in new ways. It's a challenge to—but you guys did such a great job with the transition—the challenge that we had with ... Where do I ... Where am I helpful and where am I harmful in remaining connecting, and trying to find that knowing—all of us knowing—this wasn't about me leaving it for me or for them. It wasn't really ever going to be true that I was gone gone. But it needed to be true that I was gone.

Todd: Absolutely.

David: And finding the way to be ... And I'm of the community of people who love, support, and make work in presence of my colleagues at Z Space, and I never had that. I was always, I always had the double challenge of running it and trying to make work.

Todd: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

David: Anyway, it's going to be a process. This is going to be a process, Todd, for you, and I'm very excited for you, and I can't wait to hear how it's going, and I'm here, you know where I am. The other thing that I've started doing and I should have started it earlier in the call ... Your book is such an important piece of work to me, and I am so grateful that you put the effort into that particular work.

Todd: Are you talking about An Ideal Theatre?

David: I'm talking about An Ideal Theatre. So this collection of the amazing minds and impulses that have made up the world that I have been able to work in and is also the thing ... just to be able to touch ... I would say it feels to me like source inspiration of some of these things, even though they may not have thought that they were a source of a thing. But, it's, oh God, it's just so great to have, and it's so humbling to be in a longer trajectory of these thinkers and these ideas. Most of that, I mean, some of it I knew, I certainly knew it anecdotally, but I didn't know it as source material. And I'm so grateful that you unearthed it, and that you put it together. Just thank you for that. That was—

Todd: Thank you. It's been a shock how important it feels to me has actually been a shock. I spent ten years doing it, and I worked with the amazing graduate students at Yale in classes for about eight of those years, seven or eight of those years. I got help from colleagues, and I turned over this stone and that stone. And all the while, I kind of knew that I did have a purpose and it was important to me, but something about it being together and then being in the world and then ... We've been doing series of community readings from the book around the country.

We've done maybe four, I think, and we're going to do a series of short readings from it around the plenary sessions at the TCG Conference in San Diego in June. Something about having people read their predecessors or their inspirations that loud, and making that public ... In public, recognizing that they are part of this family tree and this legacy and having Rosalba Rolon from Pregones in the Bronx read Judith Molena with Judith in the audience. Or having somebody hear W.E.B. DuBois and Douglas Turner Ward writing fifty years apart or forty years apart the same thing about the need for black audiences and black writers.

There's something powerful that I never could have known. And then, for me, to get calls from people like Zelda Fichandler saying, "This has really preserved our work in a way that I was afraid that it would be lost." It turned out... Something that I thought was generally a service to the field and something I was interested in. A source of, sometime, inspiration and a lot of hard work suddenly turned out to be a thing that I felt that was possibly the greatest contribution I've made in my life. Suddenly, I understand the value of history and historians in a way that I never did. Completely inadvertent. Completely inadvertent. Just one foot in front of another.

David: Have you done that—where have you done that reading series?

Todd: We did one here at CUNY Graduate Center, the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center. We did one at Steppenwolf in Chicago. We did the first one in New Haven where I'd done so much work on the book with my students. And we did one here at New Dramatists. We're planning some others. I was hoping to do one in Texas when I was down there for a long stint, but it didn't work out. Then we're going to do this one in San Diego at the TCG Conference, which will actually be four little readings.

David: We have to have another phone call for you stint in Texas. Inside there is a huge story. But, OK, so I want to ask if we could do a Boston one, and ...

Todd: Absolutely.

David: ... HowlRound so that everybody can feel that.

Todd: That'd be great. That'd be great. We absolutely should.

David: All right, I've kept you longer than I said I was going to.

Todd: It's quite all right. I love talking to you. Yeah.

David:Yeah, likewise. So good luck, I will talk to you before you leave the east coast and you're not leaving the east coast forever. You'll be back and forth, and it's not that far away. Don't let people tell you it is. And I cannot wait ...

Todd:And there are other people on the west coast too.

David: There are some people out there. I could introduce you to one or two. Yeah.

Todd: That's great.

David: They're good people. And let's just say we can't not say a great loss, Jerry Manning. We will miss you, miss him.

Todd: It was really shocking. I know people are reeling out there. Jerry was at the Rep for a long time in a lot of ways. Talk about transitions, because he died just as Ben Moore, the long-term managing director is retiring and Jeffrey Herrmann is coming in. Fortunately he has a great associate artistic director, Braden Abraham, but I think people are really just in shock out there and reeling, so ...

David: Yeah. Well ...

Todd: In the midst of that, they've been unbelievably welcoming to me and to my wife, Karen.

David: Yeah. Hugs across the continent to all of them. Regards to the family and thank you for your time, and especially to Emily and everybody at New Dramatists, I'm there raising a glass to you as you have your ritual leavings.

Todd: Thank you. Let me know when I can tell them so they can listen to this and they can hear themselves toasted.

David: Okay. Very well. I will.

Todd: Okay.

David: All right.

Todd: Talk to you later. Bye.

David: Bye.

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