Todd London Dreams of An Ideal Theater

by Julie Haverkate

in Interviews,Playwrights,TCG Books

Post image for Todd London Dreams of <i>An Ideal Theater</i>

In September, TCG published An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art, a wide-ranging documentary history of the American theatre movement as told by the visionaries who goaded it into being. This anthology collects over forty essays, manifestos, letters and speeches that are each introduced and placed in historical context by noted writer and arts commentator, Todd London. For a full of contributors and theatres included, visit the TCG bookstore.

Todd was kind enough to take a few moments to discuss his new book.

Julie Haverkate: How did the idea for An Ideal Theater come about?

Todd London: The book was a search for inspiration at a confusing moment in my work as artistic director of New Dramatists. I was trying hard to sustain playwrights in their difficult work, but didn’t know how to sustain myself. I had been casually collecting books by leading artists of the past, about American theatres and the theatre generally. I would read Harold Clurman or Hallie Flanagan, Susan Glaspell or Herbert Blau, and my blood would start pumping. I was thrilled by their passionate conviction, by their idealism, by their devotion to something larger than themselves. By their ferocious truth-telling. I thought that, maybe, by collecting these founding visions–founding visions from the people who preceded us in the work of making theatres–I could get my mojo re-tuned. It worked.  Along the way I realized how much I had to learn about our history. I also realized that I had, in a sense, begun this book nearly forty years ago, when my most influential college theatre teacher, Sandy Moffett at Grinnell College, handed me The Drama ReviewYale/Theatre, Pierre Biner’s The Living Theatre and Robert Pasoli’s A Book on the Open Theatre, and blew my mind, introduced me to artist/founders who were pioneers of both the art and the spirit.

Julie Haverkate: How did you select the theatres and contributors that you included?

Todd: I had three guiding principles I tried to adhere to: First, I was looking for theatres and artist-founders who had significant influence on the American theatre over the past century. Often, this is self-evident (Joseph Papp, The New York Shakespeare Festival, for example). People like Julian Beck and Judith Malina (The Living Theatre), Zelda Fichandler (Arena Stage), Douglas Turner Ward (Negro Ensemble Company), Luis Valdez (El Teatro Campesino), Ellen Stewart (La Mama ETC), Joseph Papp (The New York Shakespeare Festival) have had outsized impact.  Second, the more I learned the history–the more I learned that the history of our 20th-century theatres is many-tentacled–the more I wanted to represent the fullness of that history. This is where, for example, Robert Gard and Frederich Koch of the regional/rural arts movement came in, as well as early “art theatre” pioneers like Maurice Browne (Chicago Little Theatre) and Nobel-prize-winner Jane Addams (Hull-House Dramatic Association). Finally, the work had to be written well; I decided early on that no matter how important a theatre (and there are major theatres I had to leave out for this reason–many many of them), the pieces had to be exciting as reading. They had to be written well enough to hold their own with great writers like Clurman, Robert Brustein and W.E.B. Du Bois. This was a very personal part of the selection. If there wasn’t a document that, read, set my blood on fire, I had to leave it out. There were some eleventh-hour finds that helped me with some obvious omissions (and, of course, many omissions that couldn’t be righted)–a student found a great set of notes by Nina Vance (Alley Theatre), and I went back to the drawing board on the Yiddish Art Theatre (Maurice Schwartz). And Kenneth Turan’s wonderful oral history of Joe Papp’s founding of the New York Shakespeare Festival was a great save, as Papp hadn’t written much down, except in letters to the New York Times and government officials.

Julie Haverkate: What does the title –An Ideal Theater–mean (to you)?

Todd: Late in the ten-year process of researching this book — with great help from my students at Yale School of Drama — I realized that this was not just a history of theatres, a history of pioneering inspiration. It was a study of idealism in action. The art theatre movement in America is continuous with what we now call the nonprofit or regional/resident theatre movement. An important, early chronicler of that movement, Sheldon Cheney, wrote that idealism is “the first ideal of the art theatre.” He nailed it. That’s where the title comes from. That’s what the book is ultimately about: idealism in a world of pragmatism and compromise, the big artistic YES in a world of NO.

Todd London_photo by Jenny BoyleTodd London is artistic director of New Dramatists in New York, the nation’s oldest laboratory for playwrights. A George Jean Nathan Award-winning essayist, he’s the author of numerous books, including Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play (with Ben Pesner); The Artistic Home (TCG); The World’s Room, a novel; and his collected essays, The Importance of Staying Earnest (NoPassport Press). In 2009 Todd became the first recipient of TCG’s Visionary Leadership Award for “an individual who has gone above and beyond the call of duty to advance the theatre field as a whole, nationally and/or internationally.”
(Photo of Todd London by Jenny Boyle.)

HaverkateJulie Haverkate is the marketing associate at Theatre Communications Group. Previously, she has worked at Meadow Brook Theatre (Rochester, MI), as well as in the literary offices of Electric Pear Productions and the Summer Play Festival in NYC. Julie has lectured and presented at conferences internationally, and her book, PARADE Diverges, was published by VDM. In addition to dramaturging every now and again, she also reviews for Show Business and Broadway World and writes the blog Critical Confabulations. She is a proud alumna of Florida State University (M.A. Theatre Studies). Twitter:@CriticalConfab.