Walnut Hill School for the Arts

Catching Up with Charlie Hodges '98

This month’s alumni spotlight is on Charlie Hodges ’98, a graduate of our Dance Department who is making the leap from being a European Critic’s Choice Award winner for Best Male Dancer of the Year to a designer of sustainable toys. Charlie sat down for a Zoom chat with Senior Development Officer Garrett Murphy ’08, during which he filled us in on his latest project, a toy house called Archamelia: The House of a Thousand Stories. We hope you enjoy hearing Charlie speak about his new project, as well as his journey from Walnut Hill to the world of professional dance and beyond. If you’re interested in hearing more, you can register here for a virtual event on October 21 through Art Center College of Design, featuring Charlie in conversation with Robbie Nock, director of Art Center’s entrepreneurship program.

Watch Charlie and Garrett's chat here, and read on below for the full transcript!


Garrett Murphy: Hi, Charlie. How are you?

Charlie Hodges: I’m doing well, thank you, Garrett. And yourself?

GM: Doing fine, thanks. Thank you for taking the time to connect. This is our first sort of video spotlight for the alumni newsletter, and I hope it’s the first of many. And thank you for the idea, because I really think we’ve seen that people gravitate more to video than the written word lately, and you brought to my attention a very interesting project that you’ve been working on, and I wondered if you wanted to share that with our fellow alumni.

CH: Yeah. I mean, the long and the short is that I’ve invented a toy house that is designed for any kid to play with, at any time, anywhere, sustainably.

GM: And where did this idea come from?

CH: You know, I was in school for design working with a sponsored class by Mattel. They were asking to redesign the Barbie Dream House. My minor was in social impact and environmental sustainability, and a lot of what I see in a lot of toys today is plastic, is gendered, is stereotyped. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit as far as innovation for better toy design, or what I would consider to be nutritious play. At the same time, I had an opportunity to work with a relocated Syrian refugee family and the foster community, and in a lot of my interactions I was exploring the question of what makes a house to a kid without a home? And through them I learned that a home is more than those four walls and a roof of concrete or drywall—it’s safety and courage, it’s creativity and love. And when I thought about it from that lens, I realized that for me, a home is much more of a dance studio than any house I’ve ever lived in, because my former life—I spent about twenty years as a professional dancer.

GM: And you were a dance major at Walnut Hill, is that right?

CH: Yes, I graduated in 1998.

GM: Wow. And can you just share with folks who may not know, what has sort of been your journey since graduation?

CH: So after graduating in '98, I joined the Sacramento Ballet. It was the only job offer I had. Getting out of high school, I was told that I was too short and fat. I auditioned for maybe ten companies at the time and they all said no, and then on a whim I got a job offer from Sacramento Ballet through the director of the Boston Ballet summer dance program, who was friends with Samuel Kurkjian, one of the teachers at the time at Walnut Hill. So I was hired sight unseen—when I got there, sure enough, they said “oh, but you’re very short.”

I managed to pull off four awesome years at Sacramento Ballet, working up to a Principal. It seemed my skill was strong enough to merit casting or work, there was always this issue about how I looked, because of my size and my thickness. I did forty auditions in my fourth year at Sacramento Ballet, and all forty of them said no. However, at the same time, Twyla Tharp’s touring company was coming through Sacramento. I saw a performance, and I was blown away. It was the first time I ever stayed awake during a dance performance, which is telling something to me, like—this is really exciting work and you want to do it. She had an opening in her company, so I auditioned on a whim and she hired me right away. I remember when she said “Would you like this job?”, my response was: “But I’m not too short and fat for you?” She said “No, I’ll take you exactly as you are.” So yeah, I danced with her company for about—I mean, I still work with her on and off, so it’s been about a twenty year time period with Twyla, doing her rep, teaching her rep, notating her rep… I’ve been in her dance company, as well as three different Broadway musicals. It was with her company that I won the Best Male Dancer in Europe, the European Critic’s Choice Award, in 2003. I won Best Male Dancer on Broadway through one of her musicals in 2010. So I was with her for about ten years.

In between that, I got angry at dance because of all the body image shaming and stuff, so I quit in 2006 and went to the University of Washington and studied Architecture. And then I found my way back to dance because it’s definitely a passion and I don’t know anything else, so I went back to it. And then I did two lives, where I worked in an architecture firm in the daytime and then I performed on Broadway in the evenings. When the work wrapped up in New York, I was given an opportunity to help Benjamin Millepied help kickstart LA Dance Project out in Los Angeles. So I was an Associate Artistic Director, Ballet Master, Rehearsal Director, and a dancer in the company, and that was a really informative time period. I learned more about leadership skills and direction at a time when I’d only ever been the dancer, the tool to communicate the ideas.

I did that for about five years before I had some hip injuries and I decided to retire around 35, went back to college, and got a second degree at Art Center College of Design in Product Design, thinking that it might be a little more of a quick turnaround than architecture where these projects are many years in the making. But now here I am, talking about a toy house that’s three years in the making, so… I just found, I guess, a more playful version of architecture.

GM: Wow, and I was so inspired in our conversations around how dance continues throughout your career to play an aspect and a role in your life. Can you say more about that?

CH: Yeah. I know it’s a very daunting thing for a dancer to consider what happens after [that] life, and it’s so terrifying that we don’t consider it. We wait until we have to. And I think it’s interesting, because right now COVID and quarantine is really forcing a lot of dancers at a much younger age to consider what is going to happen afterwards. I think the benefit here is that they will be able to understand how to lay a foundation for what comes next, but they still logically can stay in shape or get back into shape and have a really wonderful career. So I’m optimistic for the future of dancers. I think dancers are phenomenal creatures. We have an incredibly high pain threshold, which serves us well when it comes to long hours of study or, you know, the obstacles that are presented in front of anybody’s path. We have a creative bone that gets us around whatever those obstacles are, and persistence. So I think that the future of the world is great because dancers are going to figure out how to use those skills later on. 

For me, I found—Ray Eames was the wife of Charles Eames, and annoyingly, Charles gets a lot more of the credit, I feel, in a historical context. But Ray and Charles were definitely a pair. He was an architect, and she was a painter—a visual artist. They met in their late thirties, and started this revolutionary design firm that makes photography and furniture and education and toys. I just think that the Eames are phenomenal inspirations for me. It was Ray Eames in particular—there’s a quote she has where she was saying she was going to quit painting and become a designer, and her friend said, “You can’t quit painting.” She said “I’m not quitting painting, I’m just changing my palette. And I think in a similar respect, a quote that I’ve taken deep to heart is “I never quit dancing, I just changed my shoes.” 

I think that through my knowledge of moving my body in space, there is a parallel, or a flip, to designing the space around a body, which would be through architecture or through industrial design. How do you make a couch feel warm and inviting, or really cold and alienating? Through the shape, the proportion, and the materiality, you can design an experience, which is much like a performance. I definitely think that the design of an object is essentially—you are performing an experience through, instead of  my body, an artifact. So I’m very excited to see how those two merge. I don’t know that I’ve tapped into what the final solution is yet, or how it actually comes out, but it’s definitely something that—I feel like I’m in this awesome spot, with my knowledge of dance and this great design education I’ve been given, to put those two things together. Because those two things don’t often come in contact.

GM: Absolutely. And it’s amazing the influences our experiences have on aspects of our lives we never thought possible. I’m curious—can you tell everyone a little bit more about the toy house and, if you like, how they could help you out or get involved?

CH: Yeah. It’s here on my desk! It’s this big—it’s the size of my head, but it expands to about ten times its size. Can I show you the airplane?

Alright. I'm thrilled—it took a lot of engineering to figure out how to do this where there was no plastic involved, so it’s all paper-based, and I think that’s really rewarding. Inside each house, there are four rooms, and these four rooms each unfold into a different kind of make-believe space. This one here is the airplane—it’s kind of the easiest to access. It pops open. Each of these will come with a little game card. So it shows the airplane in its final position, but then it also gives a list of hide and seek objects, or games, little activities for kids to do and play with. That pops up. All of this teaches kids sequential learning, mechanics, engineering, along with the creative imaginative space it provides as a play set.

I designed it to kind of take into account what Barbie—I shouldn’t say that out loud—to take into account all of the dolls and figurines that kids already have, so you don’t have to buy new ones. You could just put anything, from a Shopkin—I just did it again—anything from little toys to bigger toys, inside of it, and have at it. So on this side it starts to take on a commercial airliner, but from this side it takes on a military aircraft. There are little things like—it’s called the Canary, and you could ask what famous pilot flew a Canary, and that was Amelia Earhart. From this point of view, it takes on the notion of a whale mouth. For kids, when they talk about their dreamspace, they say “I was jumping on a cloud and then we were in the ocean but there was a purple elephant that came in and then we were on a swing set…” and their stories are kind of arbitrary. So I think that play can enjoy that same kind of arbitrary feel. From any kind of perspective, I think it’s a lesson, too. If anything, I learned in dance, I was always told I was too short and fat. So a lot of it was about changing my perspective. So if I shorten my line, or find a way to lengthen my line, I could find a way to feel as long as possible. Or if I increased the power in my jump, I could jump as high as the tallest person onstage and appear to be just as tall. If I can use my flexibility, then I can have the fluid, limber, lithe quality of someone who is more thin than my bulky body.

I think the oxymoron—no—yes! The oxymoron of my figure being too thick to be that flexible, or being too short to move that large, was the thing that started to stand out for audiences or critics. And it took a long time for me to learn that I didn’t need to change how people saw me as much as I needed to change how I saw myself, to give myself permission. And a lot of that is just changing my point of view. If you look at something from one direction and you realize that you’re bored with it, or it’s not working, or you’re frustrated, or it doesn’t connect, then the idea is like, well, just change your point of view. If you move to another way and look at the same object, suddenly it takes on a brand new life and opens up a whole new world of possibilities. I feel like, as nutritious play goes, to be able to offer the kids an opportunity to put into practice the idea that you shouldn't wait for life to change things when you have agency to change how you see it, would be a really fantastic lesson for kids.

GM: Absolutely. I wonder too if—we have a number of our fellow alumni who have kids. Is there a way that they could perhaps get an early version of this for their own families?

CH: Yes. I’ve launched—there’s a limited-edition run. So I’ve got 350 that I’m preparing to make, so I’ve been trying to raise some capital to get these manufactured. The materials are all FSC-certified and they come from sustainably managed forests, or responsibly managed forests, in the United States. The paper, the board, everything is recyclable. There's no plastic involved which is really awesome. They’re being manufactured—currently they were all printed, all these illustrations have been printed, just twenty minutes north of my house, and they’re in a truck as of yesterday to twenty minutes south of my house to be cut out. And then they’ll end up at my house where I’ll be manufacturing them by hand, with some hand assembly work.

GM: Wow.

CH: Yeah, so I’m proud to say they’re American-made and sourced. I think that sustainability is a very important thing to me. I think that it’s the only way to build anything moving forward. So I think the supply chain was really important, that it was paper based and not plastic. Life cycle analysis is a tool you can use as a designer, and I did a life cycle analysis of the Barbie Dream House. It weighs 27 pounds, it takes five steam crank gases, seven metals, eight minerals, four elements, and three types of paper to produce this 27-pound toy that’s designed to end in a landfill. So there’s a lot of opportunity to find improvements. This house weighs less than four pounds, which makes it much more portable for kids. And yeah, again, it’s all paper based. There’s no guilt when it comes to having to purchase or play with something like this, as far as the waste of it.

There is a website: The name Archamelia comes from a mix of architecture and then chameleon. So it’s like an ever-changing architecture, meaning that from every point of view it’s always going to take on a new shape. In it, there’s the house with the four rooms, which is essentially five play sets. But each of these play sets folds into a different configuration, so you have about twenty different play sets. There are over 100 panels of illustrations, and the illustrations themselves offer additional games, vocabulary enhancers, idiomatic phrases—like in the theater, there’s a “limelight”, so there’s a light in the theater that’s made out of a lime. Or the stage is “raked”, so there’s a rake on the stage, or there’s a “pit” in the orchestra—a lot of the silly idiomatic phrases. This is the theater—because this is home to me. So the theater kind of looks like a movie theater, it has the feeling of a circus, aquarium, and a magic castle. So kids can kind of pull whichever content makes sense to them, and tell the stories that they need. And on the back here there's this cute little raccoon who’s ripped out the word “Show” from the poster “Make it Big in Show Biz”, so he’s “stealing the show,” which is like the silliest idea, but it’s an opportunity to teach kids about idiomatic phrases or the superstitions that are specific to the theater.

I’ve done the same thing—I interviewed a really great chef, Melissa Lopez, who was the head chef of this very fancy restaurant here in L.A. called Bestia, and she told me that the only ingredient she needs is salt, and the only tool she needs is a spoon. So that was the kitchen, which we call the Salt & Spoon Cafe. All of this is inspired by her and her insights into what a chef needs, jokes in the kitchen or whatnot. There’s a lot of vocabulary stuff or games, things that are specific to the content of the room, to continue to teach kids a little bit more.

I lost what the question was. I think what matters most right now—so this is in a limited edition phase. It is paper based, and so there is a concern about durability for parents. But then there are a lot of parents who say they would love to teach their kids how to take better care of their toys. So there’s a lot of opportunity for good lessons, for nutritious play, between parents and kids. I’ve designed it as much for the kids as it is for the parents, so they can be engaged or excited by their play time or bonding time with kids too. What matters most right now is critical feedback—the kind of feedback from people who are super creative and understanding, who are gonna say “This is how it could be made better,” and be excited to be a part of what is the foundation of this community. Houses—we’re building a neighborhood. I would love to find people who would be willing to build this neighborhood with me in order to turn this into the kind of robust educational nutritious play opportunity that I think it could be.

GM: Awesome. And we’ll include a whole bunch of links to it in the newsletter, and I would also just bring everyone’s attention to the fact that you have an upcoming event on the 21st. Do you want to say something quickly about that?

CH: Yeah. On October 21, through Art Center—it’s called Pasadena Connect—it’s a L.A. specific event that is usually hosted in person, but we’re doing it virtually this year. It's for technology, arts, entertainment, and entrepreneurship. They give opportunities for people to present their art studios, their projects, bring in 4,000 different people from different places to talk about different topics, about which they’re all passionate. Robbie Nock is a gentleman who runs the entrepreneurship program at Art Center College of Design, which is where I went to school. He was very helpful in setting this whole thing in motion, this whole project in motion, at an early stage, saying “I think there’s promise here” and “How can we help you?” So we’ll do a dialogue, an interview, or a conversation I guess it’s called, with Robbie Nock at Art Center Connect, to talk about the building of Archamelia.

I think that there are opportunities to realize for performers, like right now we don’t have a stage. Our theaters are shut down and our venues to be able to communicate, or do the craft that we’ve so focused all of our energies and efforts towards perfecting, are missing or absent, and who knows when they come back or how. There’s this vacuum or void, and I would love to be an advocate or voice to say that we’re more than, at least in dance, we’re more than tutus and tights. We can take that creative energy and put it to a performative use in alternate spaces.

I should mention with the toy house—I’ve co authored a book with Jenifer Ringer, who is a former Principal of New York City Ballet. She’s put in her creative storytelling that came from her life as a performer into the written word. And then Janie Taylor, who was another former Principal dancer with New York City Ballet, is taking her creative energy from her performance and putting it into the illustrative sense. She’s illustrated all of the panels for the book. So we’ve done this collaborative, creative outpouring of what we feel we need to communicate but don’t have the traditional channels to do that. But just because the traditional channel isn’t there doesn’t mean there aren’t any—it just means you choose alternate paths. And I think to me, this project is very much a demonstration of how great dancers are, but more broadly, how valuable artists are, and art as a creative process to really innovate and provide new stories.

And I would love to add, if I may, so much right now—the Black Lives Matter movement, diversity, equity, and inclusion—I was getting frustrated with toys or companies or businesses that would kind of slap on as a hire, they would do their token hire of someone of color to say “Look, we believe in diversity, equity, and inclusion.” I feel like things could go further than just in the business model on the back end. So I really tried to design this toy from the same point of view. You'll notice there weren’t any figurines. There’s no one character that lives in it right now. The notion is that a kid should go get all of their figurines—it’s not designed just for the tall ones or the little ones, it’s for all of them, so it becomes a truly inclusive space, to say that all of us belong together. Throughout the illustrations I’ve tried to give winks and nods in very overt ways to cultural identity—an example is this oversized spoon and fork that is very traditional in a Filipino kitchen. It’s a sign of prosperity and wealth and just good being, healthy life. That wooden spoon and fork are hidden in the kitchen illustrations. To a lot of people that might not mean anything, but if you were of Filipino descent or family, you would want to see that, and by seeing that, you would feel seen inside of the toy. For others, that becomes like a game I could use to introduce to new cultures or new people, here’s something and you should know about it because it’s a really wonderful little insight into someone that’s not exactly like you. So I’ve tried to integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion directly into the toy through the illustrations or the play values, because I think it’s important. It’s important to make this a louder, more overt stance instead of surreptitious and just on the business side.

And all of these illustrations are life-sized images. So there’s something like—at the back of the theater there’s a life-sized marker for signatures or autographs. And I’ve learned at least through the fourth wall—in House of Cards the character would talk to the people in the audience, and they’ve done this in theater—it’s a common trope that you can use inside of performing. I was realizing that so much of the responsibility on kids is to miniaturize themselves inside of the world in order to pursue make-believe, but at no point does that miniature world maximize itself to meet us. And so throughout the illustrations, I’ve also tried to hide large-scale pieces, or to-scale pieces—so if I wanted to get my Chapstick involved, and turn it into a character inside my play, it wouldn’t stand out as an oversized object because I could put it next to an object of the same scale and it would suddenly start to talk. My hope would be kids would start to grab scissors, and put, like, here’s a mustache or a bandana or whatever, and get involved in their play in a more creative way.

Half of the illustrations, too, kind of bleed out—there’s a soccer field, and then it’s just the corner of the soccer field, thinking that if I set that up on the corner of my table, then my entire desk becomes the play space instead of everything that's just inside the house. So these were different kinds of efforts I’ve made to try to bring in my life onstage—what is this fourth wall, and could you break it through the toy in order to integrate a larger space of play and imagination. I think so much of our life now—all the good stuff happens inside [a cell phone], and then outside of that device it’s a boring world of gray. I think through Archamelia, my hope is to be able to teach kids how to see again, and that we don’t need augmented reality—reality is already augmented. We just kind of need to remember how to see it again from a place of magic and mystery.

GM: And I think in many ways, that sort of effort will inspire what I know we all hope to be—the next generation of Walnut Hill students. Because really, without creativity, the arts are nothing, and I think that it’s so inspiring to hear you say that. I know we’ve all been to restaurants where we see little kids on their phones for hours on end, and it would be really nice to rekindle some of that creativity. I’m just so delighted that we had this time together, Charlie, and I think that we are all so proud of the work that you’re doing and look forward to supporting it. Again, we’ll include all these links in the newsletter, and I encourage everybody to join on the 21st as well as pick up your own Archamelia. I think we’ll definitely be back in touch and I hope to feature you in some other ways real soon.

CH: I appreciate it, and thank you for this time.

GM: Absolutely, thank you.

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