Gang Leader

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Earlier this year, as the Los Angeles theatre scene was abuzz about Tim Robbins leading theatre workshops at the Actors' Gang, the Hollywood-based theatre company he helped found in the early 1980s--the first time, in fact, that he had worked as a director in the Santa Monica Blvd. warehouse space the Gang made its home in 1994, largely with his funding--I had a dream that I walked into that beloved space and saw folks I've known at the company for the past seven years, including managing director Mark Seldis and technical director Don Luce, packing up their things from the warren of small offices in the Gang's two-story front, while new staff people I didn't know moved into what seemed much sleeker and more corporate-looking offices. I wandered down the hall to the stage itself and saw a capacity crowd watch a woman in a long skirt and shawl. She was performing Chekhov.

I'm no prophet, of course; I must have simply internalized enough about that place where I've seen so much magic created, and met so many strong, funny, and passionate artists, that, in a moment of collective unconsciousness, I imagined some of the changes that have in fact transpired: The space has been repainted and refurbished, a new staff is in place, and artists are at work on Chekhov's The Seagull, as well as on a new production of Mephisto, Ariane Mnouchkine's adaptation of the Klaus Mann novel about an embattled theatre company in Nazi Germany. Both are slated to open in early October.

Robbins' reinstatement as the Gang's founding artistic director, in which leadership position he replaces a six-member artistic committee,has not been without some controversy. While internal artistic differences are not uncommon for theatre companies with many strong creative personalities, the internecine Gang war has been widely discussed and was reported extensively by Steven Leigh Morris in an L.A. Weekly cover story last month--partly due to Robbins' celebrity as a film actor and director, but more significantly because of the Actors' Gang's preeminent position on the local theatre scene.

It is likely to retain that high-profile position now that Robbins has returned, and there is no shortage of talent there now: Robbins himself is directing Mephisto, with V.J. Foster, Kate Mulligan, and Joe Grimm in lead roles, and Georges Bigot, an actor from France's influential

Theatre du Soleil, is directing Seagull, with a cast that includes such Gang regulars as Cynthia Ettinger, Brent Hinkley, Steve Porter, and Clare Wren. Director Veronica Brady, who most recently helmed the searing production of Two-Headed at [Inside] the Ford, is the group's new managing director.

Some longtime Gangsters, however, are not in evidence--among them not just Seldis and Luce but also director/writer Tracy Young, who mounted the company's best works in recent years, from Hysteria to Dreamplay; the brilliantly versatile actor Chris Wells, now focusing on an original music act, and scenic designer Rachel Hauck, the resourceful artist with a national rep for her bold, sturdy designs who had called the Gang home for years.

When I sat down with Robbins recently to talk about his plans for the company--and about his frustrations with it--it was the Monday before terrorist attacks hit New York and Washington, D.C. The mood at the Gang was upbeat, and the place does have an inviting new sheen and a fresh-paint smell. A few days later, the mood was different--actors rehearsing The Seagull tried to focus on their work,

though some were riding emotions onstage that didn't come from Chekhov. Robbins was en route via car to his family in New York. As with all aspects of American life, things have changed--and the stakes of a play like Mephisto, which addresses the responsibility of artists in the face of a national crisis, are inevitably higher.

Back Stage West: When was it that you knew you wanted to be an actor? When you were growing up, what was the image you had of actors--was it Hollywood's?

Tim Robbins: No, it was actually theatre. I saw my father onstage, at first as a folk musician, and then as an actor Off-Broadway. So I got the bug very early to do theatre. I did my first off-Off-Broadway play when I was 12, and worked for the rest of my high school years and

my first couple of years of college in street theatre several summers in New York City. I directed my first play in my sophomore year of high school. I was 24 when I first started actually getting paid.

BSW: I know you went through the UCLA Theatre Arts department,formed the Gang, and started getting TV and film work. You never did mainstream regional or commercial theatre, then?

Robbins: No, I don't even have an Equity card. I never worked an Equity show. The theatre I've always been words like experimental and avant-garde, because they describe, for me, eclecticism at the expense of entertainment, and I don't believe in that. I believe in approaching subjects and scenes from a different point of view, but with a basis in solid entertainment, which is the

relationship between the audience and the actor. That has always been a key component of the work that the Actors' Gang has done: We acknowledge the audience, in an aesthetic way and in a direct way.

So when we got out of UCLA, it made much more sense to me to try to continue to develop as a director and writer for the theatre with a group of like-minded people than to start going out into the world of regional theatre, or go back to New York and try to make my way into Off-Broadway, Broadway. We had a collective vision. We were all kind of punk rockers--we enjoyed that anarchy and that energy and

wanted to bring that onto the stage. It was the Reagan years; there was a great deal of anger. We wanted to tell stories of things we knew about that were being ignored by the media. It made total sense just to keep doing that.

The gravy was that I was lucky enough to start getting jobs playing bad guys on episodic television and put some of that money into the theatre.

BSW: So was it purely a mercenary approach to Hollywood roles--get TV work to pay for theatre?

Robbins: No, it was luck, really, as it is with anyone. What distinguishes one person from another? Not much. I know that from directing movies. Casting is always the most difficult, painful part of the process. For every one person you give a job to, there's 50 that don't get the job, and what separates them is not a tangible thing. It's not something I could put into words. It has to do with just knowing when someone walks in the door, and all of those 50 other people that don't get the job are just as talented as that person that gets the job.

The major hurdle for actors is getting the first job, and it took me awhile with an agent. I think I got that job on St. Elsewhere because I must have had some kind of a bad attitude, I don't know. Sometimes I would go to these auditions and read these sides and just think how stupid

some of these scripts were. I was not wise or political enough to put up a front.

BSW: I've heard that casting directors like an actor who has the chops, certainly, but doesn't seem to care about the outcome--throws it away a little.

Robbins: Yeah, I can't say. I mean, maybe it's good to have a little arrogance. I don't know. I certainly wouldn't want anyone coming in to audition for me that thought my script sucked. I want to work with people that get it,and want to realize the vision of that script

collectively with me. But I did find that I started to get jobs more when I didn't need them.

BSW: The Gang has been influenced by the Style, which has roots in commedia and mask work and Asian theatre. I understand you were introduced to it when Theatre du Soleil came to the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984 to perform Les Shakespeares. Is that right?

Robbins: Actually, [Theatre du Soleil actor] Georges Bigot stayed behind, and I and three other members of the Gang attended his workshop on commedia dell'arte for three or four weeks. It was a seminal moment in my development as an actor and as a director. We were already the Gang and I was already working in TV and film, and I

had a similar reaction to what most of the Gang had this summer when Georges came for these new workshops: "Wait a second, I know what I'm doing, I'm good at what I do, I get paid for what I do--and I can't make it on the stage with this guy!" I was making entrances and being told I was not in the emotion. I couldn't get onstage for the first

four days, you know? I started worrying about whether this thing was right for me, but at the same time seeing other actors break through to that place that Georges wanted me to be in. I was inspired by the other actors' work to try to do it myself, and eventually I found an image and a character and a connection to an emotion. And it clicked. It

was amazing.

Then, one of the greatest things about it is that you are sharing it with an audience. That's also the most difficult thing, because if you're not there, in the emotion, you know it and the audience knows it. If you're not in the emotion in other styles of acting, there are tricks to hide: turning upstage, avoiding contact.

BSW: Has the Style influenced your acting in other media?

Robbins: Absolutely, because again, at the core of it is truth--connecting into a true emotion. I guess all acting is that way, but the Style encourages more intensity, which does not mean volume--it means going deeper into emotion. Great drama isn't built on kind of depressed people; it's based on tragic figures who are suffering great loss. Same with comedy: If you're kind of happy, kind of sad, kind of angry, it doesn't work as much as the extremes do.

BSW: I've heard that while you were making Cradle Will Rock, the film about the premiere of Marc Blitzstein's 1937 musical, the film's subject matter--about the artist's role in American culture--reawakened your interest in making theatre. Is that why you're back now?

Robbins: That's part of it. Working with the actors on Cradle, for me,was such a stimulating, creative time. I was really kind of sad at the end of the shooting, and I couldn't figure out what it was. I finally realized that I'd just been through 12 weeks of shooting, and that the last time I actually had that run of time--12 weeks of what I like doing the most--had been on Dead Man Walking, and that was three years before that. So, I realized I was only able to do what was most stimulating for me creatively, in the course of about 10 years, I think it

was five months total. All of the other stuff--raising the money, writing the scripts, casting, editing, publicizing--takes up the lion's share of the time. This was a revelation. I realized that I had to do it more. Before I started working regularly in films I would, for three or four months out of the year, just take off and do theatre. It was a process that gave me a lot. It was very stimulating.

I've also been so frustrated that this theatre I built with my money, I've never been able to work in. For seven years I've been wanting to come here and work. I've been taking these trips back and I'd see a show and I'd say, I've gotta do something with this space. And every time I'd come in, I'd get more frustrated about--call it what you will, but for me, it amounted to clutter, in more ways than just physical clutter. At the same time, I was like, All right, well, that's their trip; that's the way they're going to do it. It wasn't until people started telling me what they felt was happening with the company that I started seeing it was time to start addressing concerns [about factionalization] in a real way, and that's when I decided to come out and do the workshop.

BSW: One image of your return to the Gang I heard, even before the LA Weekly article, was: There was this collective of artists, with all its factions, and they were trying to work it out, and then you come along with your big checkbook and basically scrap their plans and say, "Here's what we're going to do."

Robbins: That's interesting, because if you knew the people in this group you'd know that they'd never allow that. This is not about me acting independent of anything. This is about me listening to an

overwhelming majority of the group that wanted a change. The source of that story out there is six people who were adamantly opposed to me coming back. A couple of them lost jobs. The thing about the [controversy] is that everyone had all the best intentions, and everyone worked real hard. I'm reluctant to get into a he-said-she-said about this. I'm not interested in going there.

BSW: I am concerned about the future of Tracy Young at the Gang. Speaking as a theatregoer and a critic, she's done the best work I'veseen here.

Robbins: You'll have to ask her. The door has been opened. Theoffer's out there. I would love to see [Tracy's] Dreamplay on the season here. That's something for her to decide.

BSW: How do you feel about the L.A. theatre scene, and the Gang's place in it?

Robbins: L.A.'s always gotten a bad rap, and generally that comes from New York. It's understandable, but it's not true. I've always found work out here to be more risky and more aesthetically daring. There's some wonderful theatre in New York, but it's not a very conducive atmosphere to developing new theatre. It's high-stakes poker. And I can't imagine The New York Times or The Village Voice showing up to an inaugural production of a young theatre company, which the Los

Angeles Times and the alternative press does here. They come. The only reason there is an Actors' Gang is because they came and supported us, and without that we wouldn't have been able to run for six months and had the energy to stay together as a company. The downside is that you have some theatre that's just showcase. But that happens in New York, too--showcases for people who want agents. You also have really good groups out here.

BSW: In the past few years the Gang has created relationships with some of those other groups, sometimes through co-productions and rentals. Do you want to continue those connections?

Robbins: I think it's important that companies work together, that they not be about isolation. So I would like to start dialogues with some of these groups and continue the relationships we have with some of them already. But what happened was we were developing a lot of relationships and we weren't able to use our own theatre. This year the proposal for the season was that we rent the mainstage for 10 months and use it for two. After four and a half years I just felt, that's crazy. The El Centro space [a small workshop space adjacent the Gang mainstage] had become our theatre.

BSW: Your last film, Cradle, and now Seagull and Mephisto, are about theatre artists. Is this a conscious connection?

Robbins: What I like about both of these plays is that they beg the question of what is theatre, and what is the actor's relationship to society and the audience? In Mephisto, the lead character is based on a real person who makes concessions in his own beliefs and friendships to achieve success and eventually becomes a Nazi and the head of all theatre in Prussia, while a lot of his friends are being tied up in sacks and thrown in the river. When I read the play, for me, it begged questions all of us should have about doing theatre: Is it enough to be just an actor? Is it enough just to show up? Or is there something more difficult and more visceral and more emotionally demanding?

And when you do Chekhov you're doing the words of a man who was writing a hundred years ago, and you've got to go deep into it. It works on a superficial level, but if you're not ready to go into some serious states of emotion, it doesn't honor Chekhov as much as it should. There's ways to finesse anything--to hit your marks and do certain lines--but to get at this other level, that's what we're trying.

The difference between showing up and doing your lines and hitting your marks, and getting to a place where you're really honoring individuals that the play is about, is the difference, for me, between good theatre and bad theatre. BSW