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by quendrith johnson

"Everybody point! Everybody look at someone else. Everybody shout!"

A grinning, collective shout erupts from the assembled Actors' Gang members who have taken their seats on makeshift bleachers for this photo shoot. But Tim Robbins, the reinstalled Artistic Director and founding member of the Gang, has one more suggestion. Before he can sound out another mood shift to the costumed crowd, a voice from beyond the frame calls out to him, "Tim, can you fix your shirt?"

With live performance, it's always something, and the (2001) 20th Anniversary Season at The Actors' Gang, which marks the debut of Robbins' return as artistic director, is shaping up to be as storied as the subtext in the two plays which have just opened the season: Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull," about a beleaguered playwright, and the Ariane Mnouchkine adaptation of World War II-era "Mephisto," about politics and theater, from the novel by Klaus Mann.

First, rehearsals were knocked off schedule by the events of September 11; Robbins drove across country to be with his family, Oscar-winner® Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking) and sons Jack Henry and Miles back in New York. Suddenly, the writer/ director/actor, who has made such films as Dead Man Walking, Bob Roberts, and Cradle Will Rock, was on the front lines serving food to firefighters and finding boots for rescue workers at Ground Zero.
Then, upon Robbins' return to Los Angeles in early October, "The Seagull," directed by long-time Actors' Gang creative instigator Georges Bigot, was in repertory during the day, thus limiting to evenings Robbins' direction of the full cast of "Mephisto."

But this is theater and life happens.

Twenty minutes after the lively but orderly rows of the Actors' Gang members leave their seats and the bleachers are cleared away, a table with champagne flutes and period lace materializes, peopled by five key actors in "Mephisto." (It is significant that Ariane Mnouchkine who did this adaptation directed fellow countryman Georges Bigot in the Paris-based Theatre du Soleil, but hold that thought for now.)

Robbins stands in the half-light between seats and stage, watching as they run through dialogue that addresses the ideological struggle between playwrights of different social status against the backdrop of war-time Germany. One of the "Mephisto" cast members pauses, "Tim? Am I trying to convince [the other actor] of anything?" "No," Robbins offers, "you're talking to a famous man and his plays are nothing like him."

It is the first of many productive interruptions that make this small moment in "Mephisto" play out on many levels. "What the working class needs is revolutionary theater," the Mnouchkine adaptation tells us, among other things in this scene.

The Actors' Gang, which two decades and many drama accolades later has earned the credibility to sound out the complex messages of "Mephisto," is known as one of the living, breathing, vital organs on the Los Angeles theater scene for good reason.
It is the purveyor of the often-misunderstood "Style." Technically it "centers around a workshop process that utilizes elements of Commedia del'Arte mixed with improvisational techniques and ideas learned from the Theatre du Soleil," according to the Gang's own literature.

Style tactics have been a defining characteristic of the many successful productions over the years-from Alfred Jarry's Surrealist-endorsed "Ubu Roi" to "Violence" to "Freaks" to "Carnage, A Comedy" to "The Oresteia" to "Bat Boy: The Musical" to "Mummified Monkey" to "How to Steal an Election."

For the uninitiated, the Style could easily be described in layman's terms as equal parts emotional combustion, raucous sensuality, and energetic exuberance for the material at hand. Robbins recoils at borrowed uses of the term because it has been reinterpreted in ways that, as John Steinbeck would say, 'divide up the truth by telling it.'

And this was one of the reasons Robbins came back with Theatre du Soleil practitioner Georges Bigot to refocus the Gang's creative energy with a Bigot-led workshop last summer. Getting back to "the source" for Tim Robbins is also evident in his choice of "Mephisto" with its nod to the Bigot-Mnouchkine connection.

In any case, as the faces in the photo shoot reflect, The Actors' Gang is tanned, rested and ready. Artistic Director Tim Robbins, who founded the group with other UCLA alums in 1981, recently appeared in Human Nature (by Charlie Kaufman, the writer of Being John Malkovich, starring Patricia Arquette and Rhys Ifans), then redeemed himself with his latest Oscar-nominated performance in the urban opus Mystic River (directed by Clint Eastwood and adapted by brilliant screenwriter Brian Hegleland).
Robbin's gripping, unsettling performance in Mystic River can be credited to The Gang, and how it thoroughly informs the screen work he does.

: The whole cast spread out for the photo shoot is really impressive. Are many of the original members of the Gang still with it?
Tim Robbins: You mean the people in [the first production] "Ubu Roi?" There are still one, two, three, four, five-six, including myself. What happened was that of the original five members in "Ubu" that continued on through the years, some people only did that show. There were the four of five or six that came out of "Ubu" who did other shows. The next year we picked up other people beyond the original Gang members.

Jack Black, Helen Hunt, and John Cusack (whose brother Bill is a Gang member) have all made their contributions to the Actors' Gang. Do you see The Style manifesting itself in their film work?
I'm not going to take credit for any of their talent. We learn as much from them as they learn from us. Helen and John have done one show with us. I wouldn't want to say we influenced them. For my own film work and for Jack's, who's been around a long time, I can say it has [been an influence]. Personally, I can say working with Georges Bigot has helped.

I had heard that he was your mentor.
I wouldn't say mentor; it was a brief period of time. I would call a "mentor" someone who you go back to repeatedly. He was definitely highly influential to my outlook on theater and on acting. It's a heightened sense of style which-I dislike the term "style."

Too much like The Method?
I have people coming up to me and saying they know "The Style." And it's not my idea of what the style is. It concerns me that that is being used to describe what we are doing because if people see a bastardized version, or a compromised version, people may think 'this is not my cup of tea.' That's why it was so important to work with Georges Bigot this summer. He brought us back to the core of what it is. It's like the game of telephone: George brought it to me; I brought it to other people in the Gang.

And somehow it lost its focus? Is that why you came back as artistic director?
Part of the reason I wanted to come back is I felt that it had become something different. Not that that was bad, but I personally wanted to revisit some of the things we were doing [early on]. I felt we had moved in different directions, some of them good, and some of them bad. What I was hoping to do was find a way to unify these different factions into a mutual respect for the different ways that people work. And I felt the only way to this was to go back to the source: get Bigot to do a workshop.

Was everyone agreeable to that?
There were many long-term gang members who were disgruntled with the way things were running. When I left as artistic director, I had asked six of them to run the group as a committee. What happened is that in the course of that four years I was away, they discovered that it was very, very difficult to be administrators. The artistic choices had become popularity contests. Five out of six of those people had told me on separate occasions that they felt like leaving the committee because they were dismayed by the infighting and factionalization. So that had a great influence on [my] coming back. I was coming back to a group of people who did want some change. It wasn't that I met resistance with those people. I did meet resistance with people who were against my coming back. These were people who had positions and stakes in the group, a couple people getting paid. That was the most difficult thing, to listen to the long-term members and the majority of the group that they were on the brink of leaving. And could I do anything about it? Some people objected so strongly to my coming back [that they left].

Do you think you lost some major talent?
We've had this happen in the past where, for creative or personal reasons, [actors/members] have had to step away and come back. We leave the door open. I don't think we've lost anyone for good, maybe a couple people. But that's the difficult position I had been placed in, by my facing two roads. One [road] was that the Gang would be over, because, effectively, the majority of the group were all gone [emotionally] out of frustration. Then I would have thought that the Actors' Gang would have to stop being the Actors' Gang and start calling itself something else.

But it is now essentially preserved, saved?
Yeah, but the thing the LA Weekly article [by Steven Leigh Morris that reported heavily on the nuances in the change of management] overlooked was that it's not about [my] coming back in and forcing my will. This was about [my] listening to friends of mine. This was the majority of the group who were for a change and for my facilitating that change. Of people who were active in the group, maybe eight people wound up not showing up for the [Georges Bigot] workshop. As opposed to 20 who did show up, 20 actor/members. There were more there, but 20 were actor members.

The other night in rehearsal you were dialing up the subtleties, dialing down the comedy. It seemed incredibly interactive with the actors giving their feedback. Remind me what scene that was.

"The working class does not need bourgeois theater."
Of course. The thing I love the most about directing is working with actors. Ultimately, you can have your vision and your ideas as a director, [yet] unless the actor contributes very strongly with their own creativity, you don't have anything. The best thing you can do is to create an environment where they can take big chances, big risks. So they are safe to fail, so that when they do something that is a bold choice, they know that they may not be completely correct on the first try. The only way to learn is to make mistakes. If you take the safe road, you may not wind up with the most interesting end result.

"Mephisto" opens in no time, and you're still blocking scenes and experimenting with the actor placement on the stage, trying different things. Is it normally done this close to the wire?
Nothing has been normal this past summer! The answer is yes, you make changes until the opening and after the opening, but theater is a constantly malleable entity and can do different things on different nights. I'm also under a crazy schedule.

Because everything had to be pushed back post-September 11?
It had to be pushed back and started again, after a month break. I have to work with the full cast only in the evening, because of "The Seagull" [playing during the day.] I've been missing good chunks of time for rehearsal. I've had only three days a week and only in the evening. I've had to make some adjustments, but it's all part of the environment of doing theater. You have to be ready for anything.

The Actors' Gang has really been a through-line for your whole career in acting.
I've always been involved in one way or another with the group. Up until four years ago I was the artistic director. At that point I thought it would be a good idea to run itself. Logistically, it was a very hard thing for me, with small children, to be in New York and run things effectively out here.
After Cradle Will Rock I realized that I was missing a great deal of creativity from my life.

Cradle Will Rock was based on a musical [by Marc Blitzstein in 1936, a project later championed by Orson Welles]. Was there other source material for that?
It was based on that Blitzstein musical and a lot of research I had done on the period. Basically, with the actors in that movie, we had a little theater company for the twelve weeks we were shooting. Every day we would do a different scene, but we would rehearse it like a play and we would find a way to stage it with the camera. So we would do a lot of one-shots without coverage.

That's tough!
It's tough but it's incredibly fun when it works. I remember getting very sad after finishing that show, and it took me about a year to realize what it was. It was that I wasn't doing theater enough. The producing that I had been doing and the artistic direction I had been doing in theater had not been involving me with the day-to-day creative decisions. The working with actors, trying new material to discover new truths in the workshop process-all of the things that I had been doing with the Gang.

Both works [Cradle and "Mephisto"] are story-within-a-story, play-within-a-play. Is this a genre that appeals to you?
Both Cradle Will Rock and "Mephisto" have at their center actors or creative people who are faced with difficult decisions that impact on society and on their own lives. I find the courage of these people in "Mephisto" incredibly inspiring, and the people in Cradle Will Rock incredibly inspiring. To do what should be a fundamentally protected thing, as far as your rights go, your freedom of speech.

And for those rights to be impinged upon
Right. But for them to be living in times that were difficult for freedom of speech, and having these rights impinged upon, but still having the courage to do [their creative work] and carry on. This story, I find, is an important one to tell because I think in the last part of this century, and today, I think artists have been censoring themselves. [Meaning] not, as a rule, visiting the more difficult social subject matter. I think it is all the more important now to tell stories that illuminate humanity like "The Seagull" does.

Your subject matter ["Mephisto"] is even trickier now, and it seems like an incredibly insightful choice in light of September 11.
In the society that the artists from "Mephisto" were living in, this was a slippery slope. It soon accelerated beyond anyone's imagination into a fascistic society in which you could not criticize the government at all. That's what these people were doing in these cabarets-they were doing these political satires about Hitler and his rise to power and what life was like under the government there. It also tells the story of an actor who enters into the system that he had originally opposed, and makes concessions with his own beliefs and morality. He justifies it all the way, rationalizing it in the end that he's only an actor.

As if he had no responsibility.
Exactly. I think the great question posed by this is, "Is it enough to be only an actor?"

That's a question you've actually come to in your personal life.
Yes. Sometimes I believe it is [enough], and sometimes I believe it isn't. I've done movies about social issues, but I have also done comedies. But what is one's responsibility if you are going to be in the world of entertainment?

Or if you attain the status of public figure. You have stood up for causes, and the Actors' Gang is where that can be played out.
Coming out of college doing "Ubu, The King" ("Ubu Roi,"), picking pieces of news I had found out about but not through the major sources, trying to bring them onto the stage in a way that is also entertaining. It was my training ground as a writer and a director to be able to work with material that isn't necessarily the safest way to go. We've always done things that have made us stretch and made us try to tell stories that we're being told.

1984 was the first time that you had worked with your brother [musician/ composer David Robbins, whose music credits include Bob Roberts and Cradle Will Rock] for "Violence," so it is bringing your family in, too.
Yes, and now I'm working with my sister [actor Adele Robbins]. I love working with them. The trade-off is that my [nuclear] family is back East. It's difficult to be away from my kids and my wife. I've always felt it was important if you start something that you finish it.

What do you see for the next 20 years for the Actors' Gang?
My primary vision is to work it into a better functioning financial organization that, for one thing, can pay its actors-which is pretty terrible after all this [time]-so we can do this without people worrying about paying their rent.

Were the actors paid before and then not paid now?
There was a brief period of time during "The Carnage" tour when they were paid. But this is an Equity waiver, 99-seat theater. First of all, it is impossible to make money, but that's not the reason anyone is doing this. It's not the reason I started doing it in '81 and '82, not the reason any of those people are doing it. As they stay with the Gang, as they are doing a new version [of an obscure play] or a radical adaptation-I don't think what you are looking for is mass market success. I think what we are looking for is something that feeds you in a way that you may not be able to be fed in working in TV and movies.
It's a place where people can take chances outside the kind of roles they are being offered in standard theatrical enterprises, or in television and radio. [Perhaps] a part they might not be able to do. Also, it is a family, a family with many different complicated relationships. And there is a great love here and that is what has allowed us to survive all the different changes that have happened over the last twenty years.

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