ON STAGE ACTING WITH MYSTIC RIVER'S
OSCAR(R) WINNER TIM ROBBINS
by quendrith johnson
"Everybody point! Everybody look at someone else. Everybody
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.