In 1981, Tim Robbins joined up with 10 fellow members of a UCLA Theater Department acting class and several players on his college softball team to start the Actors’ Gang. A team ethos still runs through the experimental theatre troupe, which has built its name on adventurous original work and raw, hard-hitting reinterpretations of international plays.
Early on, set aloft by a midnight show of Ubu the King, the ensemble would develop a piece, workshop it, and, when they got stuck, throw the piece in front of an audience. You could go to the Actors’ Gang almost any night of the week, wherever they happened to be hanging their hat, and see something nervy and new.
Then, in the mid-’80s, Robbins moved to New York and began administering the company through an intermediary director with phone calls and videotaped rehearsals. With shows like Carnage and Freaks, the Gang continued to stake out its own territory. In 1991, Robbins appointed a West Coast general manager, Mark Seldis. And then, in the seminal year of 1992—with high-profile productions of Blood! Love! Madness!, Klub and Hysteria, to name a few—the company emerged as a potent, impossible-to-ignore force in the L.A. theatre scene.
By ’93, the company had settled down. Robbins paid most of the cost of the lease and conversion of a vacant warehouse on Santa Monica Boulevard, which became a thriving complex with two theatres. It was the Gang’s first real home, and it opened with an ambitious, aggressive repertory staging of Charles Mee’s take on the Oresteia. Over the course of the ’90s, it became the home of such outsized talents as directors Tracy Young and Beth Milles and actors Chris Wells, Jack Black, Kate Mulligan and Molly Bryant.
In ’96, Robbins reduced his financial contributions, hoping to see the Gang sustain “a period of self-sufficiency.” But in 2001, as the theatre’s four-year lease came up for renewal, he returned from years of building his movie career as both actor and filmmaker (Bob Roberts, Dead Man Walking) to retake control of the theatre. After a company shake-up, he launched the Gang’s 2001–02 season with Georges Bigot’s production of The Seagull, running in repertory with his own staging of Mephisto.
Eventually, in 2005, the Gang left Hollywood for Culver City, where they’re now the resident theatre at the Ivy Substation and an active player in Westside L.A.’s cultural life. Building on the commedia dell’arte style of Bigot’s Théâtre du Soleil, which employs stock characters, masks and white-face, the company has taken its visceral theatricality to another level. Long the lingua franca of their stage shows, the “style” has also become the language of their outreach programs, introducing theatre to schoolchildren and working with the incarcerated.
Over its rocky, often rocking, 33 years, the Actors’ Gang has mounted more than 150 productions, toured 40 states and performed on five continents. Among the landmark productions that have toured internationally are The Exonerated, Embedded, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, Tartuffe and 1984. One of a rare breed of true theatrical ensembles, the Gang, with its 30-odd members, remains dedicated to reclaiming the stage as a shared, sacred space. And though there has been turnover in the membership, several company members from the early years are still with the ensemble, including Cynthia Ettinger (who serves with Robbins as co-artistic director), V. J. Foster, Patti Tippo, Brian Finney, Cameron Dye, Steven Porter, Ned Bellamy and Keythe Farley.
In August, the company returned from an international tour of Robbins’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which played to sold-out houses in China and Italy. In the fall, the Gang took the show to Nashville, and did their first prison project work outside of California at a correctional facility nearby. Then they traveled to Brazil.
I sat down with the soft-spoken, 6-foot-5-inch Robbins in early September, on a day he wasn’t filming for HBO or rehearsing with the company. A California native who grew up in New York’s Greenwich Village, Robbins says he’s pleased to once again call California home. For our meeting, he chose Hal’s Bar on Abbot Kinney in Venice.
JOSEPH EASTBURN: How did the Midsummer tour go?
TIM ROBBINS: Amazing. Last summer we did a workshop production. We captured the theatricality, the movement, the passion. The thing that was missing for me was a deeper understanding of the language. So we did a two-week workshop on just language. Great plays have so many different layers to them.
How did audiences in China and Italy respond to Shakespearean comedy, particularly through the lens of the Gang style?
I have to say, our style works around the world. Because it’s inclusive of the audience, it acknowledges that they’re there—it plays emotion directly through their eyes to the other actor onstage. It played very well in China. There were supertitles above the stage, but I was watching the audience, and after a while they started just watching the play and giving over to it. In the first scene of Midsummer, we learn that there’s been an arranged marriage. They still have arranged marriages in China. So what we came to understand was that this was a modern play for them—young people in their early-to-late 20s saw that first scene and said, “This is a play about my life!” And how do you solve the problem of a loveless, arranged marriage? You go to the forest. There, you find magical beings and spells and drugs.
For the readers that don’t know, what is the “style,” and what is its relationship to commedia dell’arte?
I took a workshop in 1984 with a man named Georges Bigot from the Théâtre du Soleil. He was the lead actor in the Shakespeares they were touring with, and had just performed at the Olympic Arts Festival here in Los Angeles. We had an amazing amount of theatre companies roll through here during the Olympics, from El Teatro Campesino to Piccolo Teatro di Milano to Théâtre du Soleil—from all over the world, great theatre. But the hit of the festival was Théâtre du Soleil. So Georges was doing a workshop on commedia dell’arte with masks, and I took it, along with three other members of the Actors’ Gang. I was a working actor at this point—and I could not get on the stage. He kept throwing me off. I would make entrances and he’d throw me off. I was freaking out a little bit…but I finally realized what he was talking about.
He said you weren’t ready?
He said I wasn’t in the emotion. What he was demanding of us was total commitment to an emotion and an image. He had cobbled together some costumes. And we would dress and put on makeup and wear masks, so that the whole image of the character was apparent from the very start. This created a very high bar for what was going to be on the stage: absolute truth. The combination of the state of the emotion, the urgency and image you created—upon entrance—immediately told a story without words.