Executive Action: Tim Robbins takes control at the Actor's Gang 

Wednesday, Aug 1 2001
Photo by Anne Fishbein, 1988

Tim Robbins sits cross-legged on the floor of the cramped second stage of the Actors’ Gang Theater, the “El Centro space” around the corner from the main stage on Santa Monica Boulevard. Now in his early 40s, the movie star has a spiky, full head of hair that has turned salt-and-pepper; stubble bristles along his chin. The baby face, framed by gold-rimmed spectacles, has grown slightly thicker with the years. Robbins, the theater’s newly reinstated artistic director, flips through a script, calls out actors’ names, changes his mind and calls out different names, assigning roles for part of a two-week cycle of preparatory workshops of Mephisto, the play that will open this fall under his direction. Actors amble about or flop onto seating banks. As their roles for the evening are chosen, they start rifling through costumes from nearby racks, choosing what they like before dressing and applying makeup in the theater’s hindquarters.

Mephisto, a World War II–era play adapted by Ariane Mnouchkine from Klaus Mann’s novel, is about a German actor who, for his professional survival, yields to the Nazis and whoever else will aid his career. It is the story of how the actor rationalizes both his own moral bankruptcy and the escalating anti-Semitism and tyranny around him, in order to sustain a life ostensibly devoted to pursuing truth on the stage.

The ensemble, director and four musicians move next door to the cavernous main stage, where everyone sits in a circle on the floor. Robbins’ young son, Miles, wearing a commedia mask, peeks out from behind a curtain and gets a laugh before running into his father’s arms. Each actor states his or her name and role, then Robbins peers over his shoulder into the house’s bleachers, shielding his eyes from the stage lights, asking all observers to identify themselves. The last name called out, from the top corner, is Susan Sarandon’s.

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Robbins then retires to the front row as his actors read Scene One with little movement or emotion. One actor’s voice quavers as he reads, “This morning, November the 9th, 1923, a coup took place in Munich. The coup was led by Hitler and his storm troopers. It gives me the greatest pleasure to be able to tell you that . . . it failed.”

Mephisto’s characters are themselves theater artists who celebrate the good news with champagne. At the scene’s end, the limber Robbins bounds back to the stage, huddling with the players like a football coach, speaking softly and gesticulating. Actors disappear behind an upstage curtain while Robbins drifts to the side to confer with the musicians. As a keyboard and a violin set a frivolous tone, a couple of actors re-emerge, sans scripts, to improvise the essence of the action. One of them sits.

“Use the space, get up,” Robbins urges. Sometimes he stops the action completely and has them start again, with a different set of spatial relationships and a different timing to the entrances.

The actors’ obedience is as palpable as their respect — but so are their fear and desperate hope. Stakes don’t come much higher than this.

Without a sliver of irony, one actor shouts her improvised line, “Miklas, he’s our director, and the artistic director of the theater . . . in other words, God!”

"If [Tim] were just a blowhard, I could dismiss what he has to say. If he were a little bit more diplomatic in his approach, I would embrace him. But I can’t do either.”

—Mike Schlitt

Tim Robbins is back. On February 20, four years and three months after stepping down as the artistic director of the Actors’ Gang, he convened a meeting of the troupe’s board of directors at Westwood’s Hotel W — the first in several years attended by the company’s entire board: actors Barbara Bain, Annette Bening and Giancarlo Esposito; arts administrator Corbett Barklie; Mark Taper Forum associate artistic director Robert Egan; attorney Judy Gordon; Cal State L.A. theater professor Susan Mason; film executive Bill Morgan; and writer Ebbe Roe Smith. With his attorney present, as well as members of the company’s artistic committee, Robbins offered an administrative petition that called for replacing key staff at the theater, tightening up office procedure, and re-examining the way the season is chosen, the way the membership is determined and the way the space is treated. In short, he wanted to wrest back executive andâ artistic control of the Actors’ Gang, the much-heralded troupe that he, along with roughly a dozen UCLA student peers, founded in 1981, long before Robbins became a movie star and celebrated goodfellow in Hollywood’s liberal wing. To sweeten the deal, Robbins offered to contribute $200,000 to the theater. By a 6-to-3 vote, the board approved Robbins’ proposal to install him as company CEO and reinstall him as artistic director.

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