By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Transition is the politic word currently being bandied about among members of the board; “hostile takeover” is the ruder expression used by angry company members. A cynical joke floats around the theater that the organizational change is merely a matter of punctuation, moving an apostrophe from behind an “s” to in front of it — from the Actors’ Gang to the Actor’s Gang. A third of the group’s membership have said they are leaving the company.
At the heart of the tempest lies the question of whether Robbins’ or any theater can, or should, be run as a collective, like the renowned San Francisco Mime Troupe (see box below). For this is what the Gang was attempting before Robbins dismissed the company’s two salaried administrators, managing director Mark Seldis and production manager Don Luce. These firings halted the group’s Sisyphean effort to move from a corporate- or movie-studio-style hierarchy (the way most theaters are run) to a democracy — an arrangement one might have expected Robbins to support, given his well-known concern for the disenfranchised.
The board’s decision also jettisons a 2001-2002 season that had been voted on by the entire company so that Robbins can conduct his summer acting workshops with Georges Bigot (of France’s Theatre du Soleil) in preparation for a fall season of Robbins’ choosing. At one point, some of the company’s members wanted to place conditions on the terms of Robbins’ return, one being that the theater follow through on the season that had already been voted on, and that Robbins consider waiting his turn — an idea he interpreted as a snub and rejected. Robbins complains that he was never extended the courtesy of being consulted about the season, and that a season chosen without his input should have been regarded as one “in flux.”
That’s not his only complaint. As he wrote to the company on February 5: “I left [a January company meeting] with a realization that . . . people I have supported financially and artistically in the past, whose productions and reputations grew because of my generosity, now considered me a cog in the wheel, an obstacle.” Everyone acknowledges bruised feelings from the manner in which he has returned.
“If he were just a blowhard, I could dismiss what he has to say,” Mike Schlitt, an actor-director with the company since 1982, remarks in a phone conversation. “If he were a little bit more diplomatic in his approach, I would embrace him. But I can’t do either.”
“It’s tough for everybody right now, most particularly for Tim,” says board member Barklie. “His expectation was that he would be welcomed with open arms, and when that didn’t happen, it was hurtful.”
As for the board vote itself, Barklie fumes that her colleagues gave short shrift to both the prior administration and its attempt to install a democratic style of organization.
“We all agree that Tim is tremendously talented and has money,” Barklie says. “Some of us felt that’s where the conversation should begin. Some felt that’s where the conversation should end.”
Mark Seldis in 1996
Photo by Anne Fishbein
WE'LL NEVER KNOW WHETHER OR NOT THE collective-in-process that Robbins replaced would have thrived, organizationally or artistically, had he allowed it. We do know that there’ll be an enormous buzz when he opens Mephistoin late August. The voltage of Robbins’ renewed involvement alone may carry the company through a couple of seasons. But, many wonder, at what cost?
“I’m dreading this article,” Robbins tells me when, with the actors and other observers milling about in the lobby, we find ourselves alone onstage. He’s a towering 6-feet-5-inch presence who moves gracefully in shorts, sneakers and tropical shirt. He speaks softly, but his eyes catch fire with the profound indignation of the wronged. “I really don’t want to get angry all over again. It’s time to move on.”
“If I go on the record saying what I really feel about the way this place was being run, it could ruin people’s lives. I’m a very powerful, connected person.”
— Tim Robbins
He defends the way he took back the Actors’ Gang in passionate whispers, arguing that the theater he left was not transforming into a democracy at all, hinting that, despite executive decisions being voted on by the entire company, members of the old guard were subtly excluded by the new leadership.
“I take it you weren’t happy with much of anything at the theater,” I say.
Robbins stares at a point on the wall: “Would yoube?”
He explains how distressed he was by the condition he found the theater in, physically and administratively, by the “killing bureaucracy” of collective decision making, and by the quality of most of the performances at the theater. “Superficial!” he pronounces. He shakes his head in disgust before waving his hands at the rafters, “Do you see how we’ve cleaned it all up? Do you see all the work these people have put into this place? The way it was being run before, it was . . .” Actors begin drifting back into the theater and our conversation abruptly ceases.