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
Just before convening the board, Robbins took a hard look around before firing off that furious February 5 missive, which certainly provides more details of his wrath. In it, he labels the administrative leadership of Seldis, Luce and Young a “triumvirate” (a remark for which Robbins later apologized), the theater a “dysfunctional organization run with smoke and mirrors” and a “pigsty” (though the Mark Taper Forum found the Gang’s facility tolerable enough to rent it three years in succession for its Taper, Too and New Works festivals).
The troupe’s frequent sub-renting of the main stage was another development that drew Robbins’ anger. He called it “an unimaginative, defeatist fund-raising strategy sold to [the company] as some kind of maturation.” One of the Gang’s other directors answers that the rentals provided vital revenue, as well as down time in which the troupe could prepare its upcoming large-scale productions for the main stage.
Board member Morgan, however, defends Robbins’ purge, implying that there was nothing to salvage: “The majority of board members feel the people in the Gang were being forced into having to administer this organization. I think it was too much. It doesn’t have to be anybody’s fault that it wasn’t working. It just wasn’t working.”
Not true, says Barklie, who feels the Gang was about six months away from realizing its complete autonomy. “I know what a budget crisis looks like,” Barklie bristles. “I know what a deficit looks like. And the Gang was not carrying a deficit.”
Moreover, Barklie predicts that Robbins’ latest financial injection will prove a double-edged sword in the company’s future, creating a Herculean challenge for the new producing director, Veronica Brady.
“Any arts organization that receives [even] a quarter of its budget from a single funder is in a tenuous position,” Barklie says. “And for the Gang to go back to that is unstable. When there’s a single donor, other donors will look at it and say, ‘I don’t see the need [to contribute] here.’
“I think there was a possibility for this organization to emerge with most of its pieces intact,” Barklie finally says. “There was a board responsibility there, but we cut it short. We made an easy decision.”
“Tim has the ability to generate press and get the company excited,” adds Schlitt. “He’s a movie star, and he’s a very, very dynamic personality. But now that anything resembling a[n organizational] structure has been destroyed, what’s going to take its place? That’s why I’m stepping away. I think people are so thrilled that Tim’s back, they don’t think that he could go away just as quickly.”
1982. THE GANG'S GRUNGY, INAUGURAL production, of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu the King, staged at the now-demolished Pilot Theater, just down the street from the Gang’s current home, is a shot heard around the city, a madcap political farce. (Robbins says he funded the production entirely from his salary as a waiter and from his early work on television.) It features Robbins as the king, waving around a massive cloth phallus and smashing it over people’s heads while jocularly sending French peasants to the guillotine — an image some of Robbins’ detractors will later characterize as an omen, but also an image his fans continue to celebrate as part of an explosive, raw aesthetic that Robbins’ troupe embody in shows such as Violenceand Battery(both in 1986), Carnage(1987) and Freaks(1988).
By the end of the ’80s, the Gang’s acting core turns 30 years old — the age at which struggling for a career in Hollywood reaches a point of diminishing returns. Some make a living in the Industry; many don’t. Meanwhile, Robbins grows increasingly famous from his television and film work, meets Susan Sarandon and relocates to New York to be with her, administering his troupe from across the continent. Robbins brings Carnage to New York’s Public Theater, where it gets savaged by the critics, thwarting Robbins’ attempts to garner the Gang a national reputation. Finally, there are whispered accusations among the ranks of an overly macho ethos at the Gang — that women are treated as toys, both onstage and off, and that gays are disparaged. Says actor-director Schlitt, the Gang’s early days included scenes of women battling each other to be the leading lady — usually determined by who is sleeping with somebody. “At one meeting,” he says, “we all looked around the room and realized that everyone had had sex with everyone else. And that intensifies every dealing, making for a fascinating, shifting dynamic of loyalties and friendships.”
Still, the local success of Freaks, staged by Schlitt, helps define his later role as the leader in Robbins’ absence — “a shitty place to be” as Schlitt explains. “My question was always, ‘What’s up with Tim?’ because, like it or not, Tim determines the fate of the company.”
Indeed, until 1996, all programming at the theater was approved or selected by Robbins. Pitches made by outsiders to the company were videotaped and sent east, as were rehearsals of Actors’ Gang productions; after viewing a tape, Robbins would engage in hourslong phone consultations with the productions’ directors — as Schlitt discovered during his 1994 staging of Mein Kampf.