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
MARK SELDIS FIRST BECAME ACTIVELY INVOLVED with the Gang in 1988, co-producing Schlitt’s production of The Big Showat the Powerhouse Theater in Santa Monica. Robbins asked Seldis to become the company’s managing director in 1991 and two years later made aâ three-year deal with him to co-manage (with Bob White) the West Coast office of Robbins’ New York–based film company, Havoc. Office responsibilities also included administering the Actors’ Gang.
Both Schlitt and Seldis describe 1992 as a seminal year for the Gang, when the company struck gold with the breathless critical response to four plays in succession at Theater Row’s Second Stage — Brent Hinkley’s tender staging of Japanese fables, Blood! Love! Madness!; Brian Kulik’s robust direction of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck; Schlitt at the helm of Klub; and the emergence of the company’s first and only woman director, Tracy Young, with her feminist epic Hysteria.
Says Schlitt, “Tracy was suddenly in the power chute,” bringing into the theater a new generation, refining the Gang’s aesthetic to include both ethereal and gay sensibilities. While the old guard had been weaned on a rigorously physical commedia style, borrowed largely via Robbins from Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil, Young turned to New York–based director Ann Bogart and her improvisatory techniques of “viewpoints” and “snapshots.”
However, after the success of the four productions in 1992, each in very different styles, there was no attempt to unify the Gang’s aesthetic. Rather, there were simply camps.
“Something changed without ever being discussed,” Schlitt explains. “Then the women became unified under Tracy.”
In 1993, Robbins wrote a check for $350,000 toward the $500,000 cost of converting a warehouse on Santa Monica Boulevard into a home-base, twin-theater complex, and covering the first installment of a lease that proved to be a mixed blessing. Because three years later, in 1996, Robbins, now a celebrity, stepped away from his theater, artistically and financially, in an attempt, as he later wrote the company, “to see self-sufficiency occur.” (Actually, Robbins never backed out completely. Even during his “absence,” he claims to have fully subsidized and produced at least one production per year, from anywhere between $28,000 to $60,000 per season — significant indeed, but still a fraction of the theater’s budget.)
With Robbins’ departure, the feelings around the company were a mixture of giddiness and regret, relief and terror. Suddenly, a theater that was used to having an artistically hands-on patron, who’s a movie star to boot, was forced to sink or swim by its own wit, skill and tenacity, while meeting an annual operating budget of about $300,000.
“Small arts organizations that have a single founder look more like a family than an arts organization,” says Barklie, former executive director of Arts Inc., a consulting and training nonprofit for small and midsize arts organizations. She was brought onto the Gang’s board of directors in 1999 to help stabilize the company. “Tim’s absence was felt deeply — they felt bereft of their father, they really had to mourn his loss and stand on their own two feet, and that takes time, that doesn’t happen overnight. That kind of transition takes five years.”
Chaos came first in the void left by Robbins’ departure, Seldis remembers, then came factions: the old guard who joined the company with Robbins (including Ned Bellamy, Brent Hinkley and V.J. Foster), nostalgic for the ’80s, for the Gang’s fearless leader and rough-and-tumble aesthetic; and a later generation (epitomized by Seldis, production manager Don Luce, Young and the performers she invited in). A wrestling match ensued, over both artistic and administrative principles, tearing at the troupe’s spiritual fibers and accompanied by what Seldis describes as “a false sense of artistic freedom,” meaning a slew of productions that invited the perception of plummeting artistic standards.
Seldis addresses that perception: “In the early years, we’d do one or two spectacles a year that were hugely successful. When you’re doing five shows, with a couple of successes per year, but the others fail . . . is your quality dropping off?”
Perhaps not, but it certainly appeared that way. Reviews were decidedly spotty, and the Gang’s glittering prizes for performance and direction were no longer rolling in. With a few notable exceptions, the only productions that generated the voltage of the earlier years were the biannual, high-concept epics directed by Young: Euphoria(1996), MedeaMacbethCinderella (1998, co-directed with Bill Rausch) and Dreamplay(still in development).
Cari Dean Whittemore and
Daniel T. Parker in Hysteria (1996)
Photo by Mark Seldis
IF THE CONTRIBUTIONS OF TIME and effort invested by an unpaid work force add up to ownership, almost every theater in Los Angeles would belong to its membership. But if you believe, as do most people running the world, that money invested is nine-tenths of possession, there should be little argument over who owned the Actors’ Gang before 1996.
According to his letter of February 5, in which Robbins chronicles two decades of his fiscal contributions to the Gang, his out-of-pocket financial gifts to the Gang have been an extraordinary stream of revenue that most small theaters would envy, accounting for 80 percent of the company’s budgets and, with his most recent check, approaching $1 million. And these figures don’t include the funds he has raised from his friends and connections in the film industry. As Robbins asks rhetorically in his letter, “Does this entitle me to anything? Legally, no. They were contributions gladly made. Morally? You decide.”