By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
When he stepped away in 1996, Robbins also closed Havoc’s L.A. office, stranding Seldis without a salary. Seldis nonetheless remained on as the Gang’s general manager, without pay, for the next two years.
Robbins had left artistic control of the theater in the hands of an appointed committee of six. Two years later, in 1998, this committee enlisted Seldis’ help and allocated him a modest salary from the theater’s operating funds. Before long, Seldis (in conjuction with Luce and Young) was acting as treasurer, fund-raiser, bookkeeper, box-office manager, archivist, photographer, booking manager and general factotum. He was also creating liaisons with the local theater community and serving on the boards of multiple organizations. He was, says Mason affectionately, “the public face of the Gang.”
When Robbins relinquished his proprietary claims while slicing his patronage to a fraction of the operating budget, the theater survived his absence. To help pay its lease, the theater kicked into high gear, fund-raising with splashy benefits and tenacious grant-writing efforts. Throughout Robbins’ absence, no bill went unpaid. Remarkably, even miraculously, the theater remained in the black — the very “self-sufficiency” Robbins wrote that he wanted to see. Meanwhile, administratively the Gang was groping toward what Barklie describes as a “non-hierarchical” structure. Members of the artistic committee appointed by Robbins now found themselves having to run for election, while all executive decisions — administrative and artistic — required a vote by the entire company. (Company-wide votes were never a procedure or policy under Robbins’ command.)
To what do thesecircumstances, some have wondered, entitle Robbins when he returns four years later waving a check to cover less than 12 months’ operating budget? And was it really necessary for Robbins to behave the way he did in order to get what he wanted?
EARLY IN JULY, ROBBINS OVERSEES a week of intensive cleaning in which the actors who are participating in his summer workshops help dump the trash, as it were. At the workshops themselves, only drinking water is allowed in the main stage — no food or beverages, not even juice; no crackling of wrappers during rehearsals, no slurping of ramen, no spilt coffee. Indeed, Robbins speaks of a fundamental respect for the theater that he felt had been lacking, echoing Jerzy Grotowski’s dictum of treating the stage as a “holy place.”
Robbins sits in the third row behind Georges Bigot, a diminutive, athletic Frenchman in middle age and with thinning hair, who in the workshops’ second week is leading a rehearsal of The Seagull(scheduled to open in the fall). The actors wear street clothes. No makeup. No musicians. No scenery. Just a large, empty stage, a pool of light and Chekhov’s words.
The bleachers are packed with company members and guests. All attention is turned to Bigot working with an older actor playing Sorin, an ailing landowner retired to the country, much against his desire. The silver-haired actor, in khaki trousers and sneakers, works on the play’s first scene, in which Sorin asks the estate manager’s daughter to remove a barking dog from its chain: “Miss Masha, would you kindly ask your father to leave the dog unchained? It howled so last night that my sister was unable to sleep.”
At times from the bleachers, at times bouncing onto the stage, Bigot works and reworks the line for 20 minutes, as though running an iron over a sheet, until every wrinkle of insincerity has vanished. “Miss Masha!” the actor barks, jowls shaking, eyes blazing. The image invites a huge laugh from the observers. But Bigot interrupts the moment, like so many others, shaking his head, muttering softly in broken English: “No need to make the joke, to show the joke, the joke is already there. The dog, just see the dog, that’s all.”
Sorin’s nephew appears next — the callow, neurotic playwright-director Konstantin, decorating an outdoor stage he’s built for the premiere of his expressionistic play. The reedlike actor barely looks in his 20s. Again, Bigot coaxes and goads, so that he repeats the same line with multitudinous interpretations, until, after 15 minutes, it’s hard to distinguish the actor from the electrical charge that seems to be crackling through his spine.
The actor stands alone on the expansive stage, holding out his arms, his hands turned palms to the sky, trembling with emotion.
“Uncle,” he improvises. “Uncle, do you see what I’ve done? No fake scenery, just a view to the lake.”
His eyes now glimmer. The man is possessed.
“Uncle, I just built a theater.”
JULY 20. THE THEATER LOBBY provides a cool, dark refuge from the blazing afternoon sun. Butcher paper spirals around the freshly painted pillars. I’m trying to get permission for an L.A. Weeklyphotographer to document the workshops, or even just the refurbished facility. Last week, Robbins had given me his word that when he resumed work on Mephisto a photographer would be allowed in “to shoot whatever you want.” The next day, the offer was reduced to the Weeklyobtaining photographs shot by Actors’ Gang staff. Now producing director Veronica Brady, who told me she would make the arrangements, has stopped returning my phone calls and has left early for the day.
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