|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.
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.
“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.”
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.
Robbins’ rocky, ever-shifting relationship with his theater company is a saga that easily could have been adapted from some ancient Greek drama:
Brent Hinkley as Woyzeck (1992)
Photo by Ray Mickshaw
A king goes off to war, entrusting a few of his children to run the palace. Years later, he returns, enraged by what he sees. Some of his kids have turned into theater communists, things are said that shouldn’t be, and things that should be said aren’t. Hurt and angry, the king banishes some of his flock, some walk away of their own accord, while the rest heave a huge sigh of relief that their king has at last returned.
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 Mephisto in 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 you be?”
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.
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 Violence and 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.
MARK SELDIS FIRST BECAME ACTIVELY INVOLVED with the Gang in 1988, co-producing Schlitt’s production of The Big Show at 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.”
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 these circumstances, 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. Weekly photographer 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 Weekly obtaining 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.
“Is Tim around?” I ask an intern.
The young woman appears a bit flustered, then nods toward the outer lobby, where a paint-spackled Robbins crosses in a tank top, work trousers and sneakers.
I don’t need to say a word. Robbins knows what I want. Our conversation goes like this:
“I just feel that for us to provide any art implies our endorsement of this article,” Robbins says. “If you were just writing about the work that would be great. But the other stuff is nobody’s business outside this theater.”
I argue that a nonprofit theater technically belongs to the community, that a major transfer of power at the Actors’ Gang Theater is indeed a public matter, and reporting it is the duty of a presumably independent press . . .
“Don’t go there,” he fumes. “This [argument] is just about the public’s right to know. If this were happening at another theater, not run by a celebrity, would you be writing this story?”
Probably not on the cover, I concede. “Your celebrity is part of what makes the story so interesting.”
“Well, that’s an issue for me,” he answers.
Through all this, actors are starting to stream in, oblivious to the testiness of our exchange, shaking my hand, embracing me. Robbins stands at a distance, registering a mix of perplexity and annoyance. The situation is growing more ludicrous by the minute.
“I just don’t want to be part of this story.” Robbins continues. “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.”
“Yes, I know,” I answer. “But they’ve gone on the record. They don’t seem overly concerned. And actually, their remarks are quite benign. What you fear is in the article may not even be there. Perhaps you’re just overreacting.”
Robbins’ face flushes. I’ve clearly hit a nerve, quite unintended. He paces three or four steps, back and forth, breathing deeply.
“Anyway,” I continue, “when you start back with Mephisto, I’d like to see a rehearsal, if that’s all right. You know I’ve said all along that the work is your best argument.”
Robbins stares at the ground, for a moment or two. “For the article?”
“Of course for the article.” (I’ve made no secret of why I’ve been here for the past month.)
Robbins continues staring at the ground. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m looking for a scene to close the story,” I say.
“I’m sorry I can’t give you what you need.”
But of course, he just has.
From the theater’s strange shadows, I step back out into the dazzling sunlight.