Jewish Journal


March 13, 2008

Gang of Actors reaches a new stage


The Actors' Gang, now in residence at the historic Ivy Substation in Culver City, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. The substation, constructed in 1907 by the Los Angeles Pacific Railroad, looks more like a Spanish mission than an electric power facility, strangely appropriate for The Actors' Gang, which is both a theater troupe with a strong sense of mission and a longtime source of power plays and electric performances (and that's as far as I'm willing to stretch this metaphor).

Over the years, The Actors' Gang has mounted more than 100 productions, including interpretations of Molière, Ibsen, Brecht and Shakespeare (last summer, they did a children's version of "Titus Andronicus" called "Titus the Clownicus" that was performed for free in Culver City's Media Park).

Recently, I spoke with several founding and longtime members of The Actors' Gang, including Tim Robbins, VJ Foster, Michael Schlitt and Cynthia Ettinger as well as current managing director Greg Reiner, about the past, present and future of the company.

As to the history of The Actors' Gang, Robbins said, "It's a long road, filled with great joy, conflicts that have risen up, [people] who have fallen out [and] egos." That being said, Robbins said that the challenge was "to create a safe environment where people can work."

But first, let's turn back the clock to 1979.

"The company started at UCLA," Schlitt recalled in a phone interview. "A lot of guys bonded playing softball," he explained.

There was an intramural softball league team that featured many future members of The Actors' Gang. Schlitt claimed that, at first, their college major, theater arts, was mistaken for their team's name, and they bonded over the humiliation of so unmacho a moniker.

Robbins recalls it differently, insisting that the team's name was "Male Death Cult" and that its flag was a skull and crossed baseball bats (Foster agreed, adding that they won the intramural championship).

Let's start over: Between 1979 and 1981, there was once a bunch of guy guys who were into theater at UCLA, including Robbins, Lee Arenberg, Richard Olivier, Ron Campbell, Brett Hinckley, Foster, Ned Bellamy, R.A. White and Schlitt.

Robbins was a transfer student, who although born in Los Angeles, had grown up in New York and had been performing and directing plays since he was a teenager. He had attended two years at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, then came to Los Angeles and spent a year gaining residency before entering UCLA with the goal of performing theater.

This was the dawn of the 1980s, and although President Ronald Reagan and Peggy Noonan had declared it "Morning in America," Robbins was filled with the energy and anger of New Wave Punk Rock, whose soundtrack was supplied by The Clash, X and Black Flag. In UCLA's theater department and on the intramural teams he found like-minded souls.

In New York, Patti Smith had left theater to find rock and roll and reached back to Arthur Rimbaud and the French Symbolists for inspiration. Robbins decided to take Punk and bring it to Los Angeles theater, and for inspiration, he turned to a French work that launched the Theater of the Absurd, Alfred Jarry's 1896 play, "Ubu the King."

"Ubu was wild, funny stuff," Robbins recalled.

As part of the theater program each semester, students staged a production. Robbins' 1981 production of "Ubu," assisted by Olivier, was so successful that Robbins and the assorted actors pledged to stage it again.

Foster said the production was compelled by Robbins' energy. Schlitt spoke of "the power of Tim's personality" that made people want to "follow him into the breach." Trying to explain it today, some 25 years later, Schlitt said: "We were stupid twentysomethings."

Robbins recalled that they made a deal with the now-razed Pilot Theater to perform "Ubu" as a midnight show on Friday and Saturday nights. The other production would end by 11, Robbins said, and then they would have an hour to get the stage ready for their production, and they would split the gate. The show ran for about six months.

"We got a great crowd; young people, tremendous reviews." Robbins said.

That original production featured Olivier, Arenberg, and Campbell. Campbell is the one who came up with the company's name "The Actors' Gang."

The company continued working production to production for awhile. Ettinger recalled meeting every few weeks to do workshops where they improvised in commedia dell'arte style.

Over the next few years, The Actors' Gang performed productions of "A Midsummer's Night Dream" in 1984, with Robbins as Oberon and Bellamy as Bottom; "Methusalem" in 1985 with Campbell, Arenberg, Helen Hunt and Ebbe Roe Smith, and the 1987 "Violence," which Robbins directed and co-wrote with Adam Simon and whose cast members included John Cusack and Jeremy Piven (Cusack and Robbins had been in the movie, "Tapeheads," together).

In those early days, their performances could yield surprising encounters. Schlitt recalled that for a while they performed in a coffee house run by Schmitty, a character who bordered on the savant. One night they heard that Laurence Olivier was coming to see a production of his son, Richard, and there was much anticipation over what would happen when Sir Laurence met Schmitty.

When Sir Lawrence arrived, Schmitty went up to him. Schmitty's words to the great actor?" He treated him like someone off the street: "$5 gets you a cup of coffee and a seat," Schmitty said. Sir Lawrence, somewhat surprised, paid up.

The 1984 Olympics was, in its own way, a watershed event for the troupe. As part of the events surrounding the Olympics, Los Angeles was home to the Olympic Festival of the Arts, which brought the Theâtre du Soleil and George Bigot (pronounced Bee-zO) to L.A.

"The plays were extraordinary, 'Richard II' and 'Henry V,'" recalled Schlitt. Several of the members of The Actors' Gang, including Robbins, took workshops with Bigot. "We said: 'This is it.'" They had found the technique they were looking for.

"We had all the energy and the passion, but we didn't have the form or the discipline of how to get there," Robbins said.

The techniques they learned from Bigot became known as "The Style." Some of those techniques involve a very in-your-face, very confrontational form of acting that attempts to engage the audience and is not afraid to have direct eye contact with those sitting in the seats. It also involves focusing on the emotional content of a role as one of four basic emotions: happy, sad, angry and afraid.

"It was a critical development,'" Schlitt said, echoing Robbins' comments that they needed a way to channel their exuberance.

Ettinger, who joined the company early on, said The Style was highly creative, yet afforded them a discipline. "There's freedom within the form," she said.

Robbins also credits Bigot with teaching them never to take the audience for granted -- to regard each audience member as if he spent his last $10 and walked 10 miles to see their performance -- and to never forget that the audience is there to be entertained, not lectured.

One of the signatures of The Actors' Gang has been its ability to workshop and develop plays through improvisational and other acting exercises. Doing so has been a great benefit to actors and writers alike -- to be able to start from an idea or a character and develop it into a play.

In 1987, Tim Robbins and Simon co-wrote "Carnage, a Comedy," a play about the rise of the religious right -- televangelism with apocalyptic consequences -- which is currently being reprised through March 29. The original cast included Arenberg, Bellamy, Ettinger, Foster, Lisa Moncure, Kyle Gass and Dean Robinson. At the time, the religious right, as embodied by Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, appeared to have more entertainment value than political muscle. But "Carnage" was prescient in speaking to the power and delirium that apocalypse promises.

"Carnage," directed by Robbins, had its premiere as part of Pipeline/MOCA's 1987 Angel's Flight series. It was so successful, that in 1988, it opened at the Tiffany Theater on Sunset Boulevard and then traveled in 1989 to the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland and the Public Theatre in New York.

During the time that "Carnage" was performed at the Tiffany, The Actors' Gang decided to perform another play with it, in repertory -- "Freaks," written by Schlitt and White and directed by Schlitt. Every night, the same actors would finish "Carnage," a very demanding play, and then suit up for "Freaks," in which each actor was cast very much against type. For example, Arenberg, very much the dramaturge of the group (Schlitt called him "the playwright's best friend"), played a mute, and Foster, a very physical actor, played Zoltan, a Hungarian gypsy with no body below the waist.

Robbins once told Rolling Stone that in marked contrast to the vanity of most Hollywood actors, "in The Actors' Gang, you find people who want to play characters that are grotesque."

Many of the actors I interviewed recalled the run of "Carnage" and "Freaks" in repertory as one of the artistic highlights of The Actors' Gang. "We were creating really good work," Ettinger said. "Freaks" became one of those talked-about remembered productions. "The results were magical," Schlitt said.

So much so, that this year for the 25th anniversary of The Actors' Gang, when Robbins asked Schlitt if he would like to revive "Freaks," Schlitt declined, preferring to let the memory of "Freaks," in his words, "remain in the ether." Instead Schlitt is directing a revival of Mitch Watson's "Klüb," opening April 11, a play described as "A Chorus Line" meets "No Exit."

The run of "Carnage" is also worth a footnote for another Actors' Gang performer who appeared in one of its productions -- I'll let Schlitt tell the story.

"One of the early productions, 'Inside Eddie Bienstock,' had a small part for a young child," Schlitt said. "His mom would bring him to the theater."

A few years later, White was teaching at Crossroads, and there was a kid who, "rather than go home, used to hang out at White's home, reading. He was like a fixture." He would sit there as Schlitt and White worked on "The Big Show." It turned out that kid was the same one who appeared in "Eddie Bienstock." "He was very quiet." Schlitt said.

"R.A. White said we should cast him in something; he was really talented. They made him an anonymous soldier in 'The Big Show,'" then one day, the kid got his chance to do a full-on role.

"Suddenly, this guy is really talented." Schlitt recalled. "He's got some crazy juice. He has a charisma." Turned out that kid was Jack Black.

It was in "The Big Show" that Black met castmate Gass, who taught him to play guitar and with whom Black would eventually form "Tenacious D." Black went on to appear in the traveling version of "Carnage."

Schlitt recalled that one New Year's Eve, he asked Black, "What's your goal for next year? What do you really want to do in life?"

Black answered, referencing The Style: "I really want to work on sadness." I guess he's still working on it -- and the rest is the history of Black.

In 1992, The Actors' Gang did a full season at the Second Stage in Santa Monica and then settled in on a location at the El Centro Stage in Hollywood, which they renovated for a year before launching there in 1994

Throughout the 1990s, The Actors' Gang continued to mount challenging productions, including reinterpreting such classics as Buchner's "Woyzeck," Ibsen's "Peer Gynt," Molière's "Imaginary Invalid" and Wilde's "Salome," as well as such innovative original productions as Tracy Young's "Hysteria," and her "Dreamplay"; "Bat Boy: The Musical" and Cintra Wilson's "XXX Love Act" to name but a few. Nonetheless, the facts of these productions do not tell of the complicated growing pains the company faced. In the 1990s, although Robbins continued to be involved, he had moved to New York, was raising his kids and pursuing a film acting career that included "The Player," "The Shawshank Redemption" and directing such films as "Bob Roberts," "Dead Man Walking" and "Cradle Will Rock."

As Foster explained, once Robbins had resettled to New York, he was no longer the artistic director. The company had its own management/decision making committee. Robbins had provided funds to renovate and occupy the El Centro space, but he left to them the job, as Foster put it, "to pay the bills."

"We went into survival mode," Foster said.

In order to help pay for the space, they turned to outside rentals, renting the space to other companies, such as David Schwimmer's Looking Glass Company and the Circle X company.

Both Foster and Robbins admitted that one of the problems was that artistic people are not always the best people to run things. As a result, the company had no paid professionals undertaking the job of managing the company, maintaining the space and raising the funds necessary to do so, each of which is a full-time job.

Mark Seldis, who was managing director at the time, told the LA Weekly that he was torn as he found his time consumed by administration rather than by creative work.

In 2001, Robbins returned to the company as artistic director. Several members left, among them, Seldis, Young and Chris Wells, according to the LA Weekly. Speaking today, Robbins said it was "very difficult to get through that transition."

In 2001, Robbins brought back Bigot to direct a production of Chekhov's "The Seagull" and to conduct workshops to re-introduce old and new members of the company to The Style.

Robbins called Bigot's technique "a liberating approach."

"What you get," Robbins said, "is these amazing discoveries from the actors. It roots the performance in the actor's discoveries." The performance is better, he said, because "they own it."

A new generation of actors became part of The Actors' Gang. Robbins also credited "the new blood" with re-energizing the company. Without singling out any one actor, one can point to Angela Berliner, Justin Zwebe, Pierre Adeli, Stephanie Carrie, Chris Schultz and Matt Hoffman as some of the newer members.

It was also around this time that Reiner joined The Actors' Gang as managing director -- the company's first paid professional staff member. Reiner saw great potential in the depth of The Actors' Gang's relationships and in the work it had created.

Productions such as "The Guys," "The Exonerated," "1984" and "Embedded" have since gone on to national and international tours. Foster talked about the exhilarating experience of performing in Hong Kong and Melbourne in front of crowds that were almost 2,000 strong.

Robbins credited Reiner with helping him realize that The Actors' Gang was an institution. "We got very lucky with Greg," he said.

As The Actors' Gang found itself on stronger financial footing, it has also expanded its outreach in several ways. The theater offers "pay what you can nights" and student matinees and at least one night during each run is presented for the hearing and visually impaired.

There is now a program for middle and high school students in Culver City, a weeklong workshop at UCLA as well as a program that works in the prisons. There are summer workshops for children and weeklong acting day camps for children as young as 8.

"We are creating work that provokes and invites civic dialogue," Reiner told me.

From its inception, political speech has been part of The Actors' Gang creative energy. "Theater should be a reflection and a reaction to what is happening," Robbins told me. And that has been true for the company since its first production of "Ubu."

For Robbins, this has been particularly true, as he had the opportunity to create works not only like "Carnage" but also, most recently, "Embedded," which Robbins created in only three weeks and staged three months after the invasion of Iraq. "I don't know a better place to do something quick -- to respond to a moment," he said.

As he explained, "We get right up on stage and start working." Yet, as Robbins made clear in our interview, he is always thinking "how do we make this funny?"

Robbins believes that he has a responsibility to the audience to make them ask questions but not to berate them or supply answers. "If you want answers," Robbins said, "go to a lecture."

As for this 25th anniversary season, attending a recent show of "Carnage", I was struck by the vitality of the performances -- the energy, the physicality.

Directed by Beth Milles, the show's portrayal of televangelists with dreams of power is now an accepted reality. At the same time, when the second act turns surreal, "Carnage" takes on an experimental feel -- a combination that some audience members may find unsatisfying. Yet in the end, it is the performances that stay with you -- and that reaffirm the vitality of The Actors' Gang.

As part of the 25th anniversary, "Carnage" will be followed by "Klüb," directed by Schlitt. Irwin Shaw's "Bury the Dead," a World War I drama, is being considered for the summer. In the fall, they are hoping to stage "The Trial of The Catonsville 9."

At the same time, Ettinger is creating an ensemble-based piece with music about racism in America. And at year's end, they will reprise Berliner's twisted take on Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." For Robbins, The Actors' Gang 25 years later continues to be, in his words, "a unique situation -- essentially a place where I can keep challenging myself."

Foster said that being part of the company "has a been a real joy." For actors, as Robbins pointed out, the danger is always down time. Being able to work -- having a place where one can perform -- is what it's all about.

For audiences, knowing that there is a theater where we can find actors performing classics and new material that reflect pop culture, even as they challenge, is reason to wish The Actors' Gang a happy 25th anniversary -- and many more.

For more information, visit www.theactorsgang.com

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

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