March 13, 2008
Gang of Actors reaches a new stage
Over the years, The Actors' Gang has mounted more than 100 productions, including interpretations of MoliÃ¨re, 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 TheÃ¢tre du Soleil and George Bigot (pronounced Bee-zO) to L.A.
"The plays were extraordinary, 'Richard II' and 'Henry V,'" recalled Schlitt.