March 13, 2008
Gang of Actors reaches a new stage
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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 "KlÃ¼b," 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," MoliÃ¨re'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.