March 13, 2008
Gang of Actors reaches a new stage
(Page 3 - Previous Page)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 "KlÃ¼b," 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."