Interview: Tim Robbins on Actors' Gang

The Oscar-winning actor on bringing his theatre company to Shanghai

Academy Award-winning actor Tim Robbins is also the founder and artistic director of the critically acclaimed, 33-year old, LA-based Actors’ Gang theatre company. As the group brings A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Shanghai, he talks to Time Out about his life, his work and the Actors’ Gang’s Prison Project

When did you know you wanted to perform? 

My parents were musicians, and I was the youngest of four siblings. I had to fight for attention at the dinner table, and it was pretty early that I became a bit of a clown. But I really started acting when I was about 12. I don’t know…my dad was an actor too, so I watched him in plays, and then I became interested in theatre through my sisters. 

They worked at this off-off Broadway theatre in the early '70s, the Theatre for the New City. I started going to watch what they were doing, and the head of the theatre saw me and asked if I wanted to be in a play, [some] street theatre that summer, so I did my first play.


What was the play?

It was called Undercover Cop (laughs). I played a street gang member. And the company is still together after all these years.


When did you know it was going to be a career?


When I went to university I was studying to be a director, so I didn’t think I was going to be an actor. It wasn’t until my senior year when I performed in front of an audience of industry types, agents and so on, and won this competition, then I got an agent and started to audition. 

About a year later I got my first part, and when I realised I could produce theatre with the money I earned acting, I got more excited about the idea of becoming an actor. So, the Actors’ Gang had already started at that point and the first play we did out of university was a big hit. We were really excited about this new aesthetic we were working with. Parts on television and movies started to fund the Actors’ Gang.


Looking at your career now, are you surprised at all the film you’ve done? Were you always more involved with theatre? 

Well, for the first five years or so, I always viewed acting as something that would pay for the theatre. It wasn’t until I had done Five Corners in [1987] that I realised I could be involved in really good films. And then I started pay more attention to it, be more excited about it.


What was the first play Actors’ Gang did? 

Ubu Roi, (Ubu the King), a play by a French man named Alfred Jarry, written in [1896].


So it seems that from the beginning, Actors’ Gang wasn’t a commercial project, given that it opened with a play so few people had ever heard of. Did you see this as a place you could do whatever theatre you wanted to do? 

That's more what it was, and it turned out to be quite a success. I was attracted to the play because I’ve always been attracted to theatre that has a larger canvas, a larger scope, that has to do with subject matter that [concerns] with all of us, not just one domestic situation. 

And this play was the craziest play I’ve ever read – there were stage directions like, 'the entire Polish army enters.' Another stage direction was 'a malcontent explodes (laughs).' We were all punk rockers at the time, and I was interested in doing theatre that had a visceral, physical aspect. This was the perfect play to discover our propensity towards that.


Given your success in film, why was it so important for you to keep Actors’ Gang going? 

I have this incredible laboratory, a group of like-minded actors and artists that want to create innovative new works. Every time I did a part in a movie, I knew I could carve out some time to make a new production. I viewed it as a blessing; it was a way for me to expand, to keep developing as an actor and a director, and then as a writer. 

I started writing plays for the company, and through doing workshops and the rehearsal process I learned how to mould a piece, to reinterpret it, to give it form and a certain style. That ability to have that laboratory with Actors’ Gang made me learn how to adapt and write and direct for film. And I still went back, because this was a way I could work on an idea, but didn’t have to get the approval of a studio or raise millions of dollars in order to realise it. It was there for me, if I wanted to put the energy in and I wanted to do it. I still feel that way. I spend more time in my theatre then I do on movie sets.


Speaking of writing, in a 1996 interview with Charlie Rose, you mentioned having to 'throw out whatever is sacred as a writer'.  How hard is that to do? Did you have any formal writing training? 

My training came from Actors’ Gang. We would get commissioned to do a work, I would get everyone together, I would say, here’s the idea, here’s the basic script, we have three weeks, what are we going to do? 

When it isn't on the page, the actor can create it; we’d go into the workshop, we’d see the scene and we’d think, 'It’s missing something.' So then I would go after rehearsal and work until 3am with my co-writer; we’d work out the scene we saw last night, and bring it back the next day filled out with more depth and more insight. 

This ability to do that in the theatre [made me] realise that any script you’re working on, if you’re going to be shooting that day, if it’s not working, there’s no one to blame. What are you going to do, are you going to yell at the actors? It’s basically, how do you make it work, right now, time is ticking, money is being spent, you got to shoot. [You learn] adaptability, improvisation and figuring out how to create the truth in the moment, it’s a really exciting creative process for me.


Compared to directing your own work, is directing Shakespeare harder or easier? 

It’s easier, you’re not –well, I’m not going to rewrite Shakespeare (laughs). And it’s funny because when I did the play when I was younger, it was a great production, we got great reviews and it ran for a while, but I don’t think I really understood it. And it’s the kind of thing we’ve been trying to do with the Actors’ Gang over the last ten years, we’re throwing out the paradigm of the old model, of rehearsing a play for six weeks, putting it up for eight and then it’s over. 

We like to find good plays, work on them, put them up, take a few months off, and work on them again. It’s the best we can do without state funding, to affect the European model of state-funded theatre, where they can go into rehearsal for eight-nine months and be paid to do it, and create a piece that has a lot more depth than in the six-week rehearsal period. 

But the great thing about Shakespeare is that it’s all there, if you don’t ignore it, if you respect it, it’s there for you – it’s a solid piece of work. And what we found when we did it the first time last summer, is that any time anyone got psychological with the interpretation of a line, the laughs would go away. The meter was the most important thing; the rhythm of his writing is impeccable. And I would say to the actors, 'You know, that line that didn’t get a laugh tonight, why do you think that was?' And they would say, 'Well, we were screwing around with it.' I was like, 'Shakespeare is laughing in his grave, you can’t mess with him (laughs)'. This is a perfect piece of work, and we have to respect that.


Can you tell me about the Actors’ Gang Prison Project? In an LA Times 2013 article, you talked about them gaining confidence, can you expand on that?


Well it’s been transformative, not only for the prisoners but for the actors that go in and work with them. It puts it all in perspective, let’s just say. Everyone has their things in life they are battling through, and creative people tend to dramatise that perhaps more than the normal person. [But] then you realise that some of these guys are here for 30 years and they’ve got nothing, no creative outlet, nothing. And you work with some of these guys in here and you see them transform, not in just an acting way, but in a whole, complete holistic way. It’s pretty extraordinary. 

Most of the guys will tell you that their lives were profoundly changed by the experience over the eight weeks. Some of them have done more than one session, and some of them have become leaders within the prison, creating their own projects and their own groups. We taught these two guys over a course of three sessions, then we went to a different part of the prison and said, 'You guys are on your own for a while.' We found out later, within a month they had gotten the prison’s permission to run their own programme. They trained 28 new actors, they made costumes out of paper, they made sets out of anything they could find, and they made commedia dell’arte masks out of papier mâché and the shoe leather from their prison-issued boots. 

We saw this incredible satire that they did called the Magnanimous Ass, [from] a workshop I had done with them based on Midsummer Night’s Dream, the scene where the man gets turned into the donkey. It has a lasting effect on these guys, and the prison officials love it because the problems go away. When you’ve got guys that are more attuned to, and more able to express, their own emotions, [they’re] more able to work out problems on their own with fellow prisoners. It is a much safer environment. The work is very demanding – it’s not psychological, it’s not easy, it’s physical and it demands a commitment to strong emotions. 

This is an incredible consistency with the programme, we see these things happen all the time, and we’ve stumbled onto a great form of cognitive therapy. No one wants to be in a situation where you’re trying to be a psychiatrist in a prison because there’s a good chance that there’s going to be some kind of con going on. When you get people talking about that stuff, they tend not to be so honest. But when they’re up there with white face on, pretending that their feet are on fire, they have to tap into the sincerity of the emotion in order to get the respect of the other people in the room. By doing that, they have to figure out, sometimes for the first time, how to express emotions.


Does your concern for prisoners stem at all from your work on Shawshank Redemption and Dead Man Walking? Are you drawn to write and/or star in films that deal with issues of interest, or do you become more interested in issues because of your films?


First of all, there but for the grace of God go I. I grew up in an area of New York City that was rough at times, and you had to develop certain survival instincts. Some of my friends wound up in jail. But I wasn’t particularly sensitive to the situation until I did Shawshank

You know, one of the great things about being an actor is that you’re constantly being thrust into environments you would never choose. To be there and to be sentient in that experience, you have to be open and receptive to what is there, and what was there were a lot of prisoners. 

We were [filming] at a working prison, and a lot of our extras were doing time. We got to talk to some of them, and also the prison guards who worked on the film. They gave me some insight into what was wrong with the prison system; even back then, these right-wing, conservative Republican prison guards were telling me that the whole problem with the prison system is the drug laws. They’re locking up kids for possession of marijuana with violent criminals, and they have to survive.There’s a waiting list for GED high school equivalency programmes and for job training programmes, so basically they never get anything but an education on how to be a better criminal. I knew it was broken then, and then in Dead Man Walking, I learned more about how broken the system was. 

Then at one point, one of the members of my company Sabra Williams came to me and said, 'I’d like to start this programme, a prison programme.' She’d done one in London. I gave her some money and then I started to go with her and became part of it, and it became something that made a lot of sense. For years, I have advocated for various causes, gone to benefits and donated money, but even though the intentions were good and it’s important to do that kind of work, you don’t really get anything out of it. In essence you’re creating money for the people that do the work. And what I found is when you do the work [yourself] it actually makes a lot more sense, using your talent to affect change rather than your celebrity. That was a big revelation for me.


Speaking of Shawshank, do you have a favourite film, or film experience? 

There are a lot of them; I’ve been in a lot of really interesting and great projects. [But] I would have to say that the seminal moment for me was working with Robert Altman. It was such a different and exciting experience from anything I had ever experienced. 

He involved me in the project as a creative partner, and for someone that you had viewed as an idol, as a hero, to be looking you in the eye and saying, 'Your contribution is important, and I want to tap your brain and see what you think,' it awakened a sense in me that I could direct, and I could go to different levels of my acting. [That] was the invaluable and unique experience of The Player [1992].


You said in that same Charlie Rose interview that you prefer acting to directing because directing is so difficult, do you still feel that way? Is theatre directing equally difficult? 

Actually I don’t feel that way anymore, what I was talking about at the time was how difficult it is to set up a film project that is outside of what Hollywood wants. I still feel that way about film, I think it’s still very difficult.

[But] I’ve been directing some television series I admire, Treme, a beautiful series set in New Orleans, [and] I really love directing in the theatre. I love the ability to keep expanding in that way. I think you can get constricted in this business sometimes. As an actor you can get on this kind of hamster wheel, doing the same thing over and over again, and as a director you can make compromises and make rationalisations for yourself, that this script isn’t formulaic, it isn’t something you’ve seen before. I think you lose – or I would personally expect to lose any passion I had before. 

The difficulty is important; there’s always a Sisyphean challenge in accomplishing a project, whether it’s in theatre, film or television, there’s always a moment where the odds are all stacked against you and there’s a mountain in front of you, you just have to just suck it up and do it, overcome it. It’s never easy but it’s always fulfilling.


So film directing is only difficult because of the business angle? 

Yes, yes. Because the actual doing of it is easy, I mean, if you’re disciplined and prepared, it’s a lot of fun. And I find it really exciting to do. It’s the business that is telling you can’t do it, that’s the most difficult thing, raising the financing and convincing people to give you the money to do something that is in your head (laughs). 

Someone once told me that the real talent of directing is being able to convince someone that what’s in your head is going to be brilliant, and how do you say that? What do you say to that person to get them to believe you?


Actors’ Gang is known for doing experimental and often political work, what made you decide to bring Midsummer Night’s Dream to China? What do you like about the story?


Sometimes it’s important to remember that in the midst of all the crises and economic fallout, that love is still there, the spirit of the forest from Midsummer Nights’ Dream is still there in our world. And we have to remind ourselves of this from time to time. And one of the most thrilling things for me is seeing the audience’s faces just lighten, and see the couples leaving the theatre in love. That’s a real cool thing. 

What I love about the play is that it ends in a blessing, where Oberon comes and blesses the three couples that were just married, and says any child conceived tonight, may it be without a flaw, may it have perfection, may it be healthy. It’s a blessing for the three couples in the play, but it’s also a blessing for the audience. And it’s one of those moments you realise the genius Shakespeare had, to take people through this crazy romp, with lots of laughter, and then to end on a note of 'go from this theatre and make children that are perfect.'


How about the Actors’ Gang version of Dream? 

We’re trying to do things with this production I don’t believe have been tried before. We’re working with language in a way that…well…the essential idea is that once the lovers are in the forest, all bets are off. 

Their behavior becomes irrational, the opposite of what they want – and how does that happen? Well, in the play, they drop some liquid in one of the lover’s eyes, [who then] wakes up and [sees] the person he falls in love with, but we were workshopping this and started thinking, 'What if everyone knew the lines of the lovers?'

Everyone is essentially on stage for the whole play – when someone exits, they become part of the forest – and what if, when the lovers first come in, these fairies, animals and sprites, what if they haven’t heard English for a while, and they start by just mimicking sounds? 

Then as the play progresses, they start to say the words after the lovers, then [eventually] become their subconscious. And at the end of the play, when all hell is breaking loose, we’re working with [getting] the words there before the lovers. 

So, it’s like what happens on a drug for example, where you’re not quite sure whether you’re in the moment or past the moment, or – and this is what I think he’s getting at in the play – the transformative power of night, of magic and of drugs. It’s been really interesting. 

We’re also playing with the idea of Puck being –as he says in his first speech – a shape-shifter. He can turn into a stool, a crab; he can be anything. Going off that idea, we started playing with the idea that Puck isn’t just one person, he’s constantly transforming himself into something else, so that means that a lot of actors are playing Puck as well. Are you confused?  (Laughs).


A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Daguan Theatre, Thursday 19 to Saturday 21 June. See event details.