Tim Robbins on Actors' Gang: 'Inmates never get anything but an education on how to be a better criminal'

The Shawshank Redemption star returns with a penetrating look at justice

Mathias Rodriguez 

For Tim Robbins, theatre is the last bastion of truth, a place where artists can explore ideas without having to answer to corporate sponsors – a place of unfettered innovation. ‘How do you go outside the box when you’re doing a movie for 30 million dollars?’ he says. ‘How do you test the boundaries when you’re beholden to a major investor who needs to make money? A lot of theatre is telling stories you’ll never see on a big screen.’

This was the motivation behind founding Actors’ Gang, Robbins’ theatre company now celebrating its 35th year and touring Shanghai this November with their latest, Harlequinio: On to Freedom (pictured below). Those who remember his roles in Mystic River, The Player, Bull Durham and The Shawshank Redemption may not realise that a film career that includes an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and countless other honours was initially about funding his theatre company. Their first play was Ubu Roi (Ubu the King), Alfred Jarry’s satire that caused riots upon its 1896 debut, but is now credited with influencing the surrealist and Dada movements. ‘I have always been attracted to theatre that has a larger canvas, that involves subject matter that concerns [the whole world],’ he says. ‘And this was the craziest play I’d ever read, with directions like “a malcontent explodes”.’

Clearly, Actors’ Gang was never meant to be a mainstream operation; rather, Robbins calls it a laboratory where like-minded artists can create innovative work. He credits his development as an actor, director, and writer to working with the company, where he learned to mould and reinterpret pieces for stage and film. ‘I could work on an idea, [without getting] the approval of a studio or millions of dollars to realise it,’ he says. ‘I still spend more time in my theatre than I do on movie sets.’

But to Robbins, theatre is as much a creative exercise as it is a societal endeavour. Actors’ Gang runs education programmes in American schools and holds free after-school student workshops. But above all, the play’s the thing. The company’s 2016 Season of Justice revives earlier works such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Erik Jensen and Jessica Blanks’ The Exonerated, about six prisoners wrongly condemned to death, both of which Robbins feels reflect the ‘overreaching powers of the [US] government in our lives, and the broken criminal justice system’. The latest addition is Robbins’ Harlequino: On To Freedom, about a Commedia dell’Arte troupe that hijacks a professor’s lecture. This brings the Renaissance comedy tradition into modern times, asking modern questions.



In artistic terms, Commedia dell’Arte – the 16th-century Italian comedic theatre tradition in which the actors wear masks – propelled Western theatre forward, greatly influencing Shakespeare, vaudeville and more. Commedia dell’Arte plays were satirical and edgy: stock characters would enact stories about young lovers facing obstacles, foolish or self-important old men, vainglorious captains, and, most importantly, the clever servant, best known as Harlequin, who pulls the story together.

Robbins’ play was inspired by a historical account of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, who watched a Commedia dell’Arte performance then asked who wrote the story. When three actors raised their hands, he accused them of arrogance and ordered them imprisoned, tortured and hanged (the sentence was later commuted). Robbins was intrigued. ‘To me, this was a Spartacus moment; they were protecting each other. I think the court record is an attempt to rewrite history so he doesn’t come off looking so bad – my suspicion is that he flew into a rage about something in the script.’

The fact that Commedia dell’Arte had no physical scripts for at least 80 years suggests that the material was improvised or incendiary – or both. ‘[Troupes] weren’t contracted for long runs; it was basically set up a stage and get the hell out of town,’ he says. He points out that today’s street performers still use politically relevant material, which in the 16th century involved war, religious divisions, and economic inequality. ‘Just like today,’ says Robbins.

They also had, Robbins reminds us, a nascent slave trade, where for the first time people were being kidnapped and sold on the open market. ‘Then, 40 years later, Commedia emerges as an art form where the main character is a slave,’ he says. ‘I believe there’s a connection there.’

HARLEQUINO Photographer Mathias Rodriguez (40)

HARLEQUINO Photographer Mathias Rodriguez (25)

Robbins wants Harlequino to raise questions about society’s power dynamic that prevents certain stories from being told, about history being written by the victor, and about whose story should be told, master or slave. He also asks about the difference between servitude and slavery, and reminds us that servitude comes in all forms. This includes American university graduates owing hundreds of thousands of dollars, forcing them to seek high-salary jobs instead of those they have a passion for. ‘You’re telling them you can’t volunteer for two years to help society, you can’t teach inner city kids; you’ve got to pay this off if you have any chance of surviving. It’s obscene. This is one reason you see so much disillusionment in our country,’ he says, adding that we have to rely on the entitled, loan-free graduates to fill the gaps. ‘I’m not sure we can count on them to take all the teaching jobs.’

Of course, servitude doesn’t come any worse than the penal kind, and here too, Robbins walks the walk. The celebrated 1994 Shawshank Redemption was filmed in a working prison, and Robbins spoke to inmates and ‘right-wing, Republican guards’, who blamed the US’s draconian drug laws for a system that incarcerates those with marijuana possession convictions alongside violent offenders. ‘There’s a waiting list for [high school equivalency] programmes, there’s a waiting list for job training, but in the meantime they have to survive,’ he says. ‘Inmates never get anything but an education on how to be a better criminal.’

The Actors’ Gang Prison Project teaches theatre workshops to inmates. One prisoner started his own company, training 40 new members, and making costumes from papier mache and shoe leather from their prison-issue boots. ‘Prison officials love it,’ says Robbins. ‘When [inmates] are attuned to their own emotions, they can work out problems more easily with other prisoners.’

The project started at one prison with private funds; now the group covers eight prisons and receives State funding. Studies indicate that the infractions among inmates involved decreased by 89 percent, and that their recidivism has halved. To Robbins, these prison workshops fuelled Harlequino. ‘It was about helping them find their voice, to find the freedom to play,’ he says. ‘The [16th-century actors] performing for local leaders that didn’t want to hear themselves satirised is a lot like having your voice heard in prison.’

Robbins has long been known for his activism, but he bristles when critics label his work ‘agitprop’ and ‘political theatre’, calling these negative terms that marginalise art. ‘We do compelling stories that reflect the world around us; that’s humanist, not political,’ he says. ‘To be political is to be measured, calculated and manipulative, and I do not engage in that kind of storytelling.’

Robbins’ kind of storytelling is open to discussion, something he thoroughly enjoyed on the Actors’ Gang 2014 China tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. ‘The audiences, the talk-back and the discussions we had were incredibly enriching,’ he says. ‘We learned so much about the play itself, and so much about comedy.’ With one theme of Harlequino being to question comedy itself, there should be a lot to talk about.

Harlequino: On to Freedom is at the DaGuan Theatre at 7.30pm on Thursday 10-Sunday 13 November. See below for full details.

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