Extended interview: Tim Robbins

The Shawshank Redemption star chats about new project Harlequino

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 Harlequino: On To Freedom to Shanghai, he talks to Time Out about his life, his work and the Actors’ Gang’s Prison Project

I understand you were inspired to write Harlequino: On To Freedom after reading about Duke Gonzaga, can you expand on that?

There’s a historical account of this Duke Gonzaga of Mantua trying to hang three actors after a Commedia dell’Arte performance. I thought: “What on earth could have been in that play that would have angered him that much?” And it’s interesting because the court records indicate that he enjoyed the play, but he says his rage was based on…he asked who wrote the play, and one actor raised his hand, and then another raised his hand, and then another – it was a Spartacus moment. They were protecting each other, I think. But he saw it as greed; that everyone wanted a tribute. And that doesn’t make sense, because if you offer one tribute to one actor, of course it’s going to be shared among the other actors. 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 over something in the script. So that made me wonder what was in these scripts.

For the first 80 years of commedia, there was no written record of any script or scenario. Some that say the scripts were confiscated by the church and burned, some that say it was improvised, and some that say there were no scripts because what they were talking about was incendiary. The first known commedia scripts were played in front of [royalty]. There was already something that was acceptable, or perhaps watered down about what the original form was. And if you look at the nature of the form itself, it was performed in town squares, not theatres; it wasn’t contracted for long runs, it was basically set up a stage, tell your story to the townspeople, and get the hell out of town. That suggests that they had to be telling stories that were relevant to the people in the town square. If you’ve ever done street theatre, you know it’s not an easy crowd; they haven’t paid money for a ticket or have a seat inside a theatre; they can wander off. Those plays must have reflected the culture of the time. They had constant war, they had poverty, there were [religious] struggles, and there were struggles between the rich and the poor – the same kind of struggles we have today.

So I started looking at early commedia through this lens. Also, for the first time in human history, there was a chattel slave trade; there were slaves before, but there were never people being kidnapped and sold in the open market. That was the African slave trade, which started in 1490. And 40 years later, commedia emerges as an art form where the main character is a slave. I believe there is a connection between this new important trade and this art form.

Harlequino is part of the Actors’ Gang’s 2016 Season of Justice, along with The Exonerated and 1984?

Yes, we’ve been doing that this year. Both 1984 and The Exonerated are plays that reflect the culture the US is in right now, the overreaching powers of the government in our personal lives, and in the case of The Exonerated, the broken criminal justice system. That’s about six people who were on death row that were exonerated because they were innocent of the crimes; it’s a pretty common story told about the intimidation of people who are suspected of a crime, to the point where they confess to crimes they did not commit. It’s calling attention to this injustice.

You’ve talked about servitude in its different forms, including the university debt Americans now take for granted – can you expand on that?

Well, [these days], even an average college student is graduating with over 100,000USD in debt. The question is, how does this happen? You’re saying to the young professional, in order to get out of this debt, you have to get the best job possible for yourself. You can’t volunteer your time for two years to help out society, you can’t choose to be a schoolteacher or to work with inner city kids – those salaries are not high enough. You’ve got to go right to the top to pay this off if you have any chance of surviving. So we’re relying on the entitled people, who don’t have student loans, to pick up the slack, and I’m not sure we can count on them to take all the teaching jobs.

In other words, why are we not educating our children in a way that allows them to not only get a good education but to pick a field or profession that they have a passion for, and that they can bring their youthful energy and commitment to. Instead, we saddle them with this amazing student loan debt. Also, we’re shoving credit cards into their hands before they can afford to have credit cards, and now they’re accruing all this credit card debt. And they’re starting all their lives in an overly competitive situation, where [three people go for the only job that can pay for this]. That’s great for the one who gets the job, but the other two are going to be struggling doing temp work or working nominal jobs to pay off $170,000 in debt.

It’s crazy that we treat our younger generation like that; that’s one of the reasons you see so much disillusionment in our country, this lack of economic equality. When I was going to school in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, you could go to school for a lot less money. I went to UCLA, and I could afford it on my own; I worked a couple of jobs and put myself through college. I took out a little bit of a student loan, but it was an achievable goal. But universities have gotten so rich off the ambition of the American middle class. It’s obscene.

How does Harlequino fit into this Season of Justice?

The play talks about not only the history of commedia, but about the way history is written, and how we come up with our narrative of history. The person who writes history is the victor, not the vanquished. Part of the play’s question is whose story should we be telling, that of the master or the servant? And what is the difference between a servant and a slave? And is there a difference? What is the power dynamic in a society that prevents certain stories from being told?

Did your work on the Actors’ Gang’s Prison Project, or your work on the film Shawshank Redemption affect your interpretation of, or interest in these plays?

I think one of the great things about the company right now is that in Harlequino or The Exonerated, at least half are teachers are in the prison programme. You have a unique situation where actors are bringing their talent but also their experiences with the community and with people who have been less fortunate. They kind of feed each other; this way, I think you have a much more committed and empathetic actor.

How about you personally? Was there an additional feeling you had, working with prisons?

Not with Harlequino; definitely yes with the other two. With Harlequino, if anything it was the work with the prisoners themselves, helping them to find their voices, to find the freedom to play. One started his own theatre company, in prison, and trained forty new members; they wrote a play called the Magnanimous Ass, based on a workshop we did with Midsummer Night’s Dream. If anything, the spirit of the people who must have been performing in Italy in 1530, against obstacles like the church and local political leaders that did not want to hear themselves satirised – I gather this is a lot like having your voice heard in prison.

You’ve reacted negatively when you work is called agit-prop or political theatre, can you tell us why those terms bother you?

Those are two words that have been used in the theatre community to marginalise works of art – there are people who would call Brecht agit-prop or political theatre. I guess until we live in a world that says: Agit-prop! Four Stars! Or: Political Theatre! Come See It!, then these are words that will turn off a large amount of people. And I would not consider what we do, or have ever done, political theatre. We do compelling stories that are reflective of the world around us, but that’s humanist, not political. It’s the words we’re choosing and the effect they have. To be political is to be measured and calculated and manipulative, and I do not engage in that kind of storytelling.

You’ve said that theatre is the last bastion of truth, why is that?

Theatre is one of the only art forms where you can conceive of an idea, write it, and put it up in front of an audience without the permission of a corporation. Pretty much every movie you see in the US has to have corporate permission. There are some people producing films independently, but if they want it to be seen, if they want a distributer of note, or a platform past its theatrical release, they have to have the participation of a corporation. Theatre doesn’t need that – perhaps on a larger scale it does, but there is a lot of theatre that is surviving, and telling stories you’ll never see on a wide screen.

This also means the possibility of innovation, because you’re not going to a businessman with a profit incentive to produce your work. How do you go outside the box when you’re doing a movie for 20 to 30 million dollars? How do you really test the boundaries when you’re beholden to a major investor who needs to make money?

Do you want to add something about the 2016 US election?

Oh sweet lord! What an unholy mess. I pray for rationale, reason and compassion on election day.

Anything else?

We’re so looking forward to coming back to China; we had such a good time when we were there with Midsummer Night’s Dream. We learned so much about the play itself, and about comedy, and about the Chinese culture too; the audiences, the talk back and the discussions we had in China were incredibly enriching. We’re looking forward to seeing some of those people again, and some new friends who will come out and watch it.

For more information on the Actors’ Gang Prison Programme, or on Tim Robbins’ work on Shawshank Redemption and other films, see our 2014 extended Q&A here.

Tim Robbins

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

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By: Nancy Pellegrini