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As The Actors' Gang Reopens, Tim Robbins Explains Why Live Theater Takes Us Out Of Isolation

Two male actors stand on the left of a theater set, while a man and a woman sit and stand on a bed nearby. All look confused.
The Actors Gang Theater in Culver City has been closed for live performances for two years. But it’s back with a new show, "Can't Pay? Don't Pay!" an Italian comedy from the 1970s about a revolt against rising costs.
(Ashley Randell
Courtesy of The Actors Gang)
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The Actors Gang Theater in Culver City has been closed for live performances for two years due to the pandemic. But it’s back with a new show, "Can't Pay? Don't Pay!", an Italian comedy from the 1970s about a revolt against rising costs.

Artistic Director Tim Robbins spoke to Larry Mantle on AirTalk, our newsroom’s public affairs show, about how it feels to be doing live theater again, and the part it plays in bringing people together.

(The conversation has been edited for clarity.)

Larry: So let's talk first of all about the significance of this for you, and getting Actors Gang back up and in front of live audiences.

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Tim: Well, we've missed it so terribly. You know, we have a theatre company that’s now in its 40th year, and for the past few years we've been doing Zoom workshops and productions, but it lacks that immediacy, and that thrill of being in a room with other people.

I think one of the worst side effects of this lack of community, is this idea that’s very rare in human history, where the assembly, the forum, the meeting place has been eliminated from society.

And I often think about the water cooler conversation at work, where you're in a dialogue with people you might not necessarily consider friends or people that you would invite out to dinner. But it's another point of view that you must deal with, that might not be something you agree with.

But it's important in a democracy, it's important that you hear that voice, because it’s something that is out there in the world. And unfortunately, during lockdown over the past two years, we've kind of gotten more isolated and almost the opposite of community. We've gone into our own little silos of thinking, and have not had to deal with that uncomfortable voice at the watercooler.

Larry: You'd been doing virtual performances, hadn't you, in the interim period?

Tim: Yes, we did an adaptation of Studs Terkel's Hard Times, his oral history of the depression, that was called We live on. And we did other productions as well. But it was missing that thing that happens when you assemble [in person].

Here's what's great about theater. There's some profound experiences you can have seeing a film or watching a streaming piece of entertainment. But it's those live experiences that you remember for your life.

And the reason is because you're in a room with strangers and this chemistry is never going to be the same again for performer or for audience. And what happens in this moment is this actual energy transfer, that unites people in a way.

If you can unite through a common emotion, as has been theatre's purpose throughout history, a common emotion of compassion, or anger or, most importantly, laughter, that you can share with a complete stranger you might not agree with, this is a healing thing, this is an important thing.

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Larry: Have you talked with your colleagues at other theaters, other artistic directors, and heard what the response they've been getting to audiences returning has been?

Tim: It's generally been positive. You know, of course, that people really want to get back at it. I think some people tried to open earlier. We felt it was important to be patient, so that when we opened our doors, we could open them for everybody and not for an exclusive group.

It's always been my opinion that theater should be for everybody, there shouldn't be requirements at the door, in order to get into a theater. That somehow for me betrays the spirit of what an open forum is. And so we waited and we were patient and we're able to get there because we have a great group of people working for us and now we have our great audience members coming back.

Larry: Tim, thank you very much, we appreciate your joining us and all the best to you and your colleagues at the Actors Gang.

Tim: Please come on down. And we also want to say, Larry, that you know, because of the times and throughout our history, we have made sure that we present theater that is available to everybody, including people that have never seen theater before.

And for that reason, if you're flat out busted and you can't afford a ticket, you can come on Thursday nights, this is a Pay What You Can night. And if you can't come on Thursdays, you can contact the box office, and we'll arrange something so that you can see theater.

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