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Interview: Tim Robbins Needs Your Help

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Tim Robbins. Photo courtesy The Collegian.

Guys, Tim Robbins seriously needs your help; he's in trouble. Well, more accurately, his passionate outlet, The Actors' Gang, is in trouble. You see, the Gang spends so much time and money helping out everyone from schoolchildren to their Culver City community at large and in rehabilitating convicted felons, things are getting tight. But Tim and the rest of the Gang, refusing to quit or even flinch, are deep in a months-long arts festival aptly titled WTF?! Fest. The festival has already hosted the likes of Tenacious D and Sarah Silverman with Tom Morello and Ben Gibbard to look forward to, among great film screenings and theatre productions. Their mission is simple: bring folks into their amazing Ivy Substation theater space, and keep them coming back enough to help sustain the decades-long (and absolutely imperative) community outreach programs the Gang has so diligently been a part of. Come to think of it, it sounds like we need Tim's help just as much as he needs ours.

As the star-studded WTF?! Fest continues into December at The Actors' Gang theater in downtown Culver CIty, Artistic Director Tim Robbins was kind enough to talk to LAist about the nature of good theatre, what it means to be a part of a community, and just how important it is to help others.

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LAist: I think with the economy being what it is, you’re not really seeing the same level of artistic commitment to local communities these days as perhaps a few years ago. Yet The Actors’ Gang continues to push for more and more community involvement, most recently with the WTF?! Festival.

Tim Robbins: I think it’s the time to make more of a commitment. I think it’s up to all of us, whether it’s in the arts or education or healthcare, it’s time to volunteer. It’s time to use the time you have to make things better. You can’t wait for ‘them’ to do it for you, it’s just not going to materialize that way.

You seem to be such an entrenched part of the downtown Culver City scene. Do you feel that way, and do you feel like the community’s embraced you back?

Yeah. This is a great community. Even so, people who live two blocks away haven’t found their way to the theatre. Part of our mission right now is to reach out to the community and invite them in to some of these things that have nothing to do with theatre and try to help them discover the space and the group. People have a fear of theatre, and I don’t blame them. A lot of it’s really bad.

I figured out something the other day. Our first exposure as children to music, if our parents have any taste, is usually pretty damn good. It’s the Beatles or Mozart or Beethoven. Our first exposure to art is in the books that our parents show us, and it’s usually stunning art. And our first exposure to film is the brilliance of Disney animation or Pixar animation. But our first exposure to theatre is a really bad, badly acted, school play. Right? And you sit there because your friend is in it, and you CAN’T wait to get out of there. It’s just excruciating. I think this is why we have this fear of theatre. You don’t want to be stuck in that situation again. You can’t leave because it’s a live event, or it’s a big statement to leave, so you’re just stuck there while you see this bad, dispassionate, poorly acted piece of work. The French are smart, the English are smart. They get their kids into real, professional theaters at an early age, and they develop an appreciation of theatre.

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Speaking of children, you do a lot of work with children here in the local community. Can you talk a little bit more about how that’s been going?

Pretty much every day in the space between 3 and 6 we have kids in here. This is our theater but it’s also the community’s theater, so we like to find ways that we can share the space with the community. For me, the ideal way is to get kids up on that stage and get them finding their own voice. Whether they’re going to be actors or not is irrelevant; what happens is that they find a way to express themselves. A lot of parents and teachers have told us how a kid who was in a shell before, couldn’t get up in front of a class -too nervous, too shy- all of a sudden finds a way to do that. And that’s a major thing, and we’re happy that that happens, proud...honored that that happens. Theatre somewhere got very elitist, as if it’s a high art. ‘You have to pay a lot of money to go see theatre, and it’s only for a certain class of people’. I just think that’s all bullshit. I started doing street theatre in New York. We’d pull into a neighborhood and put up a stage and backdrop, put some costumes on and do theatre for anyone that was in the area. For us it’s a mandate to provide affordable theatre. We keep our ticket prices down and we have at least one night a week where, if you’re totally broke, you can come see the play we’re doing. For us that’s absolutely essential. I don’t think you can be a community organization and not do things like that. It makes it much more difficult to survive, particularly in hard economic times, and the economic model is: in hard times, you’ve got to charge more because you’ve got less donations. And we’re flying in the face of that. We’re saying ‘no, let’s charge less so more people can see it’. If we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down together. This is a community.

Listen, if the thing falls apart, and we can’t produce theatre, we’re still going to be a community organization. If we lose this space in the next couple of years, and we can’t afford this space anymore, we’ll still be producing. We’ll still be doing our educational programs. We’ll still be doing our prison project. We’ll just have to figure out how to survive somewhere else.

What is your response to the people who would say that you’re a major motion picture star, and if you want to see these programs continue, then fund them yourself?

I would say that for the 28 years that this company has been together, I’ve been its major donor. The other problem with that is - if a group doesn’t learn how to survive on its own, if its got a sugar daddy, it doesn’t grow. I also am not in as good of a shape economically as I have been in the past, so I can’t really do it forever. So the organization has got to figure out how to survive. This is a good step, because I think we’ll be expanding our audience and I think it’s also important the THEM that this is not a vanity thing. This is a real group, a real artistic organization that tours all over the world and generates income for its members. And it’s gotten larger than I could ever bankroll. It’s become a major artistic organization, and I think it’s for the health of the organization that it NOT rely on one person.

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Can you go into more detail about the prison program the Actors’ Gang currently runs?

In a jail of course, there’s different groups. Gangs. And you get adopted when you get there into one of the groups, and for some reason, whether it’s pride or past experience or still active resentments, people just don’t mingle. What this thing provides is a room where ten guys from ten different groups can get in a room and are asked to express emotion. Be open. Be accepting of the other person’s emotion. For some of them it’s pretty profound, to be able to go past your allegiances - race or gang or nationality - and to find common ground from outside your group can be something that can be life-changing. You can develop a brotherhood with your enemy. Think of the weight that must lift off of people’s shoulders. And when you’re asked to hate a group of people for an abstract reason, and you do it because you need to survive, and then you’re presented with the humanity from that group, you can no longer hate them. Think of how that can lift your soul, how that can take a burden away from you. It takes a lot of energy to hate.

Finally, your training programs have helped out many fine (and famous) actors. How do you think this training ultimately helps the children and troubled adults you've been working so hard with?

What we do in our training is we give a discipline and a structure to this anarchy. It’s a very rigorous training that trains the actor not to bullshit, to be true in an emotion, and always be willing to commit to an emotion, and to have a respect for the audience. They are owed your best. Its tough work, and I think the people who have been through it have benefited from it. I certainly have. When it’s 2am and I’m about to do a take and I’m lost and exhausted, I have that voice in my head from the training: What’s your stake? Get it going. Stakes. This is important. Don’t phone it in, never phone it in. You always have to commit yourself.

The WTF?! Festival runs until December 19th, with all proceeds going towards the many community commitments The Actors' Gang has chosen to take on. For a full list of the incredible upcoming shows (including a screening of The Wizard of Oz alongside the Dark Side of the Moon!) check out their calendar here.