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Writer / Director Tim Robbins on Theater That Challenges

SmSh speaks to the award winning actor ahead of the opening of his play Harlequino: On to Freedom next week in Shanghai.
2016-11-02 15:23:17
Somewhere between a quirky character actor and bonafied leading man, Tim Robbins is most universally recognized for his roles in some of the most provocative and influential Hollywood movies of the last 30+ years: Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption; Norville Barnes in The Hudsucker Proxy; Griffin Mill in The Player; and David Boyle in Mystic River -- the role for which he received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

(He was also in Howard the Duck but we didn't ask about it.)

A vocal activist not just in American political and social arenas, Robbins is also a major figurehead in the promotion of the arts, education, and theater realms, guiding his own 34-year-old theater group project The Actors' Gang as it's Founding Artistic Director to a mandate "to build a theater that would present relevant and vibrantly entertaining plays" with diverse casts. Robbins and The Actors' Gang are in Shanghai next week on November 10 to stage Harlequino: Onwards to Freedom, a piece he himself wrote and directed. For a more in-depth look at the play, check out this video here.

Tickets to Harlequino: Onwards to Freedom can be purchased here.

SmSh got heady with Tim Robbins about theater in society, the kids, and the future.


SmSh: The Actors' Gang has been established for over thirty years. From the formation of this group to its current situation, in your experience, what have been the distinctive changes regarding the creative and commercial environment for artists producing in The States?

Tim Robbins: Artists in The States and throughout the world have a struggle with funding. When we started, I financed our first production off of my salary delivering pizzas. As we progressed, we used the money to continue creating new work and experiment with new forms and challenge the status quo.

Funding is still a challenge. Fundraising keeps us alive and we’ve supplemented the income of the artists over the last 10 years and created two departments, our Education Program and our Prison Project. In an ideal world, we would pay 30 actors year round so they could create art instead of working other jobs in restaurants and bars to survive.

SmSh: Did the Actors' Gang evolve into what you had imagined when you first started it?

TR: No. I didn’t imagine 35 years. At the beginning it was production to production; whoever had the passion, will and desire to make a project happen. Myself and other directors worked year round but our survival was month to month. After 7 years of existence as an itinerant troupe in various theaters in LA, we built a home, a theater in Hollywood that provided us the ability to create seasons and establish a consistency as a theatre company.

There were bumps in the road, obstacles, defections, disagreements about the future but we’ve survived because there is a core of artists in the Gang that have a strong belief in the power and transformative nature of theater.

SmSh: This is the second time The Actors' Gang has come to China. Compared with your previous play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in terms of subject matter, this is quite a shift in focus...

TR: You’ll be seeing the same company that performed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and we work in the same discipline as we did in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the story is entirely different and the form of theater is different as well.

SmSh: What's the Commedia dell’Arte?

TR: The Commedia dell’Arte was an art form from the 16th century that was influential in many countries including England where Shakespeare took scenarios from the Commedia and used them in his plays -- scenarios and characters. However, what we are doing is a play within a play, a dialectic between the academic understanding of the history of the Commedia dell’Arte and the interpretations of a group of renegade actors. We always approach our productions with the idea that theater is a shared experience and that the story we are telling must be important and relevant.

What makes any piece we do resonate with an audience is the degree to which the actors' commitment to heightened states of emotion and the importance of the story connect with an audience.

SmSh: Harlequino: On To Freedom digs into the origin of commedia dell'arte. For those not familiar with this form of theater, will it prevent them from understanding the play? Is there anything we need to know before seeing it?

TR: No, I wrote the play with that in mind. Our audiences here in the United States have no idea what the Commedia dell’Arte is. So, the play guides them into it through a character called The Dottore, who is there to explain what the Commedia dell’Arte is. His lecture is soon taken over by actors who start showing the audience what the Commedia dell’Arte is.

But, let me be clear on something, the Commedia dell’Arte is a story we all know. The scenarios of the Commedia dell’Arte are very familiar to everyone throughout the world. I was traveling in Bali a few years ago and saw a performance in a town square of Indonesian actors and they were telling the story of the Commedia dell’Arte.

It’s essentially this: two people are in love and because of this, the daughter's father wants to marry her off to someone else. The servants find a way in the course of the story to embarrass their master, and subordinate his power over his daughter. True love survives. It’s a story as basic as the hills and its a story relatable to everyone.

SmSh: Theatrical entertainment has always been very popular in China, but only in recent years have more innovative forms emerged that have attract younger generations, and even non-regular theatergoers. Despite this, young Chinese theater still struggles for larger exposure and perhaps a language to communicate to the masses. Do you think theater as a fine art needs to make some sort of compromise to consumer culture in order to reach a larger audience?

TR: Hopefully not. Theater in its purest form must challenge itself to find the new. New forms of expression, new forms of story telling. Breakthroughs in art don't come from trying to appeal to a mass audience. At the same time, breakthroughs in art have the potential to breakthrough to a large audience, but the road towards creating a breakthrough must be filled with freedom to express in new ways and this simply cannot happen when the artist is being asked to serve the commercial needs.

SmSh: The plays that opened your Season of Justice 2016 all have a common topic -- the relationship between justice and power. What inspired you to adapt and create these scripts? And why do you think it's important to address this topic to millennials, especially in 2016?

TR: First of all, both of these scripts were written by other people that brought them to me. Michael Gene Sullivan did the adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 and Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank wrote The Exonerated, which I participated in at the first reading in New York City. These topics unfortunately are relevant every time that we do them, regardless of the age we’re in.

When I first did 1984, millennials were still 10 years old. I think a good piece of writing, a good story has a universal quality to it, that makes it relevant in every age that it's performed in. I’m excited that there are many millennials discovering theater in China. Some of our best performances at The Actors’ Gang are performances we do for high school children. Essentially, if you make good theater available to anyone, whether they are children, millennials, middle aged people or the elderly, they will find an importance and relevance within their own lives and concerns and passions.

Images with this article courtesy of The Actors' Gang. Written with Jin Qian.


Tim Robbins' 'Harlequino: On to Freedom' runs from November 10 to November 13 at Himalayas Center. Purchase tickets right here.