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THEATER : A Gang of His Own : While the movie studios stay on the sidelines, Tim Robbins and other star patrons put their money where their hearts are--in Los Angeles theater. The Actors’ Gang proves what they can do

<i> Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer. </i>

When Tim Robbins started out in street theater, the actor recalls, he was competing for attention with noisy trucks, mothers hollering out of windows at their children and neighborhood drunks who would wander onstage and sing along.

Today Robbins is one of the hottest film actors around, given his highly visible portrayal of the sleek studio executive in Robert Altman’s “The Player.” But neither that nor the making of his own film “Bob Roberts” has distracted him from a substantial commitment to non-traditional theater.

Should all go according to plan, the Actors’ Gang, the theater company Robbins and friends founded at UCLA in 1981, will open a new home on Saturday. On Santa Monica Boulevard, on the eastern end of Hollywood’s “Theatre Row,” the Gang’s renovated warehouse space will offer up “The Oresteia.”

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“The Oresteia” is an ambitious undertaking, an evening that sweeps in 24 actors, three of the city’s top stage directors and three commissioned plays based on the tragedies of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. “I like the idea it’s the first performance in the space,” Robbins says, “and we go back to the roots of theater.”

This is not Greek tragedy the way the Greeks wrote it, however. “Orestes,” one of the three plays, is set in what its director, David Schweizer, describes as a “wacko medical environment.” Doctors wrestle on the ground and nurses sing choruses of “Close to You” as Helen of Troy discusses the exfoliation of her skin and Electra gets astrological advice by phone.

Robbins and the Actors’ Gang are not interested in staged sitcoms and frothy musicals. In 1992, Robbins wrote and directed “Mayhem: The Invasion,” a radio drama reinterpreting Christopher Columbus’ role in history, and earlier Actors’ Gang plays took on the U.S. bombing of Libya and evangelism.

Nothing glamorous here. The theater may be newly renovated, but it’s a big barn of a space in a pretty run-down neighborhood. Gang members work for almost no money playing to audiences of fewer than 100 people, and plenty of those people stretch to afford the $15 ticket price.

Says director Brian Kulick, who is coordinating “The Oresteia”: “This is not the kind of work that agents or casting directors come to and say, ‘This person would be perfect on “Wings.” ’ No one there is under the delusion that some casting director will discover him. They’re there because they’re hungry for something with some meat to it, for material that scares them and means something to them.”

Harnessing that passion is Robbins, Actors’ Gang’s artistic director. And what Robbins’ long-term commitment to the Gang illustrates best is the significance of the Hollywood patron to local theater. From the now-defunct Los Angeles Theatre Center to the flourishing Mark Taper Forum, it is usually the individual film star, producer or studio executive--and not his employer--who supports local theater.

For years now, theater professionals here have complained that the industry ignores their economic plight, failing to support what many consider research and development on local stages. Movie studios and production companies, they say, have scooped up the town’s writing, acting and other talent without suitably rewarding the region’s theaters.

Unlike Broadway, where studios have often been major investors, Los Angeles theater is rarely the recipient of institutional largess. Columbia Pictures may have backed Lisa-Maria Radano’s play “Brooklyn Laundry” back in 1991, but even Columbia Vice Chairman Sid Ganis readily concedes it was the exception rather than the rule.

More customary here is the lone giver, the star, playwright or producer who deeply believes in a given play--or in its potential to attract agents, casting directors or potential employers. Robbins, who doesn’t even live here anymore, takes that one step further, financing and overseeing not one or two plays but 13 years’ worth of ensemble theater.

The high profile of Robbins, currently starring in the Coen brothers’ film “The Hudsucker Proxy,” also draws attention to the many other film and TV people with ties to the city’s theaters. Producer Joseph Stern has long subsidized plays at his Matrix Theatre by working in film and TV, while TV star Marla Gibbs recently announced a season of plays at her Vision Theatre in Leimert Park.

Robert Altman, Annette Bening and Robin Williams are on the Actors’ Gang board, and Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and Holly Hunter are on the board of Hollywood’s Met Theatre. One-third of the Center Theatre Group’s 36 board members are producers, studio executives and such.

“The interest is individually oriented instead of corporately oriented,” says actress Hunter, currently a co-producer of Raymond Barry’s play “Mother’Son” at the Met. “It would be a lovely thing if there were some sort of subsidizing of local theater through the movie industry. But that only happens on a personal level rather than as an across-the-board industry philosophy of how studios contribute to the community.”

Ask Larry Gelbart, the film, TV and theater writer who took the industry to task in “City of Angels”: “Hollywood helps Los Angeles theater by giving Tim Robbins wonderful salaries for him to put into theater,” Gelbart says. “I think it’s very healthy for the theater when someone like him stays committed and takes those risks, artistic and financial. It’s wonderful bait--let’s see if anyone bites.”

Theater people in Los Angeles are not exactly fishing in a well-stocked stream.

“Here it is in their own back yard,” says Matrix producer Stern. “But there is no sense of any continuity or relationship between theater at large and film and TV.”

Veteran local producer Susan Dietz says she tried unsuccessfully to get studio support at each theater she ran, and she is hardly alone.

Longtime LATC board member Frank Pierson, a writer and director, estimates that he spent three or four weeks a year attending meetings with key studio executives and their grants people, making pitches and writing letters, with little luck. “Some were not interested at all,” he recalls. “Some were committed elsewhere.”

Yet Hollywood has long put investment dollars into Broadway. Paramount and Warner Bros. have had theatrical divisions over the years, and Columbia and others have backed individual Broadway shows. Disney not only will open a Broadway version of “Beauty and the Beast” next month but also recently bought its own Broadway house.

David Geffen has invested in several New York shows, although none that originated here, and movie producer Scott Rudin last year aligned himself with New York’s Jujamcyn Theaters chain. Then, last fall, Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment announced a sizable development project with New York’s Playwrights Horizons, the nonprofit, Off Broadway house that produced Alfred Uhry’s play “Driving Miss Daisy.”

Although Spielberg gave $100,000 to the Los Angeles Theatre Center at one point, this time around his donation seems less charitable than practical: Amblin will fund, reportedly for $100,000 a year, the commissioning of 10 mutually agreed-upon plays during the next two years.

“Hopefully from that process, some movies will come,” says Deborah Newmyer, Amblin’s senior vice president of development. “But we don’t have automatic rights.”

Why wasn’t it done here? “Credit Don Scardino,” Newmyer says of Playwrights’ artistic director. “He approached Steven directly, after Steven had seen one of his plays, and made it very easy and appealing for Steven to be part of Playwrights. Playwrights also has a long history of talented writers who have been able to make the transition to screenwriting, such as Wendy Wasserstein, Alfred Uhry and Christopher Durang.”

That sort of writer roster is unlikely at local theaters. Aside from the Taper, Los Angeles is primarily a city with big theaters for traveling shows and small spaces that rarely have longstanding management or companies. Institutional, Off Broadway-style, nonprofit houses like Playwrights Horizons simply haven’t flourished here.

All of which makes it that much more difficult to ask studios for money. And, say film and theater people alike, studios are corporations that often have other charitable or business priorities as well as high job turnover in key decision-making posts.

There are exceptions, of course, such as Columbia’s backing of Radano’s “Brooklyn Laundry” for a limited four-week run in 1991. James Brooks directed Glenn Close, Laura Dern and Woody Harrelson at the Coronet Theatre, and if the creative team had been able to work out some problems in the second act, says film producer Polly Platt, the play’s co-producer, “I might have been driven to do it as a film. But it was truly not what we had in mind. We did it because both Jim and I always loved theater.”

So does Holly Hunter. The much-honored actress co-produced (and starred in) friend Beth Henley’s play “Control Freaks” at the 99-seat Met here last year, she said at the time, because “there was no other way it was going to be done.” She is now co-producing Barry’s play there because “I have been riveted by this particular performer and writer for years; I want Ray to have a home.”

MCA Chairman Lew Wasserman was the first Center Theatre Group president back in the ‘60s, and Mark Taper Forum Artistic Director Gordon Davidson says he has long courted film people. That courtship formalized, he says, when CTG in 1991 established its 50-member Entertainment Council, a group whose mission includes supporting the Taper’s new-play development programs.

“It’s the Entertainment Council’s charge,” says Columbia’s Ganis, also a CTG board member, “to make sure this community, which runs around hyperventilating all day long about its own art forms, remembers that theater is a feeder to those art forms.”

LATC founder Bill Bushnell, now living on a sailboat in the Virgin Islands, has a suggestion: “If the studio heads and production company heads really could see past next week and really cared about their art form, they’d set up a fund for Los Angeles nonprofit theaters. It would be a tax write-off for them and get everyone off their backs. One executive and a secretary could administer it.”

But until they do, philanthropists like Robbins seem the most likely film industry patrons of local theater.

Robbins spent several summers hanging out with the Theatre for the New City in New York before heading to UCLA to study theater. At UCLA, he assembled a group of actors for a production of French surrealist Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu, the King.” After graduating, Robbins recast and restaged it for the Pilot Theatre here, where it ran for six months.

“I’m the oldest Actors’ Gang fan,” says director Kulick, who was also at UCLA in the early ‘80s. “I saw their first production of ‘Ubu.’ I thought it was amazing, and to this day I think it is one of the best things I’ve seen. It is rare for someone of that age to have a vision of what kind of theater he wanted to make.”

Robbins’ vision? “We were going to do theater that was more energetic, more socially responsive, more geared toward athleticism than the theater we’d been surrounded by,” he said by phone from his New York office. “A lot of our energy and tack came from the music we were listening to at the time--the Clash, the Sex Pistols. We wanted to bring onto the stage some of the anarchy and energy we saw in those clubs, listening to this music.”

Then came the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival and Georges Bigot, an actor with France’s highly regarded Le Theatre du Soleil who stayed on in Los Angeles to lead an extensive workshop. Robbins and two associates came away, he says, with “a form and a structure to our energy and commitment--we developed a style that was unique to our own sensibilities.”

The Actors’ Gang grew from its original 12, picking up members with each play. The group did one show a year, sometimes two, generally to favorable reviews and good houses. And it received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle’s Margaret Harford Award in 1989 for continuing contributions to Los Angeles’ smaller-theater arena.

Yet the sort of risk-taking, original, often political work the Actors’ Gang delivers is not mainstream theater fare. Many theater and film people queried for this article praised Robbins and his support while indicating little familiarity with what exactly he and the Gang are doing.

Nor are the shows always successful. The Gang’s 1989 foray to New York’s Public Theatre was considered “amateurish” by then-New York Times drama critic Frank Rich, for instance. Rich ended his devastating review by referring to “Carnage, a Comedy,” a play by Robbins and Adam Simon, as a “preening exercise in show-biz self-indulgence.”

Shows like “Carnage” are developed in ensemble workshops that reflect the Gang’s commedia dell’arte roots. First at a downtown loft space called “the actory,” now in a storefront near its new space, the group gathers again and again to talk out stories and ideas, then put on costumes and makeup to create characters and plots, often to improvised rhythmic music.

Robbins, who has been living in New York since 1987, stays hooked into the process. Besides making a video appearance as Apollo in “Orestes,” the actor huddled with directors Kulick, Schweizer and Oskar Eustis and took notes during last weekend’s run-throughs.

That’s not unusual, Gang members say.

“We were on the phone several nights in a row, going through every scene of my play last fall,” Gang actor and writer Brian Brophy says of his “Smoke From an Orangutan.” “He gave me really specific notes, and to me that’s the real essence of Tim. He could have just walked away, but he really kept his commitment to us and to continuing our work.”

Robbins figures he currently contributes three dollars for each dollar raised by the Gang but says the ratio used to be higher.

“I would just throw the money up for a production,” he says. “Because it was on a smaller scale, it was more of a nuisance than help to go about the fund-raising process.”

That is no longer the case, given the cost of renovation and mounting plays in this new, bigger space. So far, the renovation alone has cost about $200,000, not counting sound system, lights or production costs. Robbins figures it will cost another $5,000 to $15,000 to mount “The Oresteia,” plus running costs.

(Robbins has put in hundreds of thousands of his own dollars but declines to be more specific: “My grandfather said, ‘If you’re going to give money, part of the spirit of generosity is to never mention the amount.’ ”)

When he first started out, he says, he’d work half the year on various film and television jobs, then put his earnings into theater. “It made my agent crazy because any momentum I was developing would have been stopped,” he says. “Now it’s a lot easier.”

Robbins directed a Gang production of “The Good Woman of Setzuan” in 1990, and he’s usually involved in choosing material and directors. He also works with the directors on casting and design concepts by phone, he says, and pops into town for rehearsals whenever he can.

“Often when a young actor takes off in the very glamorous world of film and television, he bids a fond, regretful farewell to his theater activities, and it seems to me Tim never has,” says Susan Loewenberg, producing director of L.A. Theatre Works. “It was stunning to me when ‘The Player’ was coming out, and Tim was arguably one of the two or three hottest actors in the country, and he was committed to me to do a radio play about Columbus. Despite the enormous swirl of publicity and personal appearances, he went ahead with it. He wrote it, directed it and starred in it.”

Robbins is in town, making a fast trip here to host an Actors’ Gang benefit, watch a run-through of “The Oresteia” and check progress on readying the new space. It is two weeks until opening night, and the place is a mess--lumber stacked everywhere, men drilling by the front door, sparks flying from welders up on the balcony.

“Everything’s on schedule,” Robbins says, stepping over cables and lumber, “but it will be right down to the wire.”

Then again, he and his colleagues have waited a long time for this. After years of randomly scheduled productions in theaters all over town, the Gang finally experimented in 1992 with a season of plays at the Second Stage theater in Hollywood. When that went well, Robbins says, they were encouraged to seek a permanent space.

The Taper provided interim rehearsal space, helped with commissioning expenses for “The Oresteia” and donated props and costumes. But like so many other Los Angeles theater companies, the Actors’ Gang is very dependent on the kindness of strangers. One neighbor saw the troupe moving into the space and recycled his washer-dryer as a donation.

The space is very large, spanning 7,500 square feet, and offering high, 16-foot ceilings and flexible seating for up to 99 people. The Gang has a renewable lease that could extend for 12 years, says Managing Director Mark Seldis, at which time the group could talk about possibly buying it. And, he says, adjacent property could possibly also be acquired to add playing space.

“The best theater has elements of the epic, the religious event, stories of kings and queens and machinations of power,” Robbins says. “The stage can be an arena, a ritualistic place.

“But I’ve also been bored to tears at theater, and those moments are just as inspiring as seeing good theater because that’s everything we want to smash with Actors’ Gang--that complacent, self-serving, masturbatory theater.”

Actor Lee Arenberg, who co-founded the Gang at UCLA, says Robbins helped find him an agent, and several other Gang members also work in film as well as theater. While most of the company’s actors do work the usual day jobs of waiters, teachers, writers and office workers, Seldis estimates that 12 to 20 of the Gang’s 45 actors actually make a living in film, TV or commercials.

Gang alumni have also started their own companies. John Cusack, Steve Pink and others launched Chicago’s New Crime Productions in 1988. “We talked about how great it would be to start a company that had the kind of energy and spirit that was brought to Tim and that Tim brought to us,” says Pink, co-artistic director of New Crime. “It’s what happens when a theatrical style is handed from group to group. It gets transformed.”

That transformation also includes film. Cusack, Pink and others have set up New Crime Productions, the Chicago theater’s film arm, on the Paramount lot. Gang members, meanwhile, work out of Robbins’ Havoc Inc. film offices as well as Gang offices, moving back and forth between both mediums; designer Richard Hoover and producer Seldis even appeared in Robbins’ “Bob Roberts.”

Next for the Gang is a reprise of Tracy Young’s “Hysteria,” a feminist musical that juxtaposes women of 19th-Century England and 20th-Century Woodland Hills, and “Mein Kampf,” which Seldis describes as “a twisted fictional account of Hitler’s early days.” Other coming productions include Brophy’s “Smoke From an Orangutan,” a play about the death penalty, Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus,” plus a late-night show about wrestling, a musical about drugs and a comedy set in an insane asylum.

Box-office receipts from these and other shows will help pay expenses but will certainly not cover them all. A benefit screening of “The Hudsucker Proxy” last weekend raised $18,825 toward renovation costs, and Gang members expect to do more fund-raising in the future.

“We hope to take some of Tim’s connections and organize them,” designer Hoover says. “Each step you make, you need a bigger budget, and Tim Robbins can’t in the long run be the only patron of the Actors’ Gang.”


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