Blissfully overbooked

Times Staff Writer

TAGGING along with Andrew J. Robinson, one starts to wonder whether he's on a one-man quest to prove that Los Angeles, or at least its live-theater substratum, has a center after all -- and he's it.

His main job nowadays is resurrecting the long-lapsed graduate acting program at the University of Southern California, which would seem labor enough for someone who soon turns 65. But in addition to the teaching, recruiting and fundraising, Robinson keeps feeding an urge to act and direct, which has made him a leading figure on the L.A. scene since 1984.

Join him in a boxy, high-ceilinged fourth-floor studio at USC, and you can find him barefoot under rolled-up blue jean cuffs, his voice soft and semi-hypnotic as he prompts 10 students, the entire master's degree class of '09, to follow a series of inner imaginings that seem culled from "Alice in Wonderland."

You're expanding toward infinity. You're contracting into a tiny speck of being. Now you feel yourself floating through space. In response, the young actors seem to go simultaneously, silently insane. Each student moves up or down, circling or straight ahead, while pirouetting, tiptoeing, skipping, crouching, arm-flapping or gliding to an inner drummer. This is "Physical Approach to Acting," in which Robinson guides his recruits in tuning their bodies as emotional instruments.

"Expand your presence.... Fill the room with your presence," the graying, apple-cheeked professor gently urges.

Over the last few months, Robinson has projected his own presence to stages and studios across the basin. At USC, where he is an associate professor and head of graduate acting, he directed an undergraduate production of "The Threepenny Opera," and joined his colleague Charlotte Cornwell for a play reading at a campus arts festival.

At the Getty Villa, Robinson had a leading role in the Antaeus Company's public workshop production of Seneca's "Phaedra." He played Theseus, the heroic Athenian king who's so drained after surviving a long sojourn in hell that he botches a domestic crisis at home, with bloody consequences.

All the while, there loomed the pressure of a major directing challenge: He's in charge of the Pasadena Playhouse's production of John Patrick Shanley's drama "Defiance," opening Friday. Shadowed by the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning stature of its immediate predecessor and companion piece, "Doubt," the new Shanley play had mixed notices in New York last March. Now an intrigued Robinson and his cast are digging line-by-line through the complex script, seeking a unifying core for a play that some critics thought shot off in too many directions. Set in 1971 at Camp Lejeune, the Marine base in North Carolina, Shanley's story concerns ambition, patriotism, racism, religion and shellshocked inertia both personal and institutional, all framed against a marital power struggle that brings a loving couple to the brink.

"This is insane, what I'm doing," Robinson confesses backstage at the Getty Villa before a rehearsal. "But when in my life am I ever going to get a chance to do Seneca? I'm having a good time, but I need more sleep."

"He's probably the busiest man in Los Angeles," says Madeline Puzo, dean of USC's School of Theatre, who recruited Robinson three years ago to plan and run the new acting program. "I'm glad he takes good care of himself."

Sheldon Epps, the Pasadena Playhouse's artistic director, was concerned that Robinson would be too booked to take on "Defiance." It's the sort of "emotionally demanding play, a play with ambiguities" that Epps thinks is Robinson's forte. He sent him the script, asking him to consider sacrificing his school vacation to take on his fourth directing assignment in Pasadena since 1999 -- including a "Glass Menagerie" in which he cast his singer-songwriter daughter, Rachel Robinson, as the fragile Laura and "Side Man," Warren Leight's drama about a jazz man.

If the workload is wearing on Robinson, it doesn't show. A few days after Christmas, he guides Kevin Kilner and Jordan Baker, a real life couple playing a Marine colonel and his wife, as they try to sort out the undulating emotions and dynamics in one particularly complex scene. Robinson says it distills the play's core relationship and conflict, demonstrating the playfulness and affection that keeps the couple together, while introducing the damaging fallout of more than two decades of military life. Robinson's direction consists of many questions and open-ended observations, but very few commands. The session becomes an affable but grueling trial-and-error struggle toward a lucidly meaningful portrayal. It's punctuated by back-and-forth three-way discussions. Kilner tells how his father survived the Korean War -- unlike the gung-ho Marine he plays, "never volunteer" was one of his dad's watchwords. As she tries to figure out how confrontational the wife should be, Baker recalls learning one Christmas about her own family's unwillingness to talk things out. Robinson gestures with a pencil to drive home points; when he's stumped, he cups the top of his head with his free left hand, as if donning a thinking cap. "Good, we're on to something," he decides when the actors conjure fresh moves for a tricky transition from closeness to confrontation.

It's not really surprising that Robinson the director uses what Kilner describes as "a Socratic method, just as a great teacher does." For him, education repeatedly has been a lifeline for his sheer survival, the thing, he says, that "saved my bacon."

He grew up fatherless in Hartford, Conn. William Robinson, a Harvard graduate who ran a small publishing house in New York, died fighting with the 101st Airborne during the Battle of the Bulge, shortly before his son's third birthday. Last summer, for the first time, Robinson visited his father's grave in Luxembourg.

"All my life I've been waiting for my father to show up, and he never showed up," he says, tears welling in his eyes. "At that cemetery I was able to finally mourn and realize he's not coming."

Robinson's mother went into an alcoholic tailspin. The kid became a juvenile delinquent, headed for reform school until a social worker and a family court judge saw a glimmer of something and got him into St. Andrew's, a small boarding school in Rhode Island. A teacher, Alphin Twitchell Gould, became his mentor and father figure. Robinson went on to the New School for Social Research in New York, earning a degree in English while soaking up the early 1960s flowering of American experimental theater led by Edward Albee. A professor loved his portrayal of a suicidal Texas farmer in a college play and encouraged him to try for a Fulbright Fellowship in acting. Stacy Keach was his classmate during a yearlong program at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art focused on the classics.

By 1971, Robinson was established in New York as an actor and a teacher, with roles at the Public Theater and a job as co-director of La Mama Plexus, an experimental performing and teaching troupe devoted to the methods of Polish drama theorist Jerzy Grotowski. Word of Robinson reached film director Don Siegel, who was looking for somebody to play the serial killer stalked by Clint Eastwood's detective in "Dirty Harry." Soon, and evermore, Robinson was fixed in the moviegoing public's mind as the long-haired, peace-symbol-flaunting miscreant to whom Eastwood finally metes out magnum-force justice.

Having fatally flunked Eastwood's screen version of the Socratic method -- "You've got to ask yourself a question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?" -- Robinson soon learned that "Dirty Harry" had left him fatally typecast in Hollywood. "In those days, if you played somebody evil and weird, that's who you were," he says.

Tired and embittered, he retreated in 1980 to the San Jacinto Mountains. He and his wife, Irene, began teaching community acting classes, then became program directors at what is now the Idyllwild Arts Academy. Teaching and working with kids, Robinson says, "I went back to school, I went back to first principles, I got my soul back."

He wasn't forgotten in L.A., at least by the Mark Taper Forum's casting department, which in 1984 invited him to audition as Jack Henry Abbott, the murderer whose acclaim as a prison memoirist didn't stop him from killing again shortly after Norman Mailer and others helped him get out on parole in 1981.

Playing a monster -- with a soul

FOR this part, Robinson had to go beyond surface representations and become a monster with brains and a soul.

"He seemed to have found a door into the defiance of the character. He didn't create somebody to be liked, but he did create a character to be understood, and that was remarkable," recalls Robert Woodruff, who directed Robinson in 1984 and 1985 as "In the Belly of the Beast" went from the Taper to Australia to an off-Broadway run in New York.

Since then, Robinson has ranged widely. He starred as Liberace in a 1988 network biopic and as Jesus Christ in a solo performance, "Memoirs of Jesus," at the tiny Matrix Theatre in Hollywood, his steadiest acting and directing venue. Although the stage is his first love, he says some of his best acting can be seen in his starring turn in the 1987 inaugural installment of Clive Barker's gore-soaked "Hellraiser" horror series and under mounds of makeup and bony protuberances in his recurring 1990s role as Garak, the alien tailor-cum-spy of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."

Joseph Stern, founder and producer of the Matrix, prodded Robinson toward directing in the mid-1990s, and he quickly hit his stride with well-received stagings of Beckett and Pinter. With Robinson, says Stern, "actors feel safe. They don't feel manipulated, or that they're being taken someplace by somebody who doesn't know the road."

Soon after "Defiance" opens, Robinson will literally be on the road, hitting college campuses to recruit seniors for the USC graduate school's acting class of 2010. He'll talk up a nascent program, the first of its kind at USC since 1995, that's aiming to establish itself as a destination amid elite competition from the likes of Yale, New York University, California Institute of the Arts and UC San Diego. To accomplish that, Robinson realizes, he'll have to assert himself as a fundraiser as well. Puzo, the theater dean, estimates it will take an endowment of $24 million to realize Robinson's goal of offering each student a full-tuition scholarship of about $25,000 a year.

It's tough, Robinson acknowledges, being an actor who's made it as a jack-of-all-theatrical-trades and has spent the past three months practicing all three concurrently. He can't see shedding his professional stage work and burrowing into academia alone. "If I just settle in as Mr. Chips, that's not going to do anybody any good, especially me. I don't know how much longer I can keep up the pace, but I'm having a good time."

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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'Defiance'

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave.

When: Opens Friday. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays (except dark Jan. 31 and 2 p.m. on Feb. 4); 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Also 8 p.m. on Jan. 30 and Feb. 6 and 13. Ends Feb. 18.

Prices: $31 to $60

Contact: (626) 356-7529 or

www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

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