Actors' Gang stands up to tough times

Tim Robbins jokes that he could've given the title "While Rome Burns" to his new festival at the Actors' Gang. Times are tough, people are angry, "and they have every right to be," says the Oscar-winning actor and artistic director of the Culver City-based theater company. "There've been really bad decisions made that we're paying the bill for now."

Like most cultural entities, the Gang, one of L.A.'s most accomplished theatrical institutions, has been scorched financially by the economic crisis. Earlier this summer, the ensemble's accountant even recommended that, to save money, the Gang should consider temporarily not producing theater and just focus on its extensive educational and community outreach programs.

Robbins' incredulous three-word response gave the new festival its name: "WTF?!" That scrappily emphatic statement of purpose expresses the outlook of the ambitious endeavor, which opens Tuesday and runs through Dec. 19.

"I'm not ignoring the economy," Robbins says. "We are flying in the face of it. We are saying, 'This is not going to stop us.' And so the best way we can figure out for it not to stop us is to do more than we ever have in the past."

Curated by Robbins, "WTF?!" will mix film screenings, live music, theater, poetry, dance performances and readings, among other activities. Several will be performed by members of the Gang, such as the double-bill performance "Sole Mates" and "Death and Giggles" by Daisuke Tsuji, who has toured as a clown with Cirque du Soleil.

Other events will bring in outside artists. Among the marquee names who'll lend their presence to the Gang's intimate 99-seat space at the Ivy Substation for the festival will be Jackson Browne, Tenacious D, John Doe of X, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie.

In collaboration with PEN Center USA, the festival also will present conversations with such authors as Gore Vidal, Naomi Klein and T.C. Boyle. Many of the artists participating in the festival are friends and colleagues of Robbins who wanted to show their personal support for him and the experimental ensemble he co-founded in 1981.

"When Tim Robbins calls, you answer," says Gibbard. In this recessionary period, he continues, it's important for artists to reconnect with "the love of craft" that made them want to make art in the first place.

"I believe that in a time when our industries are failing us and our ability to do your work as an artist is maybe slipping out of your fingers, I think that's the perfect time to go inward and reevaluate why you're doing this," Gibbard says.

Tsuji believes that the festival will demonstrate how art can spring from the simplest of elements: actors, space and found objects. The "set" for his show consists of some fabric, cardboard boxes and "lots of duct tape."

Such a deliberately minimalist approach, he suggests, could help restore art to its fundamental purpose of entertaining while fostering a shared sense of community. It also could act as a corrective to the forces that fueled the recession, he says. "If people just appreciated the simple things, which I think clowning is about, the whole greed thing wouldn't have happened."

To assist economically pinched patrons and attract new visitors, a number of festival events will be low cost or free, such as the documentary film screenings.

Events featuring well-known performers are being styled as fundraisers, with ticket prices to match.

All proceeds from the festival will be funneled into the Gang's outreach programs, including pay-what-you-can nights for main-stage Actors' Gang productions, a free summer-in-the-park family theater series, a theater residence in local public schools and a rehabilitation-focused theater in prisons program. One festival happening will bring together members of the cast of the film "The Shawshank Redemption," the 1994 prison drama starring Robbins and Morgan Freeman, to read prize-winning submissions to PEN's Prison Writing Program.

"It's the first time ever that Tim has reached out to his friends on the Hollywood side and asked them to come together for our benefit," says festival producer and company member Shana Sosin. "Tim wants it to feel like a living room. The idea is that someone came down and Jackson Browne is playing in your living room."

The litany of economic woes affecting the Gang are the same as those besetting theaters across the country and around the world: diminished gifts from longtime donors who've seen their wealth shrink drastically in recent months,incremental drop-offs in foundation, government and education grants, and justifiably anxious patrons who've slashed their families' cultural and entertainment budgets for the foreseeable future.

One particular inspiration for the festival, Robbins says, was the work of the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal effort to sponsor theater and other live performance during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Although the project is often most remembered for promoting work that addressed the political and social issues of the day, the FTP also generated vaudeville and circus-like acts -- a function of theater that Robbins says is needed in today's difficult economic climate. "If the spirits are down, part of our job is to lift them up," he says.

Federal Theatre ProjectFederal Theatre ProjectWhile the festival is running this fall, the Gang will continue to push its mission forward on other fronts. Several members have been touring with the company's adaptation of George Orwell's "1984" in Spain. And Robbins is developing a historical play about the United States that will open early next year.

"Whatever we raise is great," Robbins says of "WTF?!" "But my main ambition with the festival is that people walk into this theater for the first time and discover it's there and discover we're there."


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