Hollywood seduces most stage actors. They abandon the stage as soon as they become movie stars at, say, age 20. Or they let the film industry dictate their choice of subjects and styles, even when they work in legitimate theater.
Then there's Tim Robbins.
The 27-year-old Robbins will appear on screen as one of the leads in the new George Lucas production "Howard the Duck," opening Friday. Yet recently most of his energy and much of his money has been invested in a play he co-wrote and directed (but doesn't appear in) at the Equity-Waiver Wallenboyd Theatre downtown.
Even more unusual are the subject and style of the play. Called "Violence: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer," it was born in revulsion at the American bombing of Libya and written in three weeks.
It uses an extravagantly theatrical style derived from commedia dell'arte to make blistering comments on American politics and culture.
"Violence" is a production of the Actors Gang, a group that emerged from UCLA in the early '80s. The gang's first efforts were unusual revivals--Alfred Jarry's "Ubu Roi," an iconoclastic "Midsummer Night's Dream," the German Expressionist "Methusalem." But now the gang does original work. "The revivals were our training; now we're ready to fly," Robbins said.
United by a disdain for realism and for theater that's designed to promote actors' careers, the members of the gang don't list their credits in the "Violence" program. Instead, for example, Lee (Beef) Arenberg--who plays the villainous Maximillion Enormous--listed such "hobbies" as "rat poisoning, collecting phlegm, listening to water drip."
Robbins was a natural to lead such an outfit. He grew up in Greenwich Village, the son of folk singer Gil Robbins. At age 14 he portrayed H. R. Haldeman in a street theater show. When he discusses his mentors, he mentions the Italian clown/satirist Dario Fo. Or Georges Bigot, the actor from Le Theatre du Soleil who created a sensation at the Olympic Arts Festival and later taught Robbins and others at Stages Theatre Center.
Like Bigot, Robbins asks his actors to speak directly to the audience, "not to an abstract wall," and to tell a good story: "We try to reach people on the common ground of popular entertainment." When a gang member wears a mask, as many of them do in "Violence," they must study it carefully, before and after putting it on--"so it doesn't just become a way of covering the face."
"We're trying to remove the condescension and the anger toward the audience that you get in much of modern theater," added "Violence" co-writer Adam Simon. This is reflected in an open-door policy at the gang's workshops and rehearsals, in a garment district loft called the Actory. It's also apparent in what Robbins and Simon say they hope to accomplish with "Violence."
"So often political theater says, 'Wake up!' Well, I'm not sure people are asleep," said Simon. "And if they are, I'd like to insinuate myself into their dreams instead of waking them up. I wouldn't know what to say if they woke up."
Added Robbins, "We don't want to tell the audience what they should feel." He's wary of what he accuses the mass media of doing--manipulating the public by playing to their emotions. "We just want to raise questions, to present a picture of what might be going on"--and then trust the public to make an intelligent response.
"No member of the audience is unintelligent," declared Robbins, "and everyone has the potential to effect change."
They shy away from labeling "Violence" as leftist or radical. Part of this is public relations: "We want Reaganites to come and risk being offended rather than not come at all because of what they've heard about it," Robbins said. But part of it is a genuine rejection of old slogans in favor of a wider audience. Robbins would like to take "Violence" on the road to small Midwestern towns--"where we could talk directly to the grass roots. If it means being run out of a few towns, so be it."
The movies offer a potentially wider audience than any theater, of course, and they also pay the bills for the Actors Gang. If "Howard the Duck" flies, how long will Robbins remain dedicated to his theatrical roots?
As of now, he's saying no to more television (he's been on "St. Elsewhere" and "Hill Street Blues") and to "any projects involving bikinis of any kind." He refused to name the one teen exploitation movie he was in (though a press release about him mentions something called "Fraternity Vacation"), but he made a notable impression in another teen romance "The Sure Thing" and that film's star, John Cusack, is in the gang. Cusack helped conceive "Violence" and appears in it as an on-the-skids Superman.
Robbins played a small role in "Top Gun." Whether to accept the job was "a moral dilemma," he acknowledged, "but I saw it as an opportunity to see what was going on in the military. It was like 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' for me. I learned that most of the people in the military are not militaristic honchos. They all have fears of nuclear warfare. The dangerous ones are the pilots looking for a fight."
Robbins will shoot "Five Corners," a Tony Bill film, this fall, while another production of "Violence" takes place in Chicago.
Yet he isn't forgetting the gang. Though he doesn't want to do another Spike Spangle show immediately--too predictable, he said--he believes Spike "will be back, maybe fighting (Indonesia's) Suharto or fighting for Suharto, who's even worse than Marcos. And then we could incorporate Balinese dancing into the show. That could be great."