One of the great by-products of federally funded theater during the days of Franklin Roosevelt was the Living Newspaper. This was theater as timely as the morning headlines, from which writers plucked ideas.
Ask director-writer-actor Tim Robbins about the Living Newspaper, now a receding moment in American stage history, and he'll plead ignorance. But he's pleased to learn that others, 50 years ago, were doing what he and his ensemble, the Actors' Gang, are in part doing today.
"Well, some of the crazy things going on today are instant theater," said Robbins, whose play, "Carnage," co-written with Adam Simon, opens tonight at the Tiffany Theatre. The Gang's 1986 "Violence: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer" was sparked by the U.S. bombing of Libya.
"Carnage," the tale of Rev. Cotton Slocum, a charismatic evangelical preacher, and Tack, his insidious assistant, was triggered by a number of topical items. "First off, I was really upset at Oliver North incessantly saying 'thank God' during the Iran-Contra hearings," Robbins said during an interview at the Actory, the Gang's downtown Los Angeles workshop loft.
"It was just a logical step from there to the fundamentalist belief in Armageddon (the final battle predicted in the Book of Revelations between the forces of good and evil). Fundamentalists believe that right before the nuclear confrontation happens, when the Soviet Union and certain parts of America are destroyed, they'll be lifted up in what they call 'the Rapture.' So before any violence may strike, the true believers who accepted Jesus into their hearts will be removed from the world. Seven years later, they'll be brought to rule on Earth.
"The Rapture is a fact for them--I'm referring to the whole range of fundamentalists, from Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts and Jim Bakker to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson."
Robbins was darkly amused by Robertson's performance in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. "There's no reason for nuclear disarmament in these people's minds," Robbins said. "Before the Bomb, it was fire and brimstone."
Robbins and Simon waded through a mountain of research material in order to avoid writing a jeremiad of a different sort. "I'm really anxious about labeling us 'political agitprop theater,' because we want to reach a lot of people, including people like right-wing fundamentalists who don't agree with what we're saying. We found, for instance, great stuff in a book by A. G. Mojtabai, 'Blessed Assurance: Living With the Bomb in Amarillo, Texas.' All she did was report what she saw, which was a lot of Rapturists working in the final assembly plant for nuclear weapons. They said they were working toward that day when they would be saved."
(Indeed, the show's original title was "Carnage: Final Assembly" when it opened at MOCA last August in Pipeline's Angels Flight series. "The old title just wouldn't fit on the Tiffany marquee," Robbins remarked.)
With such banal horror to work with, Robbins found that the Gang's rehearsal process, coinciding with script refinements, was especially helpful.
"It starts with the characters. Everyone gets dressed, made up and tries to find a particular image for their character," he said, looking around at the space. A huge array of costumes hung on a laundry line stretching from one end of the room to the other. On one wall was a map of Heritage U.S.A., Jim and Tammy Bakker's PTL amusement park.
"We'll switch parts from day to day, and eventually it's obvious who should play which role. It really helps curb any potential jealousy," he said of the group, mostly UCLA alumni from the early '80s. "When we improvise, being clever with words is discouraged. We want to explore the emotional life of each person, so the early rehearsals are sometimes wordless, just pure emotion. The actors and Adam and I are looking for that compassion in each one, even the evil characters, so they have full lives."
The Gang, Robbins reports, has its own "buzz" in the film and TV industry. "We have a reputation as actors who make bold acting choices, which more directors seem to want." He partly credits the group's growth to a 1984 commedia dell'arte workshop he and other Gang members took with Georges Bigot of Le Theatre du Soleil. "After Bigot, we realized that our responsibility wasn't as political ideologues but as storytellers. The writing has always had to catch up with the actors, who are here for the right reasons. They reject celebrity. They want to make a difference and raise questions."
One question Robbins would rather put off is how long his 14-member ensemble can stay together.