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Blissfully overbooked

No longer a punk (but feeling lucky), Andrew J. Robinson darts around L.A., performing, directing and trying to revive an acting program at USC.

January 14, 2007|Mike Boehm | 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.

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