In 1981, years before his roles inÂ Top Gun, Bull Durham andÂ The Shawshank Redemption, actorÂ Tim Robbins and fellow actors from UCLA founded an experimental theater group in LA, the Actors’ Gang. The company launches its 30th anniversary celebration this year with a 17th century classic, but not surprisingly, absolute fidelity to the original is hardly the goal.
DirectorÂ Jon Kellam, who studied theater and political science at Lawrence University, helmsÂ Tartuffe. He points out that the Actors’ Gang is known for its reconstructive adaptations as it pursues the classics.
“This adaptation happens to be one by [playwright] David Ball, who’s worked with one of our fellow companies, [the now defunct Theatre de la] Jeune Lune in Minneapolis. I’d call this work experimental because of our willingness to go to great lengths and different directions to stretch the envelope in how we apply this style of commedia dell’arte. We start with the period, the 1660s, and then freely adapt contemporary-isms to it. In essence, we bring a lot of historical context on top of the work written in the Louis XIV period in France.”
Kellam, who also has worked at Steppenwolf, the Organic Theatre and Circle in the Square, digs further into his notion of reconstructing a play. “Usually you say “˜reconstructed’ after you’ve “˜deconstructed’ and in some ways we do deconstruct Tartuffe. But we do keep the basic structure of the play. In other words, it’s still quite recognizable but we freely adapt and interpret, so we are reconstructing our vision of the play.”
Kellam doubles as interim director of education of the Actors’ Gang, co-founded the Zoo District Theatre and remains a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA, where he recently performed in Nicholas Kazan’sÂ Mlle God. He previously directedÂ Tartuffe for Actors’ Gang in 2005. ThatÂ productionÂ started asÂ the group’sÂ lastÂ hurrah inÂ its former digs on Santa Monica Boulevard and then movedÂ to serve as theÂ group’s debutÂ attraction in its current space, the Ivy Substation in Culver City.
Why remount it now?Â Tartuffe is an homage. “It revived our style of commedia dell’arte at the time,” says Kellam, “as opposed to other projects of ours around that time period. Now that we’re approaching our 30th anniversary, we have three plays to celebrate with: Tartuffe, a production of [George Orwell’s]Â 1984 [adapted by Michael Gene Sullivan] and [last year’s piece written and directed by Robbins]Â Break the Whip.”Â If all goes according to plan, those three productions would be revived in repertory next fall.
But there’s more.Â Beside the Gang’s own productions, the group hopes to enhance its Big 3-0 birthday party with Red Noses by Peter Barnes, directed by Dominique Serrand [who was artistic director of Theatre de la Jeune Lune], plus music programming and the Axis Mundi series of film, documentary, spoken word and comedy.
And off the main stage, says managing director Elizabeth Doran, “we will explore the French roots of our style with workshops and play readings in anticipation of our plan to bring Georges Bigot [whose performances in Ariane Mnouchkine's company at the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in LA inspired the Gang's signature style] here from Paris to direct in 2012.”Â The final plans for the festivities are expected to be announced in May.
Robbins, who will preside over the entire anniversary, grew up in a very different religious tradition from the piety flaunted by the hypocritical Tartuffe. Born in West Covina, he was the son of progressive Catholics who moved to New York City, where his father was a folk singer in Greenwich Village.
It was the 1960s, a time when Robbins says he was completely aware, even at an early age, of Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement. “In the Village an osmosis was inevitable, surrounded by Free Thinkers and activists,” he says. “And Vatican II encouraged priests and nuns and laymen to go into the community and address its needs.”
So it’s no surprise the company pays close attention to social awareness and includes historical context in its work. Kellam poses, “So, how doesÂ Tartuffe tie in to the awareness we’re trying to give our public today? In some ways I feel this in itself is part of reconstructing this piece, tying in history.”
Case in point is a letter Moliere wrote to Louis XIV, discovered since the 2005 production.
The letter, Kellam says, seeks the King’s permission to reinstate the play, which had been censored after its first performance in Versailles. “We took this letter and added a prologue to the play: the character who plays Moliere comes out and speaks to the King who happens to be an audience member seated under a particular fixed light. Moliere speaks in French and his words are translated by an actor in the back of the house. He then introduces the play.”
To make Tartuffe, the character, relevant today, Kellam relies on what the actor can bring to the part. “Often, a costume designer who’s worked with a director before will just give the actor a costume and the actor doesn’t have a lot of choice. In this case, we rely on the actor to build the image of the character.”
In theÂ 2005 production, Andrew Wheeler played Tartuffe. Kellam says, “He had the accouterments from the period but added a sort of glam-rock look, a different kind of wig, for example.” This time, Tartuffe wears all white, as if purifying himself, a sort of guru set in that period. The production has two Tartuffes: Scott Harris will rejoin after he regains his health;Â Pierre Adeli, who is half-Persian, will begin it. “There are elements to Pierre that call to [mind a] Hindu or Sikh or almost an imam kind of look. We’re not afraid to reach across the lines and muddy the image.”
While Moliere was accused of attacking King Louis’ religious virtue, Robbins seems to come from a foundation of social virtue. “Ten or eleven years ago, I asked our company “˜What are we?’ I believe an acting company should be more than an organization that puts on plays. We are in a community that has needs. When we started to see funding cuts in arts education, we had the capacity to help fill some of that loss. So we started after-school programs that were free and run by volunteers.”
It still is not unusual, he says, to see an audience of first-time theatergoers. The Actors’ Gang continues offering one “pay what you can” show per week. “It’s part of our mission now, just as it is to outreach into prisons [the Prison Project] and help rehabilitate and reduce recidivism.” The Actors’ Gang also provides LA-area schools with an arts curriculum and reaches out to students through its Dead Man Walking Play Project that encourages discussion of theology, philosophy and issues surrounding the death penalty.
Robbins points to his first interaction with a theater company, theÂ Theatre for the New City, in New York. “It had a sense of what theater should be ““ free shows. It makes it difficult economically but we’re committed to it. I don’t believe theater should be for the wealthy alone. When you do volunteer work and think outside your own needs and ego, it’s quite helpful to becoming a better actor. As one grows older, part of an actor’s objective should be to widen their horizon and grow their empathy.”
That he sees this growth among his actors keeps Robbins primed and passionate. “Our theater actors approach their work with passion and they live for the theater. We’re not interested in using the stage as a vehicle for showcasing. The kind of theater we do has a larger canvas and we encourage our actors to explore characters they might not be cast in elsewhere.”
When they do workshops, Robbins says, actors often use masks, costumes and makeup. “It delivers a theatricality that enlivens the stage. To see that on a regular basis and to have a place where I can pursue my passion? I’m blessed.”
He admits he is also stubborn and tenacious and credits a loyal following for the company’s success. When asked where he sees the Actors’ Gang in the next five or 10 years he counters with, “Why not 30?” At 52, he’s optimistic.
He points to last year’s tour ofÂ 1984 that took the company through Spain. “We sold out every show with standing ovations. Their understanding of fascism is very recent, as it is in parts of South America. The book is a warning about that kind of autocracy. In South America, they know dictatorships, so I’d like to tour there. It’s the only continent where we haven’t toured a show, other than Antarctica, but I don’t think there’s much call for us there.”
Tartuffe, presented by the Actors’ Gang, opens April 2; plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm; through April 30. Tickets: $25. Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City; 310.838.GANG or www.theactorsgang.com.Print