Tim Robbins is best known to most people as an actor, and specifically for his work in movies like “Mystic River,” “Bull Durham,” “The Player,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Dead Man Walking,” which he also directed.
The 55-year-old additionally has starred in and directed several television series and miniseries, including “The Spoils of Babylon,” “Treme” and “Portlandia.” He’s also active in some liberal political causes.
But if you ask Robbins what his real passion is, he won’t hesitate to tell you it's theater.
Robbins started acting on the stage as soon as he graduated from UCLA’s theater department; he and some of his college classmates promptly formed in 1981 an ensemble that became The Actors’ Gang.
The Actors' Gang has produced more than 100 plays in Los Angeles and in 40 states and in five continents. It recently returned from China and Italy, where the ensemble’s minimalist production of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which Robbins directed, was shown.
The Actors' Gang alumni includes some of Hollywood’s more celebrated actors, including Jack Black, John Cusack, John C. Reilly, Helen Hunt, Jeremy Piven, Jon Favreau and Kate Mulligan.
Robbins, whose company is now presenting “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” out of its Culver City home, says that he is continually drawn to the theater because of its immediacy, the direct connection between performer and spectator.
"It's something you can't get in film. It's becoming more and more relevant, in my opinion, because the delivery system for entertainment has been reduced. In music it's now down to a little piece of metal that you can fit in your pocket. In movies, you can watch them on your iPhone. So what I've come to realize is, if it's that accessible, it means you have complete control over it."
In other words, you as an audience member are not engaged. You are checking your emails while you watch a movie on your home theater set-up. You are texting while you are listening to a new CD. Or you are chatting away as a band tries to get your attention inside some small music club.
But you can't do that inside a live theater space:
"Theater, is the only experience where you sit still in a theater without your phone — and we make sure that happens. In China they had lasers...here you have a form of art that you can still ask an audience to be with you in a room, together, and it's never gonna be the same audience twice and you can ask them to experience something with you and share with you for two hours, uninterrupted. When you can tell that story, you can affect people in a much more profound and personal way."
Robbins furthermore says that like music, there’s a universality to theater that is distinct and powerful. He saw this first-hand when “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was performed in China to an audience that spoke limited English and has little familiarity with Shakespeare and his plays.
"It was weird because usually when we do shows overseas, it's like supertitles above the stage. In China, it was on either side of the stage, so people were looking to the side and then to the stage and I was watching the audience and it was really great because around the middle of the show they just stopped looking at the translations and just gave over to the show and then that's when the laughter really started becoming more hearty."