10 April 2012
Posted in Theatre
Richard Crane and Faynia Williams on a memorable trip to Los Angeles
(Tim Robbins working for the Actors' Gang at the prison at Norco in Los Angeles - photo by Steven Cuevas)
We’re waiting for our driver at the Ivy Substation in Culver City. Encircled by traffic, this little island of calm with its 1907 building set in a small leafy park was once a power house for transforming AC into DC for the pioneering Los Angeles Pacific Railway. Now, after a period of disuse, it’s a power house again, pioneering and transforming the theatre scene in Los Angeles, as the home since 2006 of the Actors’ Gang, run by its founder Tim Robbins.
The Lexus pulls up. Silver-haired, six foot five, the Oscar-winning star of Shawshank Redemption, and director of Dead Man Walking, gets out, buys take-aways from Starbucks – his is a black Americano with extra shots of espresso – and we’re off. He is taking us to prison.
As we bomb along the highway, he is talking about the Gang, about Satan’s Ball and about Sabra Williams. The Gang was founded in 1981, when he was fresh out of college. It grew up alongside his film career, initially as a kind of resistance movement against the mighty hand of Hollywood. Helen Hunt, John C Reilly, John Cusack and Jack Black have all been Gang members over the years, along with Tim’s sister Adele and brother David (the Gang’s Musical Director). It’s a family of renegade theatre artists, who leave their egos at the door, train together, question, argue, provoke and create ‘bold, original works for the stage and daring reinterpretations of the classics’.
Originally in Theater Row on Santa Monica Boulevard, the Actors’ Gang is now at the Ivy Substation, with its jumble of dressing-rooms, offices, wardrobe store, a bare-brick auditorium, and a foyer bar flowing out into the cool of the park. They create shows either from scratch or from a known text, pooling skills, ideas, political passions and research, then feeding in the Gang ‘style’, which shapes, assembles and fires up the show.
The ‘style’ is all. Unique to the Gang, it springs from commedia, and the dynamic of the ensemble. Emotions are worn like masks, indicating the ‘state’ to be conveyed – HAPPY, ANGRY, AFRAID or SAD – and instantly engaging the audience as in pantomime or circus. It can seem like a strait-jacket on a less experienced actor, but once learnt and practised, it becomes an instinctive theatre language, bonding the actors into an elastic, interdependent troupe, delivering raucous entertainment and at the same, in James Baldwin’s words: ‘laying bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers’.
The Lexus glides into the forecourt of a roadside restaurant and we take a pit-stop for an early lunch. ‘We’ are Sabra Williams, actor and director of the Actors’ Gang Prison Project, Richard Crane and Faynia Williams, author and director of Satan’s Ball which had a reading at the Gang yesterday.
We have been here four days, seen the final performance of their epic production of Red Noses by Peter Barnes, attended a fundraising event for Get Lit, an education programme where kids at risk from gangs perform poetry alongside Helen Mirren and Tim Robbins. We have taken part in the first exploratory workshop for a new show on the American Revolution, where each actor brings research into a particular character, then becomes that character, gets costumed, made up, is interrogated, and has to argue and interact with other characters until scenes emerge.
And we have had a Gang reading of Satan’s Ball. That is the main reason we are here. Based on The Master and Margarita, Satan’s Ball is a passion play/political satire/rock musical about demonic rout in Moscow and political turmoil in Jerusalem. Provocative, disturbing, moving and hilarious, the play calls up all the ‘states’ and exactly fits the ethos of the Gang. The actors, some new to the ‘style’, some with years of experience, tapped straight into the play’s magic, Robbins himself playing three parts. ‘The next step is to try and schedule in the full production,’ says Tim.
(Faynia Williams and Richard Crane in Los Angeles)
Back on the road, the waiter wants a photo of himself with Mr Robbins. With the parts he’s played in films and the political stands he’s taken in the plays with the Gang – Embedded about the Iraq War, The Exonerated about wrongful convictions on Death Row, Break The Whip about genocide – Tim Robbins is everyone’s champion, the trouble-stirrer of Hollywood. He wears the role lightly, though you sense if he ever had to be ‘just a Hollywood star’, and not writing, directing, conducting workshops, expanding the outreach of the Gang and challenging American attitudes, he would be secretly chiseling away, behind the poster image, and escaping his ‘prison’, as he did in Shawshank Redemption.
Arriving in Norco, the first thing you see is the ‘magnificent disaster’ that was the Norconian Resort Supreme. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Pickford and Fairbanks, Laurel and Hardy, all came to this luxury spa hotel, opened in 1929, with its 250 rooms, art deco ballroom and casino, golf course, tennis courts, Olympic-size pool and ravishing, sun-drenched lakeside views. The last gasp of the Roaring Twenties, the Spa crashed in the Depression, was sold to the military for a hospital in World War Two, fell into disuse again, to be revived in 1963 as a prison.
Now, condemned and abandoned, the hotel sits on the hill, like an old film-set, looking down on the concrete dormitory blocks and razor-wired enclosures of the California Rehabilitation Center, a medium-security prison housing 5000 inmates. There are moves to have the hotel restored as a national monument, but in the current climate, this is as likely as Norma Desmond getting her close-up.
Yet something of Hollywood has returned; though this time without the glamour. They know Tim Robbins here and that his business is serious. Norco has the world’s largest in-custody drug abuse programme but, despite an annual cost of $36 million, has seen no reduction in re-offending.
Could drama workshops help? Only Sabra could ask that question and get an instant ‘Let’s do it’. Once inside the prison, Tim defers to her. The Prison Project was her brainwave. Actor, TV presenter, make-up artist and mum, she came to Los Angeles 10 years ago, with husband Yogesh and baby Kai. Film and theatre parts came along and she had her own TV show, but it was the introduction by a friend to the Actors’ Gang that showed her the flipside to Hollywood. ‘I was blown away by the sincere approach,’ she says. ‘The ensemble work, which was so different from the showcasing I’d seen previously in LA.’
She began as a replacement sound operator, did costumes, swept the stage; then auditioned and became a Gang member. But even then she found that just acting was not enough. ‘Due to the extreme physical and emotional nature of The Style, I felt it would be great for rehabilitation work. So I asked Tim if I could join their outreach programme. He said they didn't have one, but that I was welcome to create one -- so I did!’
(Sabra Williams working with the Actors' Gang at the prison at Norco in Los Angeles - photo by Steven Cuevas)
Thus began the Prison Project. No money to start with, so the Project had to prove itself before it could appeal publicly for funds. It was all untried territory, and California boasts some of the toughest prisons in the world. ‘I was certainly nervous the first time,’ says Sabra, ‘as we went through the three gates, the last of which had two tall, thin "cages" with men sitting in their underwear. The staff warned us about getting "gassed" where they throw urine or faeces at you. However, as soon as we got down to work, all my concerns disappeared because the work was having such an immediate effect.’
We go through the gate, through security, then another gate, into General Population, where a sea of blue-uniformed inmates are associating, killing time and playing ball where there is space to move. The prison is overcrowded by two to one.
And now we’re in the day-room with 20 or so inmates from the segregation unit. The first thing you notice is the mix of cultures: Latino, Afro-American, Caucasian, Korean, this is the only activity where the races interact. Part of the workshop involves white-face make-up which instantly expunges colour difference, and propels the actors into the ‘style’.
(Norco inmates rehearse in the Actors’ Gang ‘commedia’ style - photo by Steven Cuevas)
The session lasts three hours, starting with ‘circling up’ – a memory game involving film titles and gestures (no guns!) – then a deep relaxation exercise where every part of the body is systematically relaxed – ‘my neck, my shoulders, my elbows… are sooooo relaxed...’ Then sitting at mirrors, they do the white-face, adding hats and physical features, to become Pantalone the miser, Capitano the braggart soldier, even Columbina the sassy maid.
Two days ago we were with Sabra and her team at Homeboy Industries in downtown LA: a programme to divert gang members from crime (jobs not jails!) started by a visionary Jesuit priest. Here the atmosphere is more edgy, but the journey is the same. The ‘homies’ bring natural skills as rappers and street performers, then with a splash of white paint, a streak of a moustache or a splodge of red cheeks, they become the the commedia quack doctor, the jealous lover…
Now in the prison you see the progress that can be made over a sequence of weekly workshops. Initial reticence – ‘Does make-up make you gay?’ – has given way to astonishing levels of near professional performance. States of anger, happiness, sadness and fear are precision-crafted and interchanged in tableaux and sketches. One of Robbins’s aims is to apply comedy skills to the dispiriting situations all inmates are faced with, both in prison and on release.
The final exercise is classic comedy, steeped in pathos and suppressed rage. A line of applicants for housing approach a bureaucrat one by one, only to be told after a convoluted interview to ‘get to the back of the line!’ Each is a character in a ‘state’, appealing to the bureaucrat via the audience who responds, via the audience, with increasing cruelty and ingenuity. The comedy is so assured, you blink and you could be back the glory days of Norco, watching Chaplin or Keaton.
As we’re leaving, there’s a lock-down. Suddenly the whole prison is thrown into crisis. Officers with guns command all inmates to hit the floor and visitors to remain standing. After three hours of social progress, it’s clear we’ve returned to the real world of tension and confrontation.
As we’re being hustled through the gates, a lone voice in the silent crowd, calls out: ‘Hey Sabra! Look at me! I am soooooo relaxed…’
Gogol by Richard Crane and Faynia Williams plays at the Latest Music Bar Brighton 13-16 May www.brightonfringe.org