The Actors’ Gang has produced many highly acclaimed theatrical works since Tim Robbins (a multi-talented artist who won an Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role in the film Mystic River) founded the troupe in 1981. That rapturous response may stem from the sincerity with which the company approaches the plays they perform, according to company member Bob Turton.
“I think the number one goal…is to find the sincerity of the character and create a real three-dimensional character that is part of telling a story truthfully,” says Turton, who appears as Bottom in The Actors’ Gang production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Robbins that’s visiting OZ in Nashville Friday and Saturday.
“We keep the show very minimalistic. It is a very actor and ensemble-driven production so there’s nothing to distract the audience from the story,” the 31-year-old actor notes. “I like that because we’re allowing the audience to see what they want to see. We’re not telling them what world we’re in – they’re allowed to project what they believe or see onto the play.”
About “90 percent” of the show is not blocked, Turton adds. “We have the freedom to go wherever we want and do whatever we want, following our impulses as long as those impulses are fueled by a sincere emotional state.”
That state is achieved through a commedia dell’arte-infused process that begins years before an audiences sees a performance. “It started with us just reading the play as different characters, finding out what the play means, especially what it means to us as a company,” Turton explains. “I used to do a lot of Equity theater in Chicago – the first day you’d come in and read the play, then a costume designer would come in and say, ‘This is what you’re going to be wearing,’ and the set designer comes in and says, ‘This is the set you’re going to be on,’ and the director says, ‘We’re going to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream set on the Titanic…this is what you’re doing, so get on board.’
“That’s fun in its own way, but at The Actor’s Gang we start with carte blanche – we have no idea who we’re going to play or what it’s going to become. We just take our time and explore the play.”
That exploration took about a year-and-a-half before a casting workshop was held to figure out which company members would play specific parts. That casting can change though – Turton was originally cast as Demetrius before he and Adam Jefferis switched parts during rehearsals for the Culver City, Calif. group’s 2013 Los Angeles production of the show. “It’s all fluid,” Turton says. “We’re all exploring this up until the day opens.”
And the exploration doesn’t stop with an opening night: Robbins and co-Artistic Director Cynthia Ettinger “work with us pretty much every day (during the run of a show),” the actor notes. “It’s a master class – every day we learn something new about ourselves and our ensemble.”
A great example of the never-grow-stagnant Actors’ Gang journey was what Robbins had his colleagues do before taking the show to China and Italy this summer. “He didn’t want to return to what we’d already done, so we started with text work,” Turton says. “Tim wanted to break us out of the vocal patterns we’d created…and also go deeper into our understanding of the text.
“The greatest compliment…I think we can get after a show is when someone from the audience comes up and says, ‘I heard words I never heard before, I heard poetry I never heard before.’ It’s all part of striving for clarity as well as sincerity in everything we do.”
The shows at OZ are the first US performances of this production outside of Los Angeles (the next stop on the tour is Sept. 19-21 at the Porto Alegre Festival in Brazil). “It’s so exciting to do this play for American audiences outside of LA because it hasn’t happened yet,” says Turton, who also went to Charles Bass Correctional Complex with project director Sabra Williams and some of his fellow actors this week as part of the company’s Prison Project.
That project (which Turton and others also facilitated at Folsom Prison in California) is an intense workshop that incorporates both physical and mental exercises for inmates to foster self-esteem, tolerance and non-violent expression. It seeks to significantly reduce recidivism rates and prepare inmates for life beyond bars, according to its organizers. “It’s an amazing project. It’s exciting and rewarding work and I’m honored to be of it,” Turton says.
Turton believes the play is also rewarding in a significant way given our tumultuous times. “I think the world needs this play right now,” he says. “Our production really focuses on joy and love…I think it is cathartic for audiences that see it and definitely cathartic for the actors that perform it.”