Sincerity the Key to Heralded Actors’ Gang ‘Midsummer’ at OZ

ActorsGangMidsummer3The 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.”

ActorsGangMidsummer2That 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.”

Performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will take place at OZ (6172 Cockrill Bend Circle, Nashville) at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets ($47.50 – $57.50) can be purchased by clicking here.

*Photos by Dianna Oliva-Day courtesy The Actors’ Gang and OZ.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).