Some of actor Tim Robbins’ most important work tells the story of people who are incarcerated. In “The Shawshank Redemption,” his character Andy Dufresne bonds with Morgan Freeman’s character — both are in prison for murder. Robbins’ also wrote and directed “Dead Man Walking,” which stars Sean Penn as a death row inmate during the final days before his execution.
Off-screen, Robbins has long been a champion of people who are incarcerated, by bringing theater to prisons and juvenile detention centers as a form of rehabilitation. It’s one of the many programs offered by The Actors’ Gang, a local, non-profit theater he co-founded 40 years ago.
The first iteration of the acting troupe got together in early 1980’s with a production of Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu the King.”
“I got a bunch of people, actors … some of them are friends,” Robbins tells KCRW. “We were a bunch of punk rock theater artists that wanted to do crazy theater. And this one we took out into LA at the Pilot Theater in Hollywood.”
In celebration of the theater group’s 40th anniversary, Robbins is restaging the show. He says many of the themes in the story resonate with current cultural and political events.
“[Ronald] Reagan had just been elected. He was making jokes about blowing up Russia with a nuclear bomb. There was a lot of dissension in the air. A lot of people struggling to get by after the recessions in the 1970’s. So I felt well, in a time of madness, it, oftentimes, is a good thing to look at surrealism and expressionism as a way to express the way that you feel about the world.”
Robbins adds that doing theater has helped keep him grounded.
“It's kept me sane in a town that judges you based on your last box office receipts. It was an incredibly important thing to have in my life for my own sanity and survival,” he explains. “That's what theater always provided for actors in Los Angeles — a way to get a little deeper, challenge yourself more, go beyond what you might be cast in the movies, and into something that has some more depth and challenge to it.”
He credits actress Sabra Williams for introducing the idea of taking theater ino prisons. And while it was difficult connecting with inmates initially, that soon gave way to deep emotions.
“One of the things we soon discovered was that there is one predominant emotion in prison, which is anger. It's the survival emotion. … You can't show fear. If you show fear, you're a target. And same thing with sadness. And happiness is not very prevalent in prison either.”
He adds, “What we give people [is] a safe zone, where for the first time in, sometimes 20-30 years, they're expressing emotions that they all have been suppressing for survival. It allows a communal ground, because we're also dealing with people from rival gangs, we're dealing with people from different races.”
During the COVID-19 lockdown, The Actor’s Group held theater workshops on Zoom. Robbins says some of the participants had recently gotten parole after being incarcerated for decades.
“After having been locked up inside for all those years, they were now outside, restricted to their homes. And so we got to get their insight. And I found their insight incredibly helpful and illuminating about what it is to survive in a kind of isolated environment,” Robbins says. “I've learned about courage, tenacity. And I've learned about forgiveness, and how important it is in a society … all of the different experiences in our lives and the mistakes we make should not define our future. What matters is what happens right now.”