As an Academy Award-winning actor, an Oscar-nominated director and an acclaimed screenwriter with a solo album to his name, Tim Robbins epitomizes the modern Renaissance man. However, as he tells That's, he feels “most at home” workshopping new pieces with The Actors’ Gang, the theater group he co-founded in California 35 years ago.
“To be in a laboratory asking new questions, working with new forms and testing the limits of my perception and knowledge is a place that feels quite exciting and inspiring,” he explains. “I enjoy living in the unknown, and working towards answers that lead to new truths about theater, acting and humanity.”
Following its sold-out 2014 tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Actors’ Gang returns to Shanghai (Nov 10-13 @ Daguan Theater at Shanghai Himalayas Art Center) and Beijing (Nov 17-20 @ Beijing Comedy Theatre) with Harlequino: On to Freedom.
Written and directed by Robbins, the show is set simultaneously in 1530 and 2016. It’s a comedy masquerading as a history lesson that examines how history is written, what constitutes humor, and the differences between servants and slaves – all through the medium of a lecture hijacked by roving actors who draw inspiration from both time periods.
“Both eras were besieged with constant war,” Robbins notes. “Both had economic instability based on disparity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’ Both had great conflict between believers and non-believers.
“One Italian critic, in particular, truly understood [the play’s] relevancy to today and to the Black Lives Matter movement in America.”
Developed over a year through a series of workshops, Robbins traces the show’s inspiration to the early scripts of commedia dell’arte, a style of 16th century Italian street theater that tells the story of a servant trying to trick his master so he can pursue true love.
“To also discover the story of how the Duke Gonzaga of Mantua was so offended by a performance of the commedia dell’arte that he tried to kill three of the actors; these two things propelled me to write the piece,” he adds.
Following a rousing performance in Spoleto, Italy, Robbins has chosen China as the second stop for the world tour of Harlequino: Road to Freedom. He’s confident that Chinese audiences will embrace the elements of commedia, noting that “the story is universal and told in every culture.”
“I remember traveling in Bali and seeing the same story portrayed in Balinese shadow puppetry,” he adds.
Through the show’s modern setting, Harlequino questions historical fact and modern historiography. Robbins notes, “the powerful write history and the vanquished's story is rarely told. In order to understand the truth of history, often times we need to understand who wrote it and read between the lines.”
In an age of so-called ‘post-truth politics,’ such issues are particularly pertinent. An outspoken activist, Robbins is forthcoming with his feelings on the current American election, comparing Donald Trump’s presidential campaign to a reality show.
“I have never been so appalled at the behavior of a candidate as I have been with Donald Trump. He lacks a basic maturity and empathy to be the leader of a nation,” Robbins says, comparing the Republican candidate and his advisers to the antagonists in Mean Girls (“they seem to have the sensibilities of shrill, immature and nasty teenage girls.”)
As well as being notoriously outspoken, Robbins has long put his principles into action. Most of Harlequino’s cast teaches in The Actors’ Gang’s education program and Prison Project that uses theatrical self-expression as a way to unlock creativity and develop social skills. The program’s rate of recidivism is 40 points lower than the state of California’s average and has been expanded to eight prisons.
“The Actors’ Gang isn’t only about the acting,” Robbins says proudly. “But also about the kind of work we do in the community.”
Shanghai: Nov 10-13, 7.15pm (with 2pm weekend matinees), RMB120-680. Daguan Theater, Shanghai Himalayas Art Center, see event listing.
Beijing: Nov 17-20, 7.30pm (Thurs-Sat) and 2.30pm (Sat-Sun), RMB80-680. Beijing Comedy Theatre,
2 Xi Chang’an Jie, Xicheng 西城区西长安街2号