Two years to the day after shuttering, the Actors’ Gang is back with stylized in-person theater

Waiting to see the cast perform Dario Fos “Can’t Pay? Do not pay!” in Culver City on a balmy evening in March 2022, it feels a bit like living in a fairy tale: more precisely, “Sleeping Beauty”. The part where the kingdom wakes up from its cursed dormancy and resumes life as if no time has passed at all.

Back in March 2020, “Can’t you pay? Don’t pay!” was only a few weeks on the road when the pandemic turned it off. Exactly two years later in the day, the show reopened.

It’s not as if those behind the play spent those years in suspended animation, just waiting for the spell to be lifted. The actor and crew worked on other projects (several on Zoom). But most of them happened to be available when the cast decided to resume “Can’t Pay? Do not pay! “As its first post-pandemic, personal production.

There are a couple of different faces in the cast. And the set is not quite the same. The director, Bob Turton, first staged the show in the round. “I thought, ‘The audience will be over you! It’ll be so real!'” He recalls, laughing. “And then COVID happened and I thought, ‘Oh, God. We have to put them back in the audience and we have to create a real set. “

So it’s not like everything remained the same. But it still feels like we’ve just woken up from a long, involuntary nap. The whole thing is a bit unreal. Like when Tim Robbins, the artistic director of the cast – also an Oscar-winning actor, not to mention a director, writer and musician – emerges from the darkness of Culver City and walks into the historic Ivy Substation, the former power station for LA’s decommissioned wagon system that has housed the company since 2005. And then, when you follow him in, you’re told you do not have to wear a mask or show evidence of vaccination. This policy is in line with the latest recommendations in LA County, but entering a face-only room still feels subversive, even risky. (You are welcome to wear a mask if you wish.)

Another thing you have to get used to, perhaps especially after two years of watching small screens in lockdown, is the Actors’ Gang’s distinct attitude to performance, often called “The Style”. It is, yes, stylized: theatrical, large, loud and polite.

“The Style,” Robbins told me a few days later in a Zoom interview, which appeared in deliberate opposition to realism with sinks. Robbins co-founded Actors’ Gang in 1981 with what he describes as “a bunch of punk rockers from UCLA who saw theater in a different way than people in the theater department saw it.” Not because they were ostracized there, he adds. They had sympathetic teachers. “It was more so that when they taught us the lessons of German expressionism and absurdism and even early realism, we understood that that core was something that was missing in the current state of American realism.

“I never thought that theater has a fourth wall,” he continues. “That you are just like observers of human behavior in some kind of human zoo. I did not buy that. Because it denies an obvious reality. There are people there who have come to see a show, and there are people there who have come to do the show for them. “

In other words, the audience is an essential part of the equation. This is one reason why the cast did not reopen last autumn, when some other theaters resumed programming; there were still too many restrictions. “It’s a pact we have with our audience. We can not break that pact. We thought we would wait until we could all come,” Robbins said.

Steven M. Porter in a scene from “Can’t Pay? Do Not Pay!”

(Ashley Randall Photography)

In 1984, Robbins and the Gang attended a workshop with actor Georges Bigot, from the French company Théâtre du Soleil, who visited LA for the Olympic Arts Festival. The avant-garde ensemble, created by Ariane Mnouchkine, worked in the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition, using common characters and masks. “There was something about the way they approached theater that was ritualistic,” Robbins says, “affirming the audience, not afraid to tell great stories about man and power and God and that kind of huge stories.”

“The Style” has not always been everyone’s cup of tea, and the gang has consistently gravitated towards eclectic, highly political material that does not necessarily attract the masses. Dario Fo, an Italian playwright who died in 2016, is right on that alley. When Fo won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1997, the Nobel Committee praised him for “imitating medieval jokers in hostage authority and upholding the oppressed dignity.” “Can’t you pay? Do not pay!” is one of Fo’s most produced works.

Played and played for the first time in 1974 in Milan (this translation, by Actors’ Gang member Cam Deaver, moves the plot to today’s USA), it begins in the wake of a protest in a supermarket. Women are tired of skyrocketing prices and have resorted to looting. Our heroine, Antonia (Kaili Hollister), deviates with so much stolen food that she asks her neighbor, Margarita (Lynde Houck), to help pull the bags into her apartment. But where to hide them? Not only the women’s law-abiding men, Giovanni (Jeremie Loncka) and Luigi (Luis Quintana), are going home from work, but the police and the FBI (both played by Steven M. Porter and Stephanie G. Galindo) are also searching door to door for suspects. foods.

Antonia and Margarita think quickly and hang bags around their necks and button their coats over them. Now they just need to explain how they are suddenly nine months pregnant.

The night I was there, after a few beats of astonishing silence, the audience was overwhelmed by a kind of helplessness where literally anything could get us started. We even laughed when the characters interrupted the action with lengthy condemnations of the corruption inherent in banking.

“It’s one of the challenges for Dario Fo,” admits director Turton, who played the lead role in the gang’s 2019 production of Fos’ “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” before directing. “These plays are so funny and so funny and so funny, but they’re political, and there’s usually one thing at the end that is like ‘And now the whole point of it all!’ We struggled with: What’s the line between doing? the point and to honor the author but also not to preach to the audience too much? ‘”

For Robbins, the mix of comedy and politics is the whole point. “If you want to do theater about things that matter, find a way to make it fun,” he says. When he first read Fo, back at UCLA, he recalls: “I was already predisposed to theater asking questions, trying to deal with the society we live in. But I had never seen it be really fun.” It was because of Fo that Robbins took a drama lesson and began writing for the stage himself. “So in a way, Dario is kind of inspiring to me who wants to write and create theater.”

The cast did not make any Fo plays until “Accidental Death”, after some of them had met Fo himself. In 2014, their production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” visited Milan, Fos’ hometown. Robbins invited Fo to watch the show, and he accepted. Actor Turton recalls that Robbins looked behind the scenes to say, “‘OK, everyone, do not be afraid, but Dario Fo’s coming to the show tonight.” We say “what?”

At the curtain call, Fo was the first on his feet and cheering. He visited the actors behind the scenes and praised them in Italian. He painted a picture for them and wrote a letter to them. The letter, says Robbins, “basically confirmed the work that I and the cast had done over the last, at that time, 35 years, and it was an acknowledgment that what we were doing was the magic of theater.”

Robbins and Fo formed a friendship that lasted until Fo’s death in 2016; it also inspired the gang to make some Fo plays. Following the success of “Accidental Death”, Robbins decided to tackle “Can’t Pay? Do Not Pay!” Next. Along the way, he persuaded Turton to try to direct.

Turton remembers this crucial conversation with a sense of confusion. “Tim came to me and said, ‘Hey, do you want to direct?’ And I thought, ‘No. I do not want to direct. I do not know how to direct.’ “

“Can’t you pay? Do not pay!” is Turton’s second directorial venture, following the 2019 revival of Robbins’ play “Violence: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle” from 1986. So he must enjoy directing, despite his persistent surprise that he did at all. “I think Tim saw something in me,” says Turton. “That he thought I would enjoy it, or that I would be good at it, and he was absolutely right.”

When asked what he saw in Turton, Robbins tilts his head. “He’s a good actor. It’s in conversations I’ve had with him about the work we do. About a desire to be humble when he approached directing for the first time. That was what sold me.”

Anyway, Robbins likes to market from within the company, he says. “I’ve raised a couple of directors that way. They already know the vocabulary, and it’s more sustainable. My ambition is for there to be five, six solid directors who take this into the next 20 years. Because I can not do that. here forever. I’ve been doing it for 40 years. Sometimes I have to move on to a smaller role in the company. If not just some kind of, like, plaque on the wall. “

How about a statue in the yard?

“I think it’s a little too much,” Robbins says, admitting after a blow, “maybe a bust.”

“Can’t you pay? Do not pay!”

Where: The Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd, Culver City, CA.
When: Thursdays at 8 pm (pay-what-you-can), Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 8 pm. Check for exceptions. Until April 30.
Tickets: 25-34.99 USD
Contact: 310.838.4264,

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