The Actors’ Gang Theater’s new production features tales of the Great Depression
By Kamala Kirk
Tim Robbins met and interviewed his longtime hero and renowned author, Studs Terkel, for a public conversation that was hosted by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art 21 years ago.
“Paul Holdengräber from the New York Public Library contacted me and asked if I wanted to interview the greatest interviewer of all time,” Robbins said. “When he told me it was Studs, I jumped at the opportunity because I loved his books. This was a man that chronicled the human condition of everyday people that were struggling to get through terrible times.”
Terkel’s bestselling book, “Hard Times,” featured firsthand accounts of people who lived during the Great Depression of the 1930s. On the book’s 50th anniversary last year, Robbins — who is the artistic director of The Actors’ Gang Theater — and his cast adapted “Hard Times” into a play via Zoom when they were unable to get together during the pandemic.
“The idea came out of the limitations. We couldn’t meet or be in the same room to create together,” Robbins said. “Zoom is not a theatrical medium and, because of those limitations, we started working on just storytelling. At first, we tried doing the stories in the first person, but later adapted them to the third person. When we started workshopping, we didn’t cast the parts; everyone was reading the book and chose the stories that resonated most. It was trial and error, figuring out what part was right for each person.”
The live virtual production, “We Live On,” debuted July 22. Presented in three parts, it includes additional text by Robbins and the cast, and will run through Sept. 4. Each part highlights 10 stories documented by Terkel, in addition to original stories of courage and determination from the family histories of cast members.
“While we were in the process of developing the characters from ‘Hard Times,’ I encouraged the actors to look at the histories of their ancestors,” Robbins said. “It is deeply moving to tell a story that has an interpersonal connection, and often times the people telling stories about their relatives hadn’t met them but were unearthing their family history.”
Stories highlighted in Part One of “We Live On” include labor activist Cesar Chavez, poet Langston Hughes, dancer Sally Rand, journalist and activist Dorothy Day, among others. Cast members include Jeronimo Spinx, Guebri VanOver, Mary Eileen O’Donnell, Josh Latzer, Stephanie Galindo, Hannah Hartman, Jeanette Horn, Vincent Foster, Dora Kiss and Cihan Sahin.
“The whole process was special because we were able to adapt the way we work into a more intimate, personal forum,” Robbins said. “There’s not going to be a lot of times in an actor’s life where they’ll be offered a close-up for 3 minutes straight, so they have to know their parts. One of the things that crew members said to me was that the actors were amazing. I find that my respect and admiration for our actors has grown exponentially through the process.”
The Actors’ Gang is looking into doing a live performance of “We Live On” in September. Their nationally recognized rehabilitation program, The Prison Project, is going strong, and in the coming year they are planning to present a play by the late Italian playwright and Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo.
“One of the things that members of our audience have been saying that has propelled us forward is that they find ‘We Live On’ to be very healing,” Robbins said. “There is so much divisiveness right now and we as artists need to find ways of talking to our entire audience, not just our own tribe. One of the ways that we feel this is possible is by telling these stories from the 1930s, to tell stories of people that had the resilience, the courage and the strength to survive. This is essential right now; when they were in those moments of survival, what was more important was the shared humanity. It wasn’t about the differences; it wasn’t about choosing a tribe. It was knowing that we’re all in this together, and the only way we can get through this is to figure out ways to not be in conflict.”
Each performance stands as a complete experience, but a viewing of the integral production is recommended. Audiences around the globe can also join online prerecorded screenings every Sunday between July 25 and Sept. 5 at 9 a.m. for Part One, at 10:30 a.m. for Part Two and at noon for Part Three.
All performances are “pay what you can.” Tickets are available online at theactorsgang.com or by phone at 310-838-4264. Free tickets are available upon request.