Tim Robbins and The Actors’ Gang channel ancestry to inspire empathy in “The Refugee Project”
By Christina Campodonico
Before President Donald Trump attempted his controversial travel ban — even before Trump’s theatrical campaign dominated the news cycle with provocative statements about Muslims, people of color and almost every other protected class in America — actor and director Tim Robbins was thinking about how his avant-garde theater company, The Actors’ Gang in Culver City, could take a stand for immigrants across the globe.
“It started before the xenophobia in the campaign,” says Robbins of his timely workshop production of “The Refugee Project,” which opens Thursday night. “We were looking at the crisis in Syria. There was a humanitarian crisis there, and people were responding slowly to it.”
Directed by Robbins and developed with The Actors’ Gang ensemble of thespians, “The Refugee Project” responds to the millions displaced from war-torn Syria since 2011 by delving into personal stories of immigrants fleeing to escape oppression and violence. For these he turned to the actors in his nonprofit theater company, asking them to explore their ancestors’ immigrant journeys and bring those stories to rehearsal to develop into scenes for the stage.
“It’s been an interesting process because when we started it, a lot of people didn’t know their family histories and it led to some very interesting conversations with relatives … artists seeking dignity and to get out of the Eastern bloc, people fleeing the revolution in Iran, a woman escaping retribution after the American soldiers left Vietnam,” says Robbins, the company’s artistic director. “The idea is to tell the story of why they left and who they were and why they came to the West for freedom.”
Featuring material in 15 languages, “The Refugee Project” not only illustrates the many paths to life in America, but also the commonalities among these journeys — people exercising foundational American values like resisting religious oppression, avoiding political strife, or reuniting broken families.
“It’s not an easy thing to do to immigrate, [when] it’s no longer possible for you to live in a place that you consider home. That’s a unifying thing among refugees,” says Robbins, who traces his own lineage back to an English ancestor who left England for America in the 1660s. “We’re all immigrants and refugees.”
Robbins, who has won an Academy Award for acting (“Mystic River”) and received an Oscar nomination for directing (“Dead Man Walking),” is perhaps best known for his role in
“The Shawshank Redemption” and has a reputation for speaking out — both directly and through his work — for progressive causes.
The Actors’ Gang, which Robbins co-founded with UCLA theater department classmates in 1981, also frequently delves into sociopolitical issues, from a recent staging of George Orwell’s “1984” to ongoing theater intensives inside California prisons.
Though he is emphatic that The Actors’ Gang did not develop “The Refugee Project” in direct response to the Trump administration’s aggressive approach to immigration policy, Robbins believes the show is arriving at just the right time for both the actors and audiences to reflect on their family histories.
“What we intend with the show is to have discussion after the show with the audience, and perhaps open the door to more stories that are sitting amongst us. My aim in this, as it is with every piece of theater that I do, is that it creates a sense of community where people can experience something,” says Robbins. “This small community of theater can experience something together and have a discussion and have a way to express something in their hearts. … It’s a way to affirm humanity.”
“The Refugee Project” opens at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 25, and continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays and at 9 p.m. Fridays through June 17 at The Actors’ Gang, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Tickets are $20, or sign up for the pay-what-you-can list at the door before 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays. Call (310) 838-4264 or visit theactorsgang.com.