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Tim Robbins defiant. (Freedom of Speech).

AT THE NATIONAL PRESS CLUB on April 15, the actor Tim Robbins got a chance to speak his mind. He used his speech to address the climate of neo-McCarthyism that has resulted in, among other things, the Baseball Hall of Fame withdrawing an invitation to him and his partner, Susan Sarandon, to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of their movie on the minor leagues, Bull Durham. "In the nineteen months since 9/11, we have seen our democracy compromised by fear and hatred," he said. "Basic inalienable rights, due process, the sanctity of the home have been quickly compromised in a climate of fear." He mentioned that a teacher told his niece that he and Sarandon were not welcome to come see the school play.

"A chill wind is blowing in this nation," he said. "A message is being sent through the White House and its allies in talk radio and Clear Channel and Cooperstown: If you oppose this Administration, there can and will be ramifications."

Robbins understands that his involvement in an issue brings it some attention that it might not otherwise get, but he tells me he addresses a political issue directly only when he feels it has received insufficient press coverage. "There's always the reporter who asks, 'Why are you here?' And more often than not," he says, "if it's a fundraiser or protest, the answer is, 'Because you wouldn't be here if I wasn't!'"

And Robbins understands how the mainstream media intentionally serves up propaganda. He appeared on CNN's Connie Chung Tonight in March and, he says, "What was really amazing about that inter view was that the [pro-war Iraqi exile] woman on before me was a pre-tape. Connie Chung asked this woman the same question three times, and the woman, in between, was saying, 'I'm so nervous!' Connie kept assuring her, 'It's OK, we're on pre-tape and we can edit it down.' It was almost as if it was a prearranged, scripted propaganda piece that was supposed to look like an interview, because when Connie didn't get the answer that was--what I believe was--scripted, she asked the question again. And then she asked her one more time. Then when you saw it edited together later that night, there was only the last answer that she finally coaxed out of her."

Timothy Francis Robbins, who will turn forty-five in October, has never been afraid to speak out. He believes in truth, justice, and fairness, and--in the great tradition of satirists like Swift and Twain--he's enraged and disgusted by those in power who do not.

He has achieved critical, artistic and commercial success as a movie star in such films as Bull Durham, The Shawshank Redemption, and Jacob's Ladder. He's also an accomplished film director, with Bob Roberts, Cradle Will Rock, and Dead Man Walking to his credit. And he's the artistic director and co-founder of the Actors' Gang, his L.A. theater company.

Asked how he juggles so much, he shrugs: "I don't do that much, compared to some others. The most difficult is [film] directing. It's all-consuming. It takes two years out of your life, in a tremendously rewarding way. There's nothing better, leading troops up the hill, achieving a sense of community--factors and guild people, having to answer so many questions, deal with the pressure."

Looking at this baby-faced man, it's hard to realize his stage career goes back to Nixon's first term, when Tim followed his older sisters Adele and Gabrielle in working for Theatre for the New City, in Manhattan's East Village. During the summers, the company went to some of the city's toughest neighborhoods to do street theater--arriving by van, erecting a stage, parading through the streets to gather an audience, then performing. New City's co-founder, Crystal Feld, remembers Tim as a great talent, even at twelve.

"The beautiful thing about him was, he had a real social sense. You fell in love with him when you saw him act," she recalls. "He built sets, ran props, light board--everything--and was a good egg about it."

He transferred from a Catholic school to an elite public high school, where his grades were mediocre as he directed plays for the first time. After graduating from UCLA, he and some friends founded the Actors' Gang, which cultivated a unique performance philosophy. It's called The Style and is derived from Georges Bigot's Theatre du Soleil, Commedia del Arte, and their own sensibilities. As Actors' Gang managing director, Greg Reiner, puts it, "It's like acting with a mask on, even when you're not wearing one."

After a few years' absence, Robbins returned as artistic director of the Actors' Gang in 2001, and they put on The Seagull and Klaus Mann's Mephisto, in repertory. Both were hits. Bigot directed the former and crafted a rare, truly funny version of Chekhov's comedy. Robbins directed Mephisto, about a theater troupe reckoning with the shocking vicissitudes of 1930s Germany. His production managed to highlight the humanity of all the characters in the piece, even Nazis.

In the spring of 2002, the Actors' Gang also participated in the national anti-death-penalty play, The Exonerated. Writers Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen spent months interviewing dozens of former deathrow inmates who have since been cleared of their crimes, then crafted documentary theater in which every word onstage comes from their real-life subjects. Blank and Jensen directed a full production of the piece on the Actors' Gang mainstage, under the supervision of Bob Balaban, with Tim Robbins as one of the former prisoners. David Robbins did the music for it, as he has for many of the Actors' Gang productions and all three of his brother's films.

The 9/11 attacks hit Robbins hard. After volunteering at Ground Zero, he used the Actors' Gang to put on a play about 9/11 called The Guys. Written by Columbia professor Anne Nelson, it tells the story of a New York Fire Department captain coming to see a professor for help with eulogies he must deliver--men from his company who lost their lives on that day. The Actors' Gang staged an early production of the play, with a rotating cast including Robbins, Sarandon, and Helen Hunt. They sent pairs of actors to perform it around the country, an exercise in reconciling national grief. After The Guys was released in December as a film starring Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia, the traveling productions paused, but in September, pairs of actors from the Actors' Gang will resume the national tour in honor of the second anniversary of the attacks.

At his National Press Club speech, Robbins said he had hoped that 9/11 would have brought the country together to solve the problems facing our society. "In the midst of the tears and shocked faces of New Yorkers, in the midst of the lethal air we breathed as we worked at Ground Zero, in the midst of my children's terror at being so close to this crime against humanity, in the midst of all this, I held on to a glimmer of hope in the naive assumption that something good could come out of it," Robbins told the National Press Club, suggesting that the President could have rallied Americans to strengthen their communities. "And then came the speech: You are either with us or against us."

Robbins does not put much stock in the mainstream media. He says he admires Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! He gets his news from England's The Guardian and The Independent off the web, and also checks indymedia.org. But he reserves his highest praise for Jon Stewart and Comedy Central's The Daily Show.

"They're fantastic," he says. "They got guts. That's what I admire most in times like these. People with balls, whether it's journalists, a soldier, or satirists. I don't want to hear anyone behind a mike talking about courage or patriotism. I want to see someone get on television and do satire that is honest and unrelenting, like Jon Stewart's been doing. That's true patriotism."

David L. Steinhardt writes frequently about theater and politics.
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Title Annotation:feels freedom of speech has eroded since 9/11
Author:Steinhardt, David L.
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
Words:1342
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