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Tim Robbins on Orwell, Obama and the Media

Kasia Anderson
Deputy Editor
Kasia Anderson is a deputy editor at Truthdig. After graduating from Swarthmore College in 1997 with a degree in English literature and sociology, she worked as a Web journalist in San Francisco until 2000,…
Kasia Anderson

It’s usually a reliable sign that a once-original idea has been utterly stripped of its impact by the time it becomes the premise for a reality television show. Not so for “Big Brother.” Several seasons of that particular televised train wreck have come and gone, and Apple Computer cashed in on the whole surveillance paranoia theme ages ago, eventually spawning an election-year spinoff last March. Big Brother is watching. We get it.

So what explains the staying power of George Orwell’s dystopian vision from “1984?” Now 24 years past its expiration date, at least in terms of its function as a futuristic cautionary tale, “1984” is all too relevant at this current moment. That’s how activist actor Tim Robbins sees it, anyway. In fact, Orwell’s powers of prognostication were so finely attuned that, when Robbins first read a recent adaptation of the novel for the stage by his theatrical colleague Michael Gene Sullivan, he thought Sullivan had added some more contemporary touches for dramatic effect. (It had been a while since Robbins had read the book — since 1983, actually.)

No, Sullivan hadn’t embellished; Orwell was just that good. Recognizing the story’s timeliness, Robbins decided to direct “1984” for The Actors’ Gang, the theater troupe he co-founded in 1982. The production has traveled around the country and abroad, and this month it’ll make a two-week stop at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts (REDCAT) Theater adjacent to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. Robbins took a moment on Monday to talk with Truthdig Associate Editor Kasia Anderson about the play, as well as about campaign ’08, some welcome sea changes he sees happening in the media and his own future prospects.

Kasia Anderson: Can you talk for a moment about how this “1984” adaptation found its way into your hands and what you first thought of it?

Tim Robbins: Well, I got a script from Michael Gene Sullivan of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. We’d been talking about doing a collaboration — with The Actors’ Gang — it was an adaptation of “1984.” I read it and I thought he was making stuff up, taking liberties with the book. So I read the book and was shocked to realize that I’d forgotten a lot of it, or maybe it just passed over my head at the time when I read it, which was in 1983. And so I called him up and said I’d love to do it and approached the Gang and we did it, and we been doing it since 2005, I think.

Anderson: So you’ve been on the road with it a little bit.

Robbins: Yes. We did it in L.A. for a while and then we went on the road with it. I think we went to 40 states. Been to four continents now. We’ve been all over the place, everywhere from a conservative area of Utah to Hong Kong [and] China. And it plays in all these different venues — it resonates — because it’s so relevant to what’s happening now.

Anderson: What were the details — or a couple of them — that you thought were added for exaggeration that you realized were in the book?

Robbins: Oh, I can’t remember. I can’t remember specifically what they were. It just seemed too relevant — too conveniently relevant. And then, of course, now I understand how prescient Orwell was when he wrote it.

Anderson: So, about those more conservative audiences — they took to the production as well?

Robbins: You have to remember that some of the staunchest defenders of personal liberty and freedom are Republicans, you know.

Anderson: True.

Robbins: And, you know, before this new wave of neoconservative Republicans, which is hopefully on its way out … . Most Americans believe in public discourse, regardless of where you are, and regardless of the illusion that’s created by the media that seeks to divide us. There are open minds and hearts all across this nation that respond to this material. This is not an issue of Republican versus Democrat; it’s about liberty and freedom versus the oppression of those and the encroachment upon human and civil rights. You know, no one wants the government listening to what they’re doing. We want to believe that our homes are a place of safety and security and, you know, when you pass a Patriot Act that says a government agency can essentially break into your home and go onto your computer and if you find out about it you can’t even report it, we’re living in something that is a threat to democracy and free thought. And so I think that resonates with everybody.

Anderson: Right, so are you at all optimistic about the possibility that a Democrat could take over the White House soon?

Robbins: Well, I’m optimistic that the American people are in a mood for change. And regardless of who’s elected president, it’s up to the American people to make sure that it happens. Without constant advocacy, nothing’s gonna change, and I think people are coming to realize that, and one of the major steps I think people have made over the last six years is to reject more and more the mainstream media and what it’s telling them. I hope that it continues to go in that direction, to shift in that direction.

I think we’ve seen recently with [Barack] Obama that the major media has tried to — you know, have been up to their old tricks of repeating something on a news cycle over and over again until it resonates and destroys the candidate. And it just didn’t work this time. In fact, his support went up, and the reason, I think, is because — the two main reasons are that the major media sold a tremendously awful bill of goods in their propaganda to sell the war, and the American public realized that and are now seeking their information and truth from other sources. So the rise of new technology is really tremendously beneficial to free thought and a free press. And so our hope in our democracy lies in our new technology, and more and more people are finding their information and their news from the Internet. And it’s very encouraging that, when the Rev. Wright thing was happening, that so many people sought out YouTube to listen to the entire [sermon]. That’s a great thing for our country, and it also allowed people to make their own decision and not be told what to think about that.

Anderson: Our editor in chief, Robert Scheer, likes to point out the A.J. Liebling quote that says, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one … .”

Robbins: (Laughs)

Anderson: … So using the Internet is a way, in a sense, of “owning your own press.”

Robbins: Right, and [Scheer’s] a good example of someone who has, you know, existed in the media — he wrote for the L.A. Times for a long time, right?

Anderson: Yeah.

Robbins: And I don’t know if he still does — does he?

Anderson: No, he left in 2005, I believe, but he just had an Op-Ed [Sunday] in the Opinion section.

Robbins: Well, I think people are starting to realize that it’s very hard to retain your integrity when you’re working for a subdivision of a weapons manufacturer. And so, you know, I’m encouraged, I have to be — I have teenage kids; I see that they’re much more savvy than I was at their age.

Anderson: And this is also an election that seems to be sparking youngsters’ imaginations as well.

Robbins: Well, that’s true. I was talking to a couple Republicans yesterday — really rich, old school, in-their-60s Republicans who are gonna vote for Obama. And I think this presidency has gotten so many people fed up. My sense of it is that, if it weren’t for the possibility of fraud, this would be a landslide. … I just can’t find anyone that supports the Republicans at this point.

Anderson: Are you, then, a Barack [Obama] supporter?

Robbins: Like I said, I … yeah, I’ll support him, but I’m supporting the American people. I’m gonna make sure that people understand that it’s really up to them. If Barack’s elected, don’t think the major media’s gonna go away — the voice of the dividers will be stronger than ever. So, without a clear mandate and a real constant advocacy for change, nothing’s going to happen.

Anderson: You are one of those public figures that people both look up to and criticize for speaking out and using the arts as a vehicle to wrangle with some big issues. Do you think this kind of comes with the territory, or is it something that you’ve personally chosen to do … ?

Robbins: Oh, hell, I wish we lived in a world where that wasn’t necessary. I mean, I certainly think that artists should be involved in the world they’re living in and should try to reflect humanity in the work they do. And part of reflecting on humanity is understanding what’s going on in the street and telling stories that reflect the society at large and not just an elite portion of society. Anytime you’re dealing with stories regarding the poor or the powerful, one has to address larger issues and, hopefully, we can do it in a way that’s entertaining or emotionally involving.

People have asked me, “Why do you feel like you should be the one that’s speaking out against the war?” And my question to them is, “Where’s the opposition party?” Where were those voices before the war, and why was it up to an actor? Believe me, if there was a Democratic Party that was functioning as an opposition party in that time period, I would see absolutely no reason to go on television. And, in fact, I was only invited on one show. And if you look at [national media watch group] FAIR’s study on this, they had something like 560-some-odd advocates for the war, pro-war, or “military experts” that were really working for McDonnell Douglas or Lockheed Martin advocating regime change or talking about Saddam as a threat. And in that same time period, there were about four advocates against the war. So, 560 to 4, at a time when the nation is 50-50 split, if you believe polls, is not a reflection of the society at large. In fact, it points very strongly to a concerted effort of propaganda.

Anderson: Can you tell us a little about The Actors’ Gang?

Robbins: We’ve been together for 26 years. We started at UCLA — we were kind of, I don’t know, punk rockers. We wanted to do our kind of theater — more energetic, involved, visceral kind of theater. We started in 1982 with a production of “Ubu the King.” It was a French play. It’s completely offensive and violent and obscene, and it was a big hit and it started us off, and we’ve been together ever since.

Anderson: What’s coming up for you after this play’s run is over?

Robbins: Well, the Actors’ Gang’s got a whole bunch of stuff happening. We are reopening our show called ” Klüb,” which is kind of a … well, it’s a very funny play about the hell of being an actor — eight people auditioning to get out of a room and, in fact, none of them able to get out.

Anderson: Acting their way out of a paper bag, as it were.

Robbins: Yeah, and they’re all terrible, by the way. Very funny. We’re reopening that in mid-June. We’re doing “1984” [at the REDCAT Theater]. We’re doing a production called “Bury the Dead,” which is an antiwar play from the late ’20s/early ’30s written by Irwin Shaw about four soldiers dead on the battlefield, being buried, and they stand up and say they refuse to be buried because they’re too young. They haven’t lived their life enough. It’s funny and sad and very moving. We’re gonna open that up [at the] end of July. And we also have our kids’ show in the park — we do kind of a burlesque Shakespeare show every summer in the park outside the theater, and this year we’re doing “King Larry.” And in the fall, we are working towards doing a project on racism. We’re very busy.

Watch a video clip about The Actors’ Gang’s production of “1984” below:

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