Actor Tim Robbins On New Theater Economics

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Nearly 30 years ago, actor Tim Robbins started a theater in the Los Angeles area called The Actors Gang. They enjoyed success with their interpretation of classics like Ibsen and Chekhov, and with more contemporary performers like Danny Hoch and Eric Bogosian. But in the midst of the current economic recession, the board of directors suggested they stop productions. Robbins' response was to do just the opposite: he launched a series of performances to raise money and bring new audiences to the theater. The WTF Festival has been a huge success and has taught Robbins much about the developing new business models for live theater.


Hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into the making and marketing of "Avatar." Even the tiniest fraction of that could've been a lifesaver for small arts organizations struggling in the down economy.

Alex Cohen of member station KPCC has this story about a counterintuitive business model. It's the work of one financially troubled theater company in the Los Angeles area.

ALEX COHEN: Tim Robbins may be best known for his roles like his Oscar-winning performance in "Mystic River," but long before movie stardom, Robbins was a young, struggling actor who loved punk rock.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) He had to leave.

COHEN: In 1981, Robbins and some of his buddies started a nonprofit theater company called The Actors Gang.

Mr. TIM ROBBINS (Actor): We were all punk rockers who wanted theater to be something different than the standard fare and felt that it should be infused with the kind of energy and excitement that we were witnessing on stages when we would see punk rock shows.

COHEN: For decades, The Actors Gang produced plays: Shakespeare, Chekhov, even musicals based on the tabloid sensation Bat Boy. They took shows on tour and offered theater programs to kids, but the past few years have been tough. Audiences got smaller. Donors gave less. Then, a few months ago, the theater's board of directors told Tim Robbins The Actors Gang just couldn't afford to do any more plays. His reaction? We can't air that on the radio.

Mr. ROBBINS: My response was, well, WTF. And first of all, we're a theater company, so we have to produce theater.

COHEN: Defying all business logic, The Actors Gang slashed ticket prices and opened doors for some shows on a pay-what-you-can basis. Instead of cutting back performances, they added more and called it the WTF Festival. Cheaper tickets to live theater have gone over very well with recent visitors like Cat Gwynn(ph).

Ms. CAT GWYNN (Freelance Artist): I'm a freelance artist. So, yes, there are times where I think, god, that'd be great, but, you know, Cirque du Soleil, but what is it, $100? I can't really afford that.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: To offset the cheaper shows, the festival has also featured concerts with a significantly steeper price tag. Audiences have been willing to pay for the rare opportunity to see Jackson Brown, Tenacious D and John Doe in a 120-seat venue.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People: (Singing) I must go slow (unintelligible) think their dogs. What has is this world coming to? Both sides are right.

COHEN: The festival has also included chats with writers like Gore Vidal and documentary screenings. Tim Robbins admits he's not a businessman, and he was initially dubious that lowering prices and hosting rock shows was the way to save a theater company, but it worked.

Mr. ROBBINS: And, in fact, what we found was that the people that were coming into our space, most nights were 90 percent new audience members. And that was very exciting because we found that part of survival as an arts organization is to grow your audience base.

COHEN: During the festival, staff members have been collecting email addresses for their mailing lists.

Unidentified Man #2: Now that we have this list, (unintelligible) to us, not to anyone else. Because, you know, you're going to have a good night tonight, and you're going to want to come back.

COHEN: But to get audiences to come back, Tim Robbins says they must help people overcome their fear of plays. Most Americans, he believes, experience music for the first time with the greats like Mozart or The Beatles. Their introduction to visual arts is probably in a book or museum, seeing the works of Picasso and Rembrandt.

Mr. ROBBINS: So you get hooked. Your first experience with theater in this country tends to be a bad grade school play or a bad high school play that you have to suffer through a three-hour production that has absolutely no truth or meaning to it, or you're trying to buy that a 16-year-old is Willie Loman in "Death of a Salesman," and so it turns people off.

COHEN: Even though The Actors Gang has now raised enough cash to keep producing plays for several months to come, they'll continue hosting performances of all kinds at the theater because this experiment has taught them something: What do they have to lose?

For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen.

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