Tim Robbins remembers the first time he was paid as an actor. It was through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. He was a gangly 15-year-old performing street theatre in New York with Theatre for the New City. His pay was $US50 per week, and he could not believe his good luck.
“We were doing a social satire, exposing hypocrisy and corruption, and I remember thinking what a great country I live in that its government can support this theatre company in its dissent,” Robbins said. He is speaking in the lobby of the Ivy Substation, which houses his theatre company, the Actors’ Gang – itself a recipient of NEA funding for youth mentorship programs.
That $50 job lent legitimacy to Robbins’ developing career, so he kept at it for three summers. He figures that when all was said and done, the government invested about $US600 in him through the NEA.
“Within 10 years the pay-off to the government was millions of dollars,” Robbins said with a sly grin. “Seriously. By the time I was 10 years older, I was making the kind of money where my tax dollars were insane compared to what they had invested.”
Paying it forward did not begin and end with taxes for Robbins. In 1981 he became the founding artistic director of the Actors’ Gang, a theatre company that has made community outreach, through educational programs in local schools and California prisons, its hallmark.
The Actors’ Gang has received $US138,000 from the NEA in the form of nine grants since 2003. Last year it received $US25,000 to support its free Shakespeare in the Park, a summer affair tailored to attract families through popular-culture adaptations of the Bard’s famous works. Harry Potter ‘Hamlet’, for example, or Pokemon Go! ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
Of that $US25,000, more than $US17,000 went to pay artists and crews, nearly $US3000 covered other production expenses, $US1800 went to buy permits and licences and an additional $US3000 went to union fees.
“It subversively gets kids into Shakespeare,” Robbins said, “because the words are from the plays, it’s just that they’re being said by characters they identify with.”
Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption.
Subversion through art is a thing with Robbins. He loves it. Art speaks truth to power, he said, and that’s why the NEA has had its funding cut and threatened so many times since it was created through an act of Congress in 1965.
“When there is a nationalistic or fascistic strain in government, why are the first people they target artists and intellectuals, writers of books?” he says. “When you intimidate artists into silence, when you take away their funding, your dissent is reduced. Artists can bring audiences to a level of humanity and empathy that no politician can … They can make the king look like a fool, and in doing that there is tremendous power.”
Robbins directed the 1995 film Dead Man Walking where he received a nomination for best director. Photo: Reuters
What those looking to cut funding for the NEA fail to realise, he said, is that the arts are actually powerful economic drivers in communities like Culver City.
Robbins said the city was transformed by nurturing the arts since before the Actors’ Gang moved there from Hollywood in 2005, thanks to affordable rent made possible by the Culver City Redevelopment Agency.
When there is a nationalistic or fascistic strain in government, why are the first people they target artists and intellectuals, writers of books?
“The idea that art or theatre or music is some kind of luxury is misguided,” he said. “For years the NEA has been creating economic engines throughout the country. It has been transforming communities, and that’s just from a pure business standpoint.”
Culver City mayor Jim Clarke points to the city’s 2.2-kilometre “Cultural Corridor” as a prime example of how a healthy investment in the arts can lead to large-scale revitalisation on an urban area. That corridor begins in the east with the Ivy Substation and the Actors’ Gang, calls Centre Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre the midpoint, and terminates in the west with Veterans Memorial Complex, the Wende Museum and United States Veterans’ Artists Alliance.
Early work: Earth Kitt and Tim Robbins star in the 1989 film Erik The Viking. Photo: Fairfax Media
“It’s part of our own branding – what we’re trying to do in terms of being a centre of cultural activity,” said Clarke, who shared a copy of a report the city commissioned from the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, The Creative Economy of Culver City.
The report’s executive summary said that in 2014, more than 8500 workers were employed in Culver City’s creative industries, which include visual and performing arts, fine arts, entertainment, architecture, publishing and fashion. The resulting labour income amounted to nearly $US1.1 billion.
“If 100 people come to the theatre they will have something to eat. If a shop is there, they will spend their money,” Robbins said. “You’re talking about a depression of community when these arts organisations are forced to go away.”
The elimination of the NEA would not kill the Actors’ Gang, which has an annual operating budget of nearly $US1.5 million. But it could kill other organisations, and it might kill programs that his company engages in, Robbins said.
In 1999 Robbins wrote and directed a historical drama called Cradle Will Rock, about a New Deal program called the Federal Theatre Project, which provided federal funding for artistic performances in the 1930s.
“The Roosevelt administration understood that recovery from the Depression wasn’t only about what we put in people’s pockets, it’s what we put into their souls,” Robbins said.
That idea should help to keep artists going in the face of the proposed elimination of the NEA, he said.
Los Angeles Times