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Exclusive Q&A: Tim Robbins Talks About the WTF?! Festival

Given that Tim Robbins founded the Actors Gang in response to a lack of opportunities for independent writers and actors to produce socially and politically salient new work, it’s no surprise that his response to the threat of a paralyzing budget crunch was to curate an ambitious ten-week festival of theatre, dance, music, conversation, performance, and education. The WTF?! Festival brings together scores of voices as diverse as those of Tom Morello, Naomi Klein, Gore Vidal, John Doe, Sarah Silverman, anti-war Veterans, and members of Cirque du Soleil — all in the name of saving one of the country’s bravest voices for progressive art by raising not only money, but awareness.

Flavorpill’s Shana Nys Dambrot caught up with Robbins on the eve of the LA festival to talk politics, art, and record collections.

Flavorpill: I have a few questions that center around the idea of political art, and the special challenges facing those who would produce it. Unassuming, mainstream work is hard enough to sustain in this climate, and politically assertive work, I would imagine, would be even more of an adventure. And that’s just the bureaucratic aspects. Political art also faces unique aesthetic challenges as it strives to succeed both at urgency and timelessness. In thinking broadly about those issues, could you talk a bit about the evolution of your political activism, as well as about its integration with your personal craft as an actor, writer, and director.

Tim Robbins: I am the son of musicians who raised my brother and sisters and me in Greenwich Village in the ’60s. We walked the streets with the vanguard of progressive art, with those at the epicenter of social movements. For me there has never been a question of the function of art in a society. It is meant to reflect the active world and find the beauty and the ugliness in it, to address the concerns of the audience, to raise questions that we all have, and to challenge conventional thought. Art is entirely ineffective however if it takes itself too seriously and doesn’t in some way grab its audiences emotions.

Music, theater, film, dance, can lose its power when it exists solely in the realm of the intellectual or theoretical. Whenever we are working on a piece at the Actors Gang we try to find the humor, the theatricality, the emotional truth. We’re not interested so much in the political argument as much as we are the emotional one.

FP: As far as the WTF?! line-up, how reflective of your personal taste were the curatorial choices? As in, are these the folks on your iPod — Jenny Lewis, Tom Morello, System of a Down — or is it primarily about their own activism as artists? Or both?

TR: I have all these artists on my iPod and most of them on vinyl. I admire them all as great songwriters.

FP: Follow-up: what else is on your iPod?

TR: Everything from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Rufus Wainwright to the Dead Kennedys to X to Neutral Milk Hotel.

FP: The festival is mostly performance, happening, and forum-based, but I’m curious: What visual artists are you most interested in right now?

TR: I love the work of Banksy. I was just in Barcelona and spent a few hours in a museum with Picasso. He’s as alive now as ever.

FP: What can audiences expect in the Veterans’ forums, and in the prisoners’ writing programs, based on your experiences with both?

TR: Theater is at its best when the piece lives past the curtain. Some of our greatest moments as a company have been in our talkbacks. Soldiers’ wives testifying after Embedded in New York in 2004, Republicans in Utah and Texas speaking about the absolute necessity of preserving personal liberties after performances of Orwell’s 1984 in 2007. Gore Vidal, Daniel Berrigan, Sister Helen Prejean, Phil Donahue have all spoken after shows and were quite eloquent, but it is the unpracticed voice, the raw reaction, that is particularly moving.

FP: What is the most important thing for Americans to read or see right now that they might not know about?

TR: I recommend staying in touch with Democracy Now which is on daily. Amy Goodman is certainly the most professional and no bullshit journalist on the air right now. And Naomi Klein always has a unique insight in her reporting.

But I would also encourage people that times like these require entertainment. It is important to not let information overwhelm you and get your spirit down. We must remember to dance and to celebrate life, to sing and laugh. That is my primary aim with the WTF?! Festival. To look the demons of recession and gloom in the eye and to sing out loud, beat them down with laughter and dance on their grave.

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