Arts

Tim Robbins Talks ‘Topsy Turvy,’ an Actors’ Gang Vaudeville Original

The cast of "Topsy Turvy (A Musical Greek Vaudeville)" at the Actors' Gang Theater in Culver City, CA. Photo by Ashley Randall

The Actors’ Gang, founded in 1981 by outside-the-box performers with a predilection for telling stories unlike any other troupe, is back with the splendidly allegorical chaos of Topsy Turvy (A Musical Greek Vaudeville), which runs through Saturday, June 8th.

Unconventional shows can be risky, but the Culver City-situated theater company has proven over and over again that it is capable of grabbing the imaginations of theatergoers who are taken on a labyrinthe of the unexpected, where novel voices stand out in contrast to predictable, and sometimes overdone, productions.

At the helm of the Gang’s annual offerings, doubling as mission statements, is Artistic Director Tim Robbins whose electric turn as Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption is still lauded to this day where it sits comfortably perched atop IMDB’s list of most highly rated films.

Willa Fossum (center) with the cast of Topsy Turvy (A Musical Greek Vaudeville) at the Actors’ Gang Theater in Culver City, CA. Photo by Ashley Randall

As writer, director, and composer of six original songs, Robbins’s latest evokes curious feelings just from the title alone. “Topsy-Turvy” has two definitions: “upside down” or a “state of utter confusion.” This 110-minute Topsy Turvy at the Actors’ Gang Theater is rife with the very best kind of ordered disorderliness, but it also captures the fine line between division and togetherness, where forgiveness and humanity are the antidotes to estrangement.

This all comes to the forefront of consciousness for a Greek chorus whose world is upended by a singular illness, communicable by breath, which threatens their harmony. As community is replaced by isolation, emptiness, and uncertainty, a collection of ultra-famous Greek deities are beckoned, one monologue at a time. From Bacchus to Dionysus, Cupid, Aphrodite, and more, intentional farce and solemn warnings intertwine to reveal truths about the despoiling of the human condition, some of it willfully brought on by distractions and misguided virtues. If nothing else, Topsy Turvy is a unique offering that draws parallels to the modern age, inviting alternate perspectives and discourse.

(L-R) Scott Harris and Luis Quintana with Ayindè Howell (background) in Topsy Turvy (A Musical Greek Vaudeville) at the Actors’ Gang Theater in Culver City, CA. Photo by Ashley Randall

In an interview with LAexcites, the multitalented Robbins elaborated on the premise, its metaphorical significance, his process for writing songs, thoughts on Greek Gods, and much more.

The story involves a chorus of mortals who appeal to a collection of Greek Gods to intervene and course-correct their situation. The narrative is presumably inspired by the pandemic and is an analog to how everyday people demand answers, including from divine sources, when unexpected events happen or when things turn sour. Can you recall a situation where you were searching for answers and were unsure of how to navigate it?

Robbins: I think we all go through moments where we encounter a challenge that we may not be equipped to undertake. Some people find guidance in faith, some people find guidance or misguidance in abusing themselves in some way, and some people aren’t even curious or stress about anything. I feel what I’ve learned in my life is that no one knows everything. It’s oftentimes a strength to be able to deal with adversity in a humble way, and there’s more discovery and understanding in going through something with humility and saying I don’t know. And you have to be involved in a forum and have a conversation with people who are outside your point of view in order to learn. Nobody learns anything by affirming what they already know.

Tim Robbins (standing in the foreground) in George Orwell’s 1984 in 2019 at the Actors’ Gang Theater in Culver City, CA. Photo by Ashley Randall

Speaking of that, what are your thoughts on social media, which has increasingly polarized people, and the fact that a lot of the social-media algorithms only confirm people’s confirmation biases, making it even more difficult for someone to entertain an opposite point of view?

Robbins: I think the result of this is that people can’t have conversations with anyone who disagrees with them. That, then, begs the question: Is this intentional?

What is intentional?

Robbins: Is it intentional by the people that make the algorithms and, if it’s intentional, is it simply for profit or greed or is it something else? Are there forces in the world that benefit from us being divided? Any student of history will tell you this has been a strategy going way back. If serfs fight among themselves, they’ll leave the king alone.

There are six original songs written by you in this production. What was your process like in writing the songs? How did you hash out the melodies and rhythms?

Robbins: It started with just writing in verse, and at some point I thought it might make a good song. It’s just a matter of sitting down with the guitar and playing around with chords and progressions. I learned how to play the guitar in my late teens; I’m self-taught. My dad was a musician; music was always in the house and mom would always play music. My one luxury was a good stereo in what was a small walkup apartment in Greenwich Village. Music has always been essential.

Tim Robbins (fourth from the right) in 2018’s The New Colossus at the Actors’ Gang Theater in Culver City, CA. Photo by Ashley Randall

By the way, would you call Topsy Turvy a play, a play with music, or a musical?

Robbins: I would call it a play with music. Musical conventions are lovely, but I prefer the form of having songs with theater.

Many Greek Gods are featured in your show. If you could choose to be one Greek God, whom would you choose and why?

Robbins: I would never choose to be a God; that’s not for us mortals to be. But I follow the spirit of Dionysus and Aphrodite, and I see the legitimacy of all religions and all faiths. I think it’s a personal thing. To quote John Lennon – “Whatever gets you thru the night / It’s all right.”

If you were to adapt Topsy Turvy into a film (I realize there’s already a 1999 film with the same name), what would be the biggest creative hurdle to overcome, if any, to make it work? Would you keep it as a quasi-musical?

Robbins: I’m not sure. I haven’t really thought about turning it into a film. I guess the biggest challenge is to recreate the majestic visits of the Gods. And the biggest obstacle for any film is getting financing for it — that would be the big hurdle. It’s something that can be figured out.

Tim Robbins in 1992’s The Player, directed by Robert Altman. Photo courtesy of Spelling International/Kobal/Shutterstock

It’s funny you mention that. I recently saw your performance in The Player, and when you said financing I thought of your role as Griffin Mill, a Hollywood studio executive.

Robbins: That reminds me of something Robert Altman said to me. I once asked his favorite film that he directed, and he said, ‘I think about the films like I think about children. The ones that don’t get enough attention are my favorite.’

I have a bonus question for you. As you know, The Shawshank Redemption has been at the top of IMDB’s list of top 250 films for a long time and may never be unseated. If any other film of yours had to be No. 1, which would you choose and why?

Robbins: I would go with Cradle Will Rock — a movie I directed in 1999 about the Federal Theatre Project. It’s a solid film, and I want more people to see it.

As an actor, I call attention to three films: The Secret Life of Words, written and directed by Isabel Coixet; Code 46, directed by Michael Winterbottom; and Catch a Fire, directed by Phillip Noyce. These are great films that didn’t catch at the box office; and, if there’s anything we’ve learned from Shawshank, it’s that theatrical success isn’t the only marker of success.

(Foreground, L-R) Luis Quintana and Chas Harvey with the cast of Topsy Turvy (A Musical Greek Vaudeville) at the Actors’ Gang’s Theater in Culver City, CA. Photo by Ashley Randall

Finally, what’s next for you?

Robbins: We tour in Romania with the play (Topsy Turvy) in two weeks, and then I’m back here to develop the new season for the Actors’ Gang. I’m also hoping to film another season of Silo (on Apple TV+).

For more information on Topsy Turvy (A Musical Greek Vaudeville) at the Actors’ Gang Theater, and to purchase tickets for the remaining performances, visit theactorsgang.com.

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