By: Kurt Anthony Krug, Special to The Detroit News | February 12, 2020 | 5:42 p.m.
Oscar-winning actor/director Tim Robbins is a firm believer in the relationship between the actor and the audience when performing live theater.
And “The New Colossus” – a play he’s directing and co-wrote with a collective of writers from the Actors’ Gang – is no exception. The play will run for two shows on Saturday at the Walgreen Drama Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Admission is free.
“We’ve carried that with us throughout the last 35 years – the idea that theater has the opportunity, unlike film, to create a direct relationship with the audience that will be a different relationship every night, depending on the chemistry of these particular people and the energy the actors approach this relationship with,” said Robbins. “Theater is a shared communal event and not an experience that’s closed off to the audience. In other words, (we must) eliminate the wall put up by 20th-century realism.”
Robbins, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for 2003’s “Mystic River” and is best known for 1994’s “The Shawshank Redemption,” co-founded the Actors’ Gang in 1981 while a student at UCLA.
“The Actors’ Gang has always been a place for me to return to in order to grow as an artist,” said Robbins. “Theater is a great check on the pitfalls of fame and celebrity – you can’t fake it. You’re dependent every night on the real, honest reaction of an audience. One of the dangers of becoming famous is you get into an echo chamber that can be quite dangerous to your growth as an artist. If the only relationship you have with your audience is through your publicist, then it doesn’t necessarily lead to growth.”
In “The New Colossus,” 12 actors from all over the world tell 12 different stories in 12 different languages from 12 different time periods, spanning from 1864 to 2017. The stories are woven into a single narrative – about escaping an oppressive homeland and starting a new life in America. The play tells the story of forced migration and the constant struggle for survival and dignity in an uncertain and hostile environment.
“The New Colossus” shares a title with a sonnet written by poet Emma Lazarus in 1883 for an exhibit to raise funds for the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, which opened in 1886. Even though the Statue of Liberty was not originally conceived as a symbol of immigration, Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” reinvented the statue’s purpose, turning Lady Liberty into a welcoming mother, a symbol of hope to the outcasts and oppressed of the world.
At the end of each performance, Robbins and the actors engage the audience in conversation, asking them their immigration stories. According to Robbins, they’re the ones asking questions, not the audience.
“Questions start with how many people in the audience are descended from indigenous blood, first acknowledging that before immigration there was an entire population of people here. Then I ask if anyone was descended from an ancestor brought here against their will,” said Robbins.
Oftentimes, African-Americans will raise their hands, according to Robbins. Oftentimes, they don’t know from where their ancestors were taken, something Robbins said is one of the greatest crimes that’s never been atoned for in this nation.
“Then I ask if there’s any immigrants or refugees in the audience. Some hands come up, and I ask where and what year,” he said. “Then I ask are there any sons or daughters of refugees. More hands come up, and I ask where and what year. Grandsons and granddaughters of refugees. More hands come up. Great-grandsons and great-granddaughters of refugees. Before you know, the entire audience has raised their hand.”
Robbins continued: “Then we ask the audience to share either their immigration or refugee stories or the stories of their ancestors that have been passed down. What happens is we have this beautiful conversation with people calling up their own ancestors, saying their names, and giving testament to the struggles and challenges and obstacles that they overcame in order to create a life in this land.”
The Actors’ Gang presents ‘The New Colossus’
2 and 8 p.m. Saturday
Walgreen Drama Center at the University of Michigan
1226 Murfin Ave., Ann Arbor
Tickets are free. Visit www.eventbrite.com/e/the-actors-gang-presents-the-new-colossus-tickets-94420802161