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He's Playing the Director
(Originally printed in the L.A. Times Calendar section, May 13, 2001)
As Andrew J. Robinson guides 'Side Man,' helping fellow actors find their way to revealing portrayals is almost like a performance in itself.

By Jan Breslauer

Give Andrew J. Robinson a round of applause. The veteran actor has done what many thespians dream of doing but few achieve: Over the course of the last half a dozen years, he's not only added the title of director to his credits, he's also developed a reputation as one of the best actors' directors around.

Sitting in the green room of the Pasadena Playhouse, it would be easy to believe Robinson has managed the career segue on his quietly affable personality alone. But to hear him talk about performance is to understand why he is so respected by his fellow players,

"Basically, the way you help actors is that you don't give actors performances," says Robinson, 59, who has been acting in mainstream and experimental theater, film and television since the 1960s, "Actors find their own performances. What you do is you help them remove obstacles so that they can find the performance.

"Any good actor knows that just learning your lines and doing the blocking is not the deal," he continues. "There's something else. If an actor's not connected to the text, men there's no energy. Something must be revealed, or there's no reason for an audience to stay in those seats."

Robinson's staging of Warren Leight's "Side Man," featuring Mare Winningham, opens today at the Pasadena Playhouse. And though he's grateful to be increasingly in demand as a director, Robinson hasn't given up acting.

One craft feeds the other. "I need to act too," he says. "I actually consider myself an actor who directs. I came to it from my work as an actor, so that's where my strength is. What surprised me was that directing was as fulfilling as acting. I found that helping actors find their performance was like finding my own performance, and so directing became a kind of performance."

Clearly, the approach works—according to those on both sides of the proscenium, "Andy Is, quite simply, one of the best actors' directors that I know," says Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps, who previously hired Robinson to direct "Visiting Mr. Green" and "The Glass Menagerie." "I knew immediately that he would be the ^ right person to get the cast to the emotional depths that are asked for in this play. Also, his great passion" and love for jazz make him the ideal choice.  I can't think of anyone who is more suited to brilliantly deliver this material than Andy."

"I need to act too... I actually consider myself an actor who directs." -Andrew J. Robinson

"Andy was always very encouraging, positive, energetic and full of new ideas," says Jack Klugman, whom Robinson directed in a 1998 "Death of a Salesman' at the Falcon Theatre. "He's very good with actors. What I hope for mostly is that a director stays out of my way. After you've been acting .for so long, you're ahead of them, but he was always helpful. There're maybe five directors I've really enjoyed working with. I'd work for him again in a New York minute, if we had the right play."

Leight's "Side Man," which won a 1999 Tony Award for best play, is a free-flowing portrait of the effect that one jazzman's obsessive devotion to music has on his family life.

"'Side Man' is about these musicians who, in their early days, they're just playing their music, and they can live on no money," says Robinson. "When they're playing their music, as Warren Leight describes it, they're oblivious. They've given themselves up to the music. The scene is exciting; it's great. And then they have families, and everything changes. They have to live in the real world, which is a world of streets and junk and booze and bills and rent and children.

"The play, for me, is about reconciling your art, your dreams, the stuff of your imagination, with the reality of life," Robinson continues. At the heart of "Side Man" are two themes that resonate particularly strongly with Robinson. One is his lifelong love of jazz. "When I was a kid, I remember first hearing it," he recalls. "I'm this white kid from New England, and somehow I understood every moment, not so much the words but the feeling that was coming out."

Then too, the plight of the play's wife and mother, Terry (played by Winningham), also strikes a familiar chord "The mother in this, she's deeply disturbed, and circumstances conspire, so her mental state deteriorates, and then she starts drinking, and the more she drinks, the worse it gets," says Robinson. "That's basically what happened to my mother.

"Like the young man in this play, Clifford, for several years I was her caretaker—not as long as Clifford was in the play, but long enough to know that territory very well—pouring bottles of booze down the sink or biding them, kicking drunken boyfriends out of the apartment."

It was a harsh life that Robinson remembers perhaps too well. Born and raised to New York City, he was 3 when his father was killed in World War II. He and his mother moved back to where her family was from, just outside of Hartford, Conn., only to see her fall apart. "She just kind of broke down and started drinking heavily," says Robinson. "It wasn't a nervous breakdown, but there was nobody to help her. She didn't want anybody helping her."

Robinson was removed from his mother's care when he was 10 and sent to school in Rhode Island, where he stayed for the next eight years, a period he recalls as a welcome respite. In due time, he graduated with an English degree from the New School for Social Research in New York.

Initially, he thought he'd become a teacher, but his career took an important turn when a professor persuaded him to pursue acting and apply for a Fulbright scholarship.

The process proved aptly dramatic, "It was during a huge snowstorm in the winter of '63-'64, when I went up to audition for my Fulbright," Robinson recalls. "The storm was so bad that a lot of people didn't show up, including judges. When I got there, Joe Papp was the only judge who was there, and he's asking me, 'Why do you want to be an actor?' I'll never forget, I said, 'Well, I don't know what else to do with my life'—really smart answers like that. Then I got up and I did a couple of monologues for him—the monologues that you pick, when you're a kid—from 'Henry IV,' and 'Threepenny Opera'— and that was that. I got the Fulbright, and I know it was largely because of him."

Robinson spent his Fulbright year at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Upon returning to the States, Robinson spent the next several years honing his craft in regional theaters. In 1966, he landed a breakthrough role, taking over for William Devane in the off-Broadway hit "MacBird!," starring Stacy Keach. Other off-Broadway shows followed, as did assignments at Lincoln Center and Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival.

In a more experimental vein, Robinson was one of the co-founders of the LaMama Plexus Troupe, which became the resident company and teaching group at LaMama and toured extensively for several years in the late '60s.

Indeed, Robinson was happily ensconced in the heyday of the off-Broadway scene. Until, that is, Clint Eastwood came along and made his day. "These weird things happen in your life: like Clint Eastwood comes to this small theater at the Shakespeare Festival and sees me in this play." And so it came to pass that Robinson landed the role of the Scorpio Killer in the original "Dirty Harry," a role that would mark him indelibly for years to come.

"I did this crazy guy well, and this is the kind of crazy guy that nobody'd ever seen before, and essentially that was my badge," says Robinson. "I got nailed with the psychotic tag, and I started turning down a lot of work doing that kind of guy again."

Initially, Robinson didn't take to LA. "I was in mourning for several years for those New York days, which were gone forever, because the scene was gone." But moving back to New York didn't solve the situation either.

In New York again, Robinson spent several years working on the soap opera "Ryan's Hope." Returning to the theater proved problematic. "The momentum that I had as a stage actor in New York, I lost that, and I got into a fight with Joe Papp, who was kind of my sponsor, because he never wanted me to do 'Dirty Harry.'"

Once again, Robinson—who was by this time married and had a young daughter—moved back to California. "I hung in here for a few more years and still had a hard time," he recalls. "I was doing occasional TV episodes and TV movies for the most part, but very few films, which is what I wanted to do. Then I was doing this show, "The A-Team,' and I was doing a role that I hated, and something snapped."

Abruptly, Robinson decided to drop out. "In the middle of it, we just packed up, sold the house, left L.A. and moved to Idyllwild for four or five years," he says. "I just quit the business. USC had an art school up there, and my wife, Irene, and I started administering and teaching a couple of programs, the children's center and also the teenage drama program."

Eventually, the stage hired him back to L.A., Specifically, it was the lead in "In the Belly of the Beast," based on the writings of murderer lack Henry Abbott, adapted by Adrian Hall and further adapted and directed by Robert Woodruff.  The production began at the Taper, Too at the John Anson Ford theater and moved to the Taper main stage in the 1984-85 season. It then traveled to the Sydney Arts Festival in Australia and to New York. "Essentially, it revived me," says Robinson. "I found a new life, and I also began to make my peace with L.A."

As he had in the '60s, Robinson found himself looking for an artistic home, finding the solution in becoming part of a new troupe. In 1992, he was one of a group of actors, many of them established in the industry, who were gathered together by producer Joe Stem to form the Matrix Theatre Company.

With that company, he acted in such works as "The Tavern," "Habeas Corpus" and the one-man play "Memoirs of Jesus." But Robinson also decided to branch out, as he had in his earlier LaMama days, and try other jobs in the theater. With Stem's support, he directed Beckett's "Endgame."

"You don't expect people to show up in June in Los Angeles to see dense Beckett, but people did, and it was a thrilling experience," Robinson says. Robinson went on to direct a number of other Matrix shows, including "Yield of the Long Bond," "The Homecoming," "Dangerous Corner" and "Waiting for Godot."  "Joe is the one that really supported the directing thing," he says. "He got behind me a thousand percent as a director, and he, more than anyone else, is responsible for me having a directing career."  While his directing career was beginning to take shape, Robinson "paid the bills" with a recurring role as Garak the tailor on the television series "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" from 1992 to '99. He has also directed episodes of that show, as well as of "Star Trek Voyager" and, more recently, "Judging Amy."

In 1998, Robinson ventured outside the Matrix for the first time as a stage director with "Death of a Salesman," starring Klugman. "It was great working with a guy who's a star but who's a human being. He gave his heart to it," Robinson says.

Klugman returns the praise. "It was my favorite play, and I'd wanted to do it for several years," says the actor, "I knew most of it going in, but there were places where Andy would pull me out more. It's such a dramatic piece, you've got to really let go, and he encouraged new things. But if you went too far, he'd stop you."

Only after that production did Robinson feel his directing career was launched. "Moving to the Falcon for 'Death of a Salesman,' and then to the Pasadena Playhouse for 'Visiting Mr. Green,' that's when it started becoming a career," says Robinson, referring to his Pasadena debut in 1999. Last year, he directed "The Glass Menagerie" at Pasadena and "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" at South Coast Repertory.

Robinson's current assignment calls for him to guide his cast through a process of self-examination, enabling them to make personal connections with the material, connections he regards as essential "It's basically up to the actors," he says. The first thing we talked about was, what about you? How have you reconciled being an actor, which is one ;. of the most unstable things on Earth you can do, with your family lives? None of us are musicians, so we don't know about being a jazz musician, but we know about being actors in this society."

Ultimately, translating those emotional truths into performance is what Robinson feels acting—and directing—are all about. "The obstacles to be removed are all about fear, and I know about this," he says. "In 'In the Belly of the Beast,' I was playing this guy who's a murderer.  I've never killed, anybody, but what in me exists that can relate to that life? It's A very scary thing to really get in there and investigate your rage. That's an extreme example, but it's the same thing with any good play. It's about finding that connection. It's what the great actors do. It's what great theater does."

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