Tonight marks the final stop on a nationwide tour for Tim Robbins’ prestigious ensemble troupe, the Actors’ Gang. Since 2002 the cast has traveled the country with their performance of the true life tales of wrongfully accused and now exonerated death row inmates. “The Exonerated,” co-written by Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, delves deep into the controversial laws and policies that make up our justice system, forcing us to reexamine and perhaps even shift our views on capital punishment. Cast member Ben Cain took a pre-show timeout to talk with Artsweek about life, loss and the legal trials of David Keaton.
How did you get involved with the Actors’ Gang?
Ben Cain: My initial connection with the Actors’ Gang started in 2002, when we did this show the first time. The playwright, Erik Jensen and I went to the same university. We have a mutual friend who called me and said, “Erik has a show that he’s bringing to L.A., you should go down and audition for it.” So I found out where that was going on and went down and auditioned for this play. I didn’t know anything about the theater company at all. I just was looking for somewhere to perform.
In L.A., where the industry literally runs the show, how important is it to keep theater alive in the community?
Being raised on theater, I just think it’s the art form that really trains you best. There are a lot of people who can be on television and couldn’t save their life on a stage. I think that the truly talented people can venture to both of them. Not to say there aren’t some good actors who couldn’t do stage, because I’ve worked in film myself. But I think if you’re an artist, you should really be able to handle the stage. And I think it’s very important in this place because of the fact that only, like 12 percent – or some ridiculous percent – of actors are really working. There are a lot of people who want to be actors, who strive to be actors, but the people who live off of their talent; their number is very small. I think it’s necessary in this place, just for people to stay fresh, to keep their skills up, to just love being an artist.
Do you think there is still an L.A. market for playwrights and theater troupes?
Yes, most definitely. I mean there are so many actors here. I think that anything that has to do with acting, there’s a market for it here. The difficult thing is getting people out to theater now. I know that’s a problem and I don’t know what the answer to that is. If you’re here in Los Angeles and you want to be in movies and television, the people in that industry sometimes don’t have time to go and see a play.
Would you mind giving us a little background on your character, David Keaton? What is he like? What aspects of the character or traits do you feel like you’ve brought to the role?
The beautiful thing about this piece is the fact that it is all true words. All I really have to do is say the words and tell the story. Now, as an actor, it’s a fine line between being difficult and being almost too easy because it’s my job to tell his story. Its not [fiction], I don’t have to add anything, I just have to tell it the way it is. And [that’s] just as powerful, just as sad, just as moving whether I put some extra acting sauce on it or if I just say it. It is what it is. David Keaton is a guy who is 18-years-old, coming home from a movie theater, and while he’s walking home he sees a bunch of police officers surrounding his house. They just took him away and said that he had robbed a store that he had never been in. He said that he did the crime just because he figured, “If I could at least get to trial, then [the witnesses] would see that I’m not that person,” but that’s not how it worked out. Then of course, through his trial, they figured out it wasn’t him and let him out, but his life, to this day, is still screwed up. That was in ’71 that he went in, and he got out in ’78. Even to this day, the things that I hear about him, the people that I’ve met that know him say that he’s still just a mess. As an actor, I couldn’t fathom [that]. What he brings to me is a level of understanding, of hopelessness, and how sad it is for him and how he feels beat down. Now, that’s not the kind of person I am, but I’m able to go into that world with him and experience it. It’s absolutely incredible … I realize just how blessed my life is because if that happened to him just the way it did, it could have happened to me.
Now that you’ve reached the homestretch of the tour, how do you feel “The Exonerated” was received at the college level?
The university is where the next generation of minds are that are going to run this place. It’s important for us to generate a dialogue and [get] people to talk about these issues. In this university setting, if there’s a young man or a young woman who is going to become a lawyer, and that play affects them to think about how they want to best attack their career, it’s beneficial. I’m not personally going there saying that I need to touch this possible DA, but it is my job to get the word out and let people be affected the way they are.
Do you think the student audience is different from the people you play to at REDCAT?
It all depends. When we do the talk-backs afterwards and the cast comes out, you never know. I can’t say that an older crowd or a younger crowd is more apt to listen or more fired up. I think the subject matter is such that it affects everybody in a certain way. When I was young I wasn’t thinking about the death penalty or being an activist, I could have cared less. I was trying to drink and meet more women, you know? I know that if the truth affects anybody, [the play is] gonna hit you. Even if I was a young man and I had seen this show, it would have changed me to some extent.
Did you find that audience reaction changed from location to location considering it is such a hot-button issue?
I think it depends on where the people are at and what the group dynamic is in the theater. This last show that we did, afterwards, it felt hostile in the audience for some reason. They were like, “You presented us these ideas and you showed us this, now tell us what to do.” We were the authority to tell them, “Now go out and do this.” There was one lady who [said], “I enjoyed the show, but I’m pro-death penalty. I had a son that was murdered and a daughter that was murdered and I believe that these people who do things like this should be punished.” All of a sudden … you had to also join in with this woman’s life and be like, “How would I feel if I was her?” I didn’t agree with what she was saying, but to see her that passionate, it made her side of the thing so much [more] real. Whether you say you’re pro-death penalty or anti-death penalty, what we present here is that to murder – to put someone on death row who is innocent – is wrong. And that’s what we’re working toward.