Tim Robbins: 4 Ways To Apply The Actor’s Empowered Mindset
“Never blame the audience” is a powerful metaphor that can be applied to many different areas of life.
Tim Robbins is best known for featuring in one of the most inspirational films in Hollywood history — The Shawshank Redemption. In the 1994 epic, Robbins stars alongside Morgan Freeman as Andy Dufresne, a man who vehemently claims his innocence having been convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. The bond between Andy and “Red” (Freeman) spans decades of time in prison, with a powerful message of hope and resilience.
Robbins has had an esteemed acting career, including an Oscar, and time spent behind the camera directing films such as Dead Man Walking, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. He’s also the founder of an experimental theater group, The Actors’ Gang, which he started in 1981. All of which is to say, Tim Robbins understands the industry. And, not only that, he’s someone at the top of his game. There’s a lot to learn from Robbins’s mindset and approach, but one of his mantras stands out more than most.
Robbins: Never Blame the Audience
Robbins is known for considering the diversity of audiences and leaving any differences outside of the theater. That’s not always an easy choice to honor. In a Substack interview with Matt Taibbi, he expressed concern at how covid-measures impacted the arts, in particular vaccine mandates for audiences. “At the door, you don’t say you can’t come in, because you haven’t done this or that,” he said. “I had a problem with that. So I waited until everyone could be allowed in the theater.”
Robbins’ approach has integrated into his acting mindset — never blame the audience. It’s an unwritten rule he follows, regardless of how well, or how poorly, a performance goes. In an interview with Traveling Boy, the actor expanded upon this ethos when asked about the validity of actors blaming the audience:
“Never assume anyone in the audience had enough money to buy this ticket and assume because of that, they walked five miles to get here because they couldn’t afford a bus. That’s the respect you owe an audience. You never want to hear that an audience sucked. No. You sucked. You didn’t meet them. You didn’t find a way to tell them a story. Because of our discipline and approach, which is how do we make this immediate and great right now for these people, we rarely have an off night.”Tim Robbins
The feedback loop of an audience is amplified in theater. Compared to a movie, where actors may spend months in a studio setting, surrounded by the crew, with occasional screenings shown to other people, actors in a theater have nowhere to hide. They breathe the same oxygen as the audience. Although respect works both ways, Robbins leads the way. And there’s a lot to learn from this simple, but profound, approach.
Applying Tim Robbins’s Mindset
“I learned much more about acting from philosophy courses, psychology courses, history and anthropology than I ever learned in acting class.”Tim Robbins
The above quote by Robbins points to the actor’s wisdom. His mantra, never blame the audience, can be interpreted in a number of ways. Above all else, it’s about personal responsibility, discipline, and a growth mindset. Blaming the audience is a metaphor that extends far beyond theater. The act of blaming the audience avoids looking at the actor’s own experience, or finding creative ways to improve, and instead projects fault onto a faceless crowd.
Clearly, studying psychology and philosophy has paid off. Robbins’ approach has the hallmarks of stoicism, in particular Marcus Aurelius’ quote: “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” In the theater of life, blaming the audience creates no room to learn from the audience. What didn’t work, and what could be done better next time? With the metaphor in mind, let’s look at 5 ways to apply the mindset to your life.
1. Know That Blame Has Limited Value
What areas of life are you tempted to blame others, or life itself, for things not going your way? It’s normal to fall into blame from time to time. We might blame our partner for our emotional ups and downs. The tax man for our poor financial situation. Or our broken alarm clock for waking up late. Anytime you fall into blame, you stop taking responsibility, and enter into a space of learned helplessness.
Blame has limited value. Instead, try to adopt an approach that always considers your role. You can start with small steps. What actions can you take, today, to make progress in any given situation? You’re much more creative than you’d imagine, and solutions will present themselves. For example, in a relationship, you might see the ways you lose your cool easily, and commit to improving your emotional regulation.
2. Always Ask: How Can I Do Better?
Despite Robbins’ career success, notice that he doesn’t assume the audience doesn’t get it. He’d be forgiven for taking such an egoic stance, considering his knowledge of the field. But instead, Robbins always makes the assumption there’s something he can do better, that it’s not the audience’s misunderstanding. He gives them the benefit of the doubt and doesn’t make assumptions. The beauty of this approach is that it applies to all life areas.
Let’s say, for example, you’re trying to make a career out of writing. You feel compelled to write, and show up every day to put words on the page. But every time you publish… tumbleweed. One option would be to fall into bitterness and moan about how people don’t get your work. The other would be to show up every day, keen to look at ways to improve. Can you improve your delivery, your headlines? Can you simplify or make your topics more relatable? There’s always scope to improve.
3. Don’t Take Things Personally
What I love about Robbins’ approach is that, even when not blaming the audience, he’s not sulking. He’s not personifying their lack of connection, taking it personally, and blaming himself instead. He’s viewing the situation objectively and analyzing it with logic. Granted, in life, it’s difficult not to take certain things personally; rejection hurts, as does not being noticed, or having something you care for overlooked. But do your best to train your mind not to take it personally.
Notice that Robbins uses the example of someone not having money to pay for a bus ticket? Always give people the benefit of the doubt, extend them compassion, and don’t assume or jump to quick conclusions.
Not getting a response you’d like doesn’t mean you’re a failure, or not good enough. It just means something wasn’t quite right, but you have the chance to go again, to experiment, to try something new. Remain as self-compassionate as understanding when going through apparent setbacks and failure — it’s all part of the journey to success.
4. Be Resilient
What’s more important than individual outcomes, the metaphorical audience on any given night is the resilience you develop by showing up, day after day. That’s how character is developed. By continuing to show up, you’re demonstrating belief in what it is you’re here to do, even when you’re not received as warmly as you’d like. You’re showing grit and determination, all the traits that lead to success. By not blaming the audience, you’re developing the value of humility, something that will be essential when things eventually do take off. This point is particularly relevant to the film that put Robbins on the map, The Shawshank Redemption.
Finding Inspiration in Robbins’ Mantra
At the risk of a spoiler (you’ve had long enough to watch by now), Andy is the embodiment of resilience. Day after day, as lights go out, he chisels away at the prison wall with a tiny rock hammer. Each small piece of stone chiseled away builds up. He keeps going, year after year after year until he’s chiseled a hole big enough to escape through.
Using Andy as an example, think how easy it would have been for him to enter a space of blaming the audience; the courts, the injustice, the prisoners causing him harm, and the people ignoring his pleas of innocence. But he had no choice but to keep going, to believe, to find the energy to chisel away, to never lose hope.
There’s a lot of wisdom packed into Robbins’ modest approach. Blaming the audience is the easy way out. By taking responsibility, you’ll be able to adapt a resilient approach to life’s ups and downs, build character along the way, and always strive to do better. You’ll have off days, for sure. But over the long run, you’ll move forward, one step (or stone) at a time.