The critics love him. "Director Sanford Robbins' ferociously muscular take ... throbs with passion and reverberates with theatrical boldness," declared Damien Jaques, then the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel theater critic, reviewing Julius Caesar at American Players Theatre in 2006. Jaques was just as bullish about Robbins' 2007 production of Cyrano de Bergerac at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, while Milwaukee Magazine critic Paul Kosidowski picked it as one of the year's top shows in his online "Culture Club" column.
C-yrano featured no fewer than seven performers who were former Robbins students. His continuing impact on this area has been remarkable. It's been more than 20 years since Robbins left the UW-Milwaukee Professional Theatre Training Program, which he ran from 1976-1988. Not only has he come back to direct here (including four productions for the Rep since 2004), but many graduates of the University of Delaware's training program, which Robbins has run since 1988, have made their careers in Wisconsin.
His former students include APT performers Jim DeVita, Brian Mani, Colleen Madden, Matt Schwader, Susan Shunk and Paul Hurley, and Milwaukee Rep resident actors Lee Ernst, Torrey Hanson, Laurie Birmingham and Michael Duncan. Not to mention In Tandem Theatre's artistic director, Chris Flieller; former Rep actor Mark Corkins, now a faculty member at the University of Delaware; and Jim Butchart, now on the faculty of UW-Whitewater's theater department.
"It's great training," says DeVita. "A lot of people coming out of his program have great technical proficiency in rhetoric and speech."
"Our graduates have enjoyed an employment rate that is more than double the industry standard," Robbins notes.
Yet Robbins has also been dogged - for a quarter-century - by ethical questions about his controversial approach to education.
A 1983 Milwaukee Magazine story found some students in the UWM theater program felt pressured to attend Erhard Seminars Training. Created by Werner Erhard, EST was a high-priced training regimen using coercive persuasion to break down participants' beliefs and alter their behavior. Some critics suggested it had elements of a cult or an ideology.
A typical two-weekend session consisted of four days and some 60 hours spent in a windowless conference room sitting in hard-backed chairs. Breaks were few, the message intense, and by the time Erhard sold the rights to some of his employees in 1991, he was worth millions.
Robbins told Milwaukee Magazine in 1983 that EST was "part of the program," then later in the interview denied this. But two theater instructors told the magazine that 34 of 35 students in the program had taken the EST training. This became an issue for the League of Professional Theatre Training Programs, which turned down Robbins and UWM when they applied to join the group.
"One of the grave concerns of the league was whether EST was a requirement of the program," Malcolm Morrison, then vice president of the league, told Milwaukee Magazine. "We could not accredit the program." Robbins, however, said the league's concern was not EST, but "how acting was taught." (Ironically, Morrison later succeeded Robbins at UWM, running its training program from 1988 to 1996.)
Today, Robbins is heavily involved with a successor to EST, the Landmark Forum, run by Landmark Education Company in San Francisco. Created in 1991, Landmark was formed by former Erhard employees who purchased the rights to his company. Its CEO is Harry Rosenberg, Erhard's brother.
Robbins says his Delaware theater program "is essentially the same as it was in Milwaukee in terms of its pedagogy, approach, values, etc. We recommend, but in no way require, that students participate in the Landmark Forum."
Landmark materials say its programs are based on ideas, methodology and materials developed by Werner Erhard, and that he still operates as a sometime consultant. Landmark's training differs in some ways from EST: Most notably, the course takes place over one weekend
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"It's not cultish," says Lee Ernst, a graduate of Robbins' UWM program who is now entering his 16th season at the Rep. "It [EST] bordered on it back in the 1970s, but I'm an advocate for anybody interested in taking it [the Forum] now."
Others aren't as enthusiastic. Rick Ross, who runs the Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements, has been a critic of Landmark.
"I don't consider them a cult," Ross says. "However, in my opinion, they use techniques that are cult-like: They isolate people, essentially collapse people, and program them with their philosophy. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. I've heard far too many complaints from individuals and families that say they or their loved ones have been damaged by the program."
Ross also sees little difference between the Landmark approach and its forerunner, EST: "It's really the same thing. Did anything change in the training, other than they changed the chairs in the room?"
Landmark representatives dismiss this criticism. They note that Ross has a 1975 felony conviction (Ross says it was a nonviolent charge for which he received probation). They say he lacks a college degree (he notes he's been qualified as an expert witness in 13 states, including U.S. federal court). They cite experts - such as a former chief executive officer of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Raymond Fowler - who say there is nothing cult-like about Landmark's programs.
Another critic of Landmark's operations was France 3, a French TV station that did a documentary that can be viewed at the Cult Awareness & Information Centre's Web site, caic.org.au (along with Landmark's official response). A journalist using hidden cameras posed as a Forum student and documented the training. The resulting, unflattering film suggested Landmark had cult-like elements. It was seen by an estimated 1.5 million French viewers. Not long after this, Landmark abruptly shuttered its French operations.
Again, the company strongly defends itself. "The footage in the French documentary does not reflect what happens in the Landmark Forum delivered in the United States, nor does it even reflect what happened in that particular Landmark Forum in France," says company spokesperson Randy McNamara. "The producer intentionally taped and then edited footage to create a false, sensational context."
Robbins is tightly connected to the company. He has served on Landmark's board of directors since 1993. Both Robbins and Landmark say he receives no compensation for this. He also denies investing in the company.
But Robbins says he leads a program for Landmark, called The World is Your Stage, one or two times annually, which he describes as a mix of actor training with some of Landmark Education's methodology. "On those infrequent occasions when I have led a program for Landmark Education, I have been paid a nominal fee," he says. Landmark, in turn, benefits financially from any Delaware student who takes its course, which costs $385.
"For a teacher who occupies a position of authority and control to say we feel you need to do this, there's an ethical question," Ross says. "He is able to influence these students to take the course. The net result is they embrace the philosophy of Werner Erhard."
Robbins insists his students are free to refuse his recommendation. He estimates that 55 percent of Delaware students have signed up for Landmark training.
And his successful former students are universal in their praise of Robbins. When asked to evaluate his former teacher's strengths and weaknesses, Ernst couldn't name an example of the latter. "For me to single out a weakness would presuppose that I was strong in that area," Ernst explains. "I admire Sandy and aspire to be like him."