“Who says the arts are dead in L.A.?” said USC President Steven B. Sample at a gala honoring Robert Redford with the very first Robert Redford Award for Engaged Artists.
Sample was referring to the great progress made by the School of Theatre under the guidance of Dean Madeline Puzo in creating informed artists and participating members of society.
In Sample’s mind, the paths these artists have chosen are akin to Redford’s insofar as they involve preserving the arts and changing society for the better. As USC alumnus Frank Brown said, Redford is “not just an important star, but he has a social conscience.” Accordingly, it is understandable why the committee created this award and quickly chose Redford as its first recipient.
As Puzo said in her speech, Redford exemplifies both words in the name of the award: “engaged” and “artist.” Redford seems, however, to be such a humble, reserved person that the main reason he agreed to come out to the event was to raise scholarship money for prospective School of Theatre students who would not otherwise be able to afford to attend the school. He wants to make sure that students from underprivileged backgrounds have the opportunity to raise themselves out of their present situations with art, as he was able to.
To kick off the event and bring the audience’s attention back to the stage after dinner, there were performances of Broadway-style songs. The five performers, all recent alumni of the School of Theatre, held Redford in rapt attention as he watched from the audience. Their performance typified the very things everyone was there to support: confidence in self, natural talent honed by the School of Theatre and what the future of art — and theater in particular — will look like.
The Greco-themed room at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel was filled with celebrities, supporters of the School of Theatre and a handful of theater students who worked the event.
Redford was introduced by his friend Sid Ganis, former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Actress Meryl Streep spoke in a tribute video celebrating Redford’s career and his many humanitarian projects that accompanied the introduction. In the video, actress Meryl Streep spoke about Redford.
“[I think] he has been successful because he just doesn’t give a damn about what people think about him,” Streep said in the video address.
Gala Vice Chair Sally Field also spoke in the video and described how much Redford has inspired her just simply by being true to himself.
“Creative voice is independent voice,” Field said.
This idea is emblematic of Redford’s entire career, especially since the creation of the Sundance Institute, which gives many young filmmakers and actors the chance to get their work distributed to a wider market with the help of the namesake Sundance Film Festival, she said.
Through his extensive filmography, Redford has inspired several generations of young film-industry hopefuls and continues to do so. Casey Dolkas, a senior majoring in theatre, was deeply affected by Redford’s work.
“I feel honored to be here as a VIP escort, an ambassador to represent the School of Theatre,” Dolkas said. “Robert Redford is someone I would like to emulate my career after because he really has done it all: theater, film, T.V., directing — not to mention the philanthropic work he did, for example the Sundance Institute.”
When Redford took the stage, he was met with a standing ovation, but he appeared unsure of how to deal with all the praise.
“I was thinking about calling a cab,” said Redford.
Theater is very important to Redford, who started his career as a stage actor.
“Theater is dangerous, exciting … and powerful because of the intimacy with the audience,” he said. As an actor, he said he finds it more rewarding than film for these reasons.
Redford also spoke about how honored he felt to have his name attached to the new program and that the award is attached to USC, “such a prodigious school.” The award, which will be presented annually, will go to artists who have demonstrated great creative and social accomplishments throughout their lifetimes.
Ultimately, it wasn’t about a night of fancy dress, expensive food, cameras or the award itself. In the spirit of Redford’s own ideals, instead it was about giving a new generation of artists the opportunity to follow their dreams, hone their talents and become future art leaders and philanthropists.