A theater in a Californian canyon becomes an oasis again

TOPANGA, Calif .– There were no famous names in the cast. It was the first professional production of a little-known playwright. And the theater was deep in the canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains, on a long, windy road, halfway between the beaches of the Pacific Ocean and the San Fernando Valley, a remote bohemian outpost known for its performers, its musicians and rattlesnakes.

But for all that, there were a lot of people at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum on a recent Sunday night for a performance of “The Last, Best Small Town”. Wearing masks as the theater demands, 150 patrons sat on hardwood benches on a chilly summer night. A cast of eight actors exuberantly navigated the sprawling, asymmetrical stage, built around a living California oak tree and through the scrub of a hill, scurrying along dirt trails to exit the stage and enter. in the rights of the scene.

The Theatricum Botanicum was born amid the political fury of the McCarthy era over concerns over the alleged Communist infiltration of Hollywood in the 1950s. It started as a retreat into the mountains where blacklisted actors, led by Will Geer, who had refused to testify before the House committee on anti-American activities, gathered to play Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams for a small audience strolling off North Topanga Canyon Boulevard. .

But this distant theater in the woods, which for years was mainly known to an indoor crowd of Topanga’s neighbors and the few onlookers familiar with its history, is drawing crowds this summer even as it advances in the midst of a pandemic. . The comedians are appearing on a new stage, rebuilt with a grant when the theater was dark last season, replacing a jumble of dirt and rotten wood.

“This beautiful outdoor space is perfect for this time,” said Alan Blumenfeld, an actor who has been with the theater company for 36 years.

It drew crowds of people who showed up with their proof of vaccination cards to attend an evening of outdoor theater. (Unlike the East Coast, where rainy shows have been frequent this summer, an outdoor show is unlikely to be called for rain every year, but especially amid the prolonged drought that has hit the region.) The night before “The Last, Best Small Town” had drawn 150 people, almost 300 people showed up for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – a generally high turnout at all times, and regardless of whether the official capacity of seats is 299.

“People feel safer coming in,” said Willow Geer, who is Will Geer’s granddaughter and who appears in this year’s production of “Julius Caesar” as Portia. “And it improved our situation.”

But its appeal is not limited to offering an open-air stage under the stars in a year when many small theaters in the region, cramped and poorly ventilated, remain closed. Theatricum Botanicum is idiosyncratic and unique, defined as much by its distant splendor as by the circumstances of its founding. Its legacy has been carefully nurtured by members of the Geer family who have directed and performed in this theater since Will Geer’s death in 1978, and who have found its ideological sensibilities particularly relevant in times of pandemic and polarization.

“Theatricum Botanicum is to the Los Angeles theatrical scene what Topanga Canyon is to Los Angeles itself: it’s technically a part of the city, but it’s a world apart,” said Steven Leigh Morris, the publisher of Stage Raw, a Los Angeles arts and culture publication. “It continues Woody Guthrie’s legacy and FDR’s sensitivity to give people a break who otherwise wouldn’t have had a break. I have a weakness for them. I really respect people who do this for a purpose. It is not just vanity.

Zev Yaroslavsky, who represented Topanga and helped win the Theater County Arts Grants when he was a member of the Los Angeles Supervisory Board, called him a “civil liberties billboard.”

“When I think of Topanga Canyon and the Theatricum Botanicum, it’s a constant history lesson of what can happen even in a democracy like ours when people stop being diligent,” said Yaroslavsky, who now teaches. at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The whole DNA of this theater is about eternal vigilance. “

Ellen Geer, daughter of Will Geer and artistic director of the theater, rejoiced the other day to tell 70 years of history – of her family and of the theater; they’re so closely linked – as she led a leisurely stroll through the 15 acres of gardens, theaters and cabins, including one where Guthrie, who was friends with Will Geer, lived for some time in the early years. 1950.

“We have to come back in the spring: there are daffodils on the hill,” said Geer, pointing to the back of the stage, settling down on one of the benches in the amphitheater. “I think there’s a fox that lives in a hole up there.”

His daughter Willow called it “a smaller, more rustic and intimate Hollywood Bowl”.

“My mom made me promise,” she said, “that when she left, I wouldn’t let anyone pave the parking lot.

The theater’s namesake, Will Geer – whose ashes are buried in Shakespeare’s garden, near those of his former wife, actress Herta Ware – is popularly known for playing the grandfather on the TV show “The Waltons”. But it was a late-career resurrection for a well-known stage and film actor who starred in “The Cradle Will Rock”, the 1937 left-wing play about unionizing the steel industry, directed by Orson Welles. .

He was blacklisted in 1951 when he invoked his Fifth Amendment rights in response to questions about Communist infiltration of Hollywood before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. After Geer, unable to work on stage or on screen, lost his home in Santa Monica, he and Ware bought land here, about 25 miles from downtown Los Angeles.

Geer, a trained horticulturist, grew vegetables to feed his family. (Hence the name Theatricum Botanicum, which roughly translates to botanical theater.) And he began to round up other blacklisted actors for impromptu performances in the mountains. After a few years, Geer left Topanga and moved across the country, taking on occasional acting jobs. (He and his wife eventually divorced, but they remained friends.) With the money he earned from the “Waltons,” he returned to Topanga, reunited his family, officially incorporated the Theatricum Botanicum in 1973 and built the amphitheater. It now has a budget of $ 1 million, with a company of around 50 actors and 20 crew members.

Ellen Geer has served as artistic director since her father’s death and has shaped her repertoire to reflect the circumstances of the original cast of actors who appeared here. The program is rich in classics – Shakespeare, Molière – and Geer presents them in such a way as to ensure their relevance at the time.

For “Julius Caesar,” she wrote in an opening narration to emphasize contemporary resonances.

“We are here to witness the story of the disintegration of a country,” the narrator said, as the sunlight slowly faded and an occasional bat fluttered across the stage. “A conspiracy among the wealthy senates is rising to protect the great democratic republic from an emerging dictatorship of Caesar. How does this happen to a prosperous nation? Do you want to join me and become the citizens of Rome? If we do not speak out, fellow citizens of Rome, we could lose our democracy!

“The Last, Best Small Town” by John Guerra, a tribute to “Our Town”, is the story of a Latin American family and a white family, neighbors of Fillmore, California, facing conflict economy, class and racialism during the subprime mortgage crisis that disrupted the country’s housing market from 2007. “She really wanted to play this game,” Guerra, 33, said later of Ellen Geer. “It’s a good fit for the theater.”

The theater adapted during the pandemic. He has two liners for each role. The actors and the team must be vaccinated; an actor who played the changeling in “Midsummer” was removed from the cast because he was too young to be vaccinated. This is an operation in its own right: the actors of “Julius Caesar” arrived early to sweep the stage and install the furniture; members of the “Midsummer” cast took tickets and showed customers to their seats.

Ellen Geer, who played Golden Sunshine in the 1971 death and romance classic “Harold and Maude”, has just turned 80 and is no longer performing. She is set to retire soon as artistic director, handing over the post to Willow, who is 40 years old. But even as she nears the end of her career, she has strong feelings about the role of theater in the face of a pandemic.

“Do you know how many parks there are?” ” she asked. “You producers, get together and go find a park. Do it! Go to a Rich Man’s Garden. It is not an excuse to stop. It’s very important to do theater now.

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