A theater in a California canyon becomes an oasis again

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

But despite everything, on a Sunday evening at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, many people could see a performance of “The Last, Best Small Town”. On a cool summer night 150 visitors with masks, as the theater requires, sat on hard wooden benches. A cast of eight actors exuberantly navigated the sprawling, asymmetrical stage built around a Californian living oak tree, and into the scrub of a hill, scurrying over dirt roads to exit their stage left and enter the rights of the stage.

The Theatricum Botanicum was born amid the McCarthy-era political turmoil over concerns over alleged communist infiltration of Hollywood in the 1950s. It started as a mountain retreat where blacklisted actors, led by Will Geer, who had refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, gathered to perform Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams for a small audience, the came in from North Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

But this remote theater in the forest, known for years mainly to an insider crowd of Topanga neighbors and the few theater-goers familiar with its history, is attracting a lot of people this summer, even as it progresses in the middle of a pandemic. The actors perform on a new stage that has been remodeled with a grant while the theater was dark last season, replacing a mess of dirt and rotting wood.

“This beautiful outdoor space – it’s perfect for this time,” said Alan Blumenfeld, an actor who has been a member of the theater company for 36 years.

It has attracted crowds of people who have turned up with their vaccination cards to enjoy a night in the open air theater. (Unlike the east coast, where rainy performances were common this summer, there’s little chance an outdoor show will be called for rain every year, but especially amid the prolonged drought that has hit the area.) At night “The Last, Best Small Town” had previously attracted 150 people, almost 300 people came to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – a normally high turnout at all times and regardless of the official seating capacity of 299.

“People feel more secure when they come,” says Willow Geer, Will Geer’s granddaughter and who appears as Portia in this year’s production of Julius Caesar. “And that helped our situation.”

But its appeal is more than just offering an open-air stage under the stars in a year when many of the region’s small theaters, cramped and poorly ventilated, remain closed. The Theatricum Botanicum is idiosyncratic and unique, defined both by its remote grandeur and the circumstances of its founding. His legacy has been carefully nurtured by the members of the Geer family, who have led and acted in this theater since Will Geer’s death in 1978, and who found his ideological sensibilities particularly relevant at a time of pandemic and polarization.

“Theatricum Botanicum is to the Los Angeles theater scene what Topanga Canyon is to Los Angeles itself: it’s technically part of the city, but it’s a world of its own,” said Steven Leigh Morris, editor of Stage Raw. a publication dedicated to the arts and culture in Los Angeles. “It continues the legacy of Woody Guthrie and the FDR sensibility of giving rest to people who otherwise would not have had a rest. I have a soft spot for them. I respect people who do this for a reason. It’s not just vanity. “

Zev Yaroslavsky, who represented Topanga and helped win the theater district’s art subsidies when he was a member of the Los Angeles Board of Directors, called it a “civil rights billboard.”

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

Ellen Geer, a daughter of Will Geer and director of the theater, was delighted to tell 70 years of history the other day – her family and the theater; They are so intertwined – as she took a leisurely stroll through 15 acres of gardens, theaters, and cottages, including one where Guthrie, who was friends with Will Geer, lived for a period in the early 1950s.

“You have to come back in spring: there are daffodils on the hill,” said Geer, pointing to the back of the stage as she sat down on one of the benches in the amphitheater. “I think a fox lives in a hole up there.”

Her daughter Willow called it “a smaller, more rustic, homely Hollywood Bowl”.

“My mother promised me,” she said, “that when she’s gone I won’t let anyone pave the parking lot.”

The theater’s namesake, Will Geer – whose ashes are buried in the Shakespeare Garden, near his former wife, the actress Herta Ware – is popularly known for playing Grandpa in the television program “The Waltons”. But that was a late resurgence for a well-known stage and film actor who starred in “The Cradle Will Rock,” the 1937 left-wing play about the unionization of the steel industry, directed by Orson Welles.

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

Geer, a trained gardener, grew vegetables to support his family. (Hence the name Theatricum Botanicum, which roughly translated means botanical theater.) And he began putting other actors on the blacklist for impromptu performances in the mountains. After a few years, Geer left Topanga and moved across the country to take on occasional acting jobs. (He and his wife eventually divorced but remained friends.) With the money he earned from The Waltons, he returned to Topanga, gathered his family, officially founded the Theatricum Botanicum in 1973 and built the amphitheater. It now has a budget of $ 1 million, with a company of about 50 actors and 20 crew members.

Ellen Geer has been artistic director since her father’s death and has designed his repertoire according to the circumstances of the original cast that performed here. The program is rich in classics – Shakespeare, Molière – and Geer presents them in a way to ensure their relevance to the time.

For “Julius Caesar” she wrote an introductory story to underline the contemporary resonance.

“We are here to witness the story of the fall of a country,” said the narrator as the sunlight slowly faded and a bat fluttered across the stage every now and then. “A conspiracy rises in the wealthy Senate to protect the great democratic republic from a brewing dictatorship by Caesar. How does that happen to a prosperous nation? Will you join me and become a citizen of Rome? If we don’t get in touch, fellow citizens of Rome, we could lose our democracy! “

John Guerra’s The Last, Best Small Town, a tribute to Our Town, is the story of a Latino family and a white family, neighbors in Fillmore, Calif Country from 2007 onwards. “She really wanted to do this piece,” Guerra, 33, later said of Ellen Geer. “It goes well with the theater.”

The theater has adapted during the pandemic. It has two sub-studies for each role. Cast and crew must be vaccinated; an actor who played the changeling child on Midsummer was removed from the cast because he was too young to be vaccinated. This is a hands-on activity for everyone: actors in “Julius Caesar” came early to sweep the stage and set up the furniture; Members of the cast of “Midsummer” took tickets and led the guests to their seats.

Ellen Geer, who played Sunshine Doré in the dark comedy “Harold and Maude” from 1971, just turned 80 and no longer acts. She is preparing to retire soon as artistic director, handing the job over to Willow, who is 40 years old. But even as she nears the end of her career, she has strong feelings for the role of theater in the face of a pandemic.

“Do you know how many parks there are?” She asked. “You producers, pull yourself together and get yourself a park. Just do it! Go into a rich person’s back yard. It’s not an excuse to stop. It is very important to do theater now. “

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