A Theater in a California Canyon Becomes an Oasis Once Again

TOPANGA, Calif. — There have been no well-known names in the forged. It was the primary staged skilled manufacturing by a little-known playwright. And the theater was deep in the canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains, up a lengthy windy street, halfway between the seashores of the Pacific Ocean and the San Fernando Valley, a secluded bohemian outpost recognized for its artists, musicians and rattlesnakes.

However for all that, there have been loads of individuals at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum on a latest Sunday night time for a efficiency of “The Last, Best Small Town.” Sporting masks as required by the theater, 150 patrons sat on onerous picket benches in a cool summer season night time. A forged of eight actors exuberantly navigated the sprawling, asymmetrical stage, constructed round a California reside oak tree and into the scrub of a hillside, scurrying alongside dust trails to make their exit stage lefts and enter stage rights.

The Theatricum Botanicum was born amid the McCarthy-era political furor over considerations about alleged communist infiltration of Hollywood in the Fifties. It started as a retreat in the mountains the place blacklisted actors, led by Will Geer, who had refused to testify earlier than the Home Committee on Un-American Actions, gathered to carry out Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams for small audiences who wandered in off North Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

However this distant theater-in-the-woods, which for years was primarily recognized to an inside crowd of Topanga neighbors and the few theatergoers acquainted with its historical past, is drawing crowds this summer season even because it pushes forward in the center of a pandemic. The actors are showing on a new stage, rebuilt with a grant whereas the theater was darkish final season, changing a jumble of dust and rotting wooden.

“This beautiful out of doors house — it’s excellent for these occasions,” mentioned Alan Blumenfeld, an actor who has been a member of the theater firm for 36 years.

It has been drawing crowds of people that have been displaying up with their proof-of-vaccination playing cards to take in a night time of al fresco theater. (In contrast to the East Coast, the place rained-out performances have been frequent this summer season, there’s little probability that an out of doors present will get referred to as for rain in any yr, however notably in the center of the prolonged drought that has gripped the area.) The night time earlier than “The Final, Finest Small City” had drawn 150 individuals, near 300 individuals confirmed up for “A Midsummer Evening’s Dream” — an normally excessive turnout at any time, and regardless of that the official seating capability is 299.

“Individuals really feel safer coming,” mentioned Willow Geer, who’s Will Geer’s granddaughter, and who seems in this yr’s manufacturing of “Julius Caesar” as Portia. “And that has helped our scenario.”

However its attraction is greater than providing an under-the-stars, open-air stage in a yr when lots of the area’s small theaters, cramped and poorly ventilated, stay closed. The Theatricum Botanicum is idiosyncratic and distinctive, outlined as a lot by its distant splendor as by the circumstances of its founding. Its legacy has been fastidiously tended by the members of the Geer household who’ve run and acted in this theater since Will Geer died in 1978, and who’ve discovered its ideological sensibilities notably related throughout 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 a a part of town, but it surely’s a world by itself,” mentioned Steven Leigh Morris, the writer of Stage Raw, a publication dedicated to Los Angeles arts and tradition. “It continues the legacy of Woody Guthrie and the F.D.R. sensibility to offer individuals a break who in any other case wouldn’t have gotten a break. I’ve a tender spot for them. I actually respect individuals who do that for a function. It’s not simply self-importance.”

Zev Yaroslavsky, who represented Topanga and helped win the theater county arts subsidies when he was a member of the Los Angeles board of supervisors, referred to as it a “civil liberties billboard.”

“Once I consider Topanga Canyon and the Theatricum Botanicum, it’s a fixed historical past lesson of what can occur even in a democracy like ours when individuals cease being diligent,” mentioned Yaroslavsky, who now teaches on the Luskin Faculty of Public Affairs the College of California, Los Angeles. “The entire DNA of that theater is about everlasting vigilance.”

Ellen Geer, a daughter of Will Geer and the theater’s inventive director, took delight the opposite day in recounting 70 years of historical past — of her household and the theater; they’re that intertwined — as she led a leisurely stroll throughout the 15 acres of gardens, theaters and shacks, together with one the place Guthrie, who was associates with Will Geer, lived for a time in the early Fifties.

“You have to come again in the spring: there are daffodils on the hill,” mentioned Geer, gesturing to the again of the stage as she settled into one of many benches in the amphitheater. “I believe there’s a fox that lives in a gap up there.”

Her daughter Willow referred to as it “a smaller, extra rustic, homey Hollywood Bowl.”

“My mom made me promise,” she mentioned, “that when she’s gone, I wouldn’t let anybody pave the car parking zone.”

The theater’s namesake, Will Geer — whose ashes are buried in the Shakespeare Backyard, near these of his one-time spouse, the actress Herta Ware — is popularly recognized for enjoying Grandpa on the tv present “The Waltons.” However that was a late-career resurrection for a well-known stage-and-screen actor who starred in “The Cradle Will Rock,” the leftist 1937 play about unionizing the metal business, directed by Orson Welles.

He was blacklisted in 1951 when he invoked his Fifth Modification rights in response to questions on communist infiltration of Hollywood earlier than the Home Committee on Un-American Actions. After Geer, unable to get work onstage or onscreen, misplaced his house in Santa Monica, he and Ware purchased land right here, about 25 miles from downtown Los Angeles.

Geer, a horticulturist by schooling, grew greens to feed his household. (Therefore the title Theatricum Botanicum, which roughly translates to botanical theater.) And he started assembling different blacklisted actors for impromptu performances in the mountains. After a few years, Geer left Topanga and moved throughout the nation, selecting up occasional performing jobs. (He and his spouse ultimately divorced, however they remained associates.) With the cash he earned from “The Waltons,” he returned to Topanga, gathered his household collectively, formally included the Theatricum Botanicum in 1973, and constructed the amphitheater. It now has a $1 million finances, with a firm of about 50 actors and 20 crew members.

Ellen Geer has been inventive director since her father died, and has formed its repertory to replicate the circumstances of the unique troupe of actors who appeared right here. This system is heavy on classics — Shakespeare, Molière — and Geer presents them in a option to guarantee their relevance to the time.

For “Julius Caesar,” she wrote in an opening narration to underscore the modern resonances.

“We’re right here to witness the story of a nation’s disintegration,” the narrator mentioned, as the daylight slowly pale and because the occasional bat fluttered throughout the stage. “A conspiracy among the many rich senate is rising to guard the good democratic republic from a brewing dictatorship from Caesar. How does this occur to a thriving nation? Will you be a part of me and grow to be the residents of Rome? If we don’t communicate up, fellow residents of Rome, we may lose our democracy!”

“The Final, Finest Small City,” by John Guerra, a homage to “Our City,” is the story of a Latino household and a white household, neighbors in Fillmore, Calif., coping with financial, class and racial strife in the course of the subprime mortgage disaster that disrupted the nation’s housing market beginning in 2007. “She actually wished to do this play,” Guerra, 33, mentioned later about Ellen Geer. “It’s a good match for the theater.”

The theater has tailored in the course of the pandemic. It has two understudies for every function. The forged and crew are required to be vaccinated; an actor who performed the changeling little one in “Midsummer” was taken out of the forged as a result of he was too younger to be vaccinated. That is an everybody pitch-in type operation: Actors in “Julius Caesar” arrived early to brush the stage and arrange the furnishings; members of the forged of “Midsummer” had been taking tickets and displaying patrons to their seats.

Ellen Geer, who performed Sunshine Doré in the 1971 dark-comedy death-and-romance basic “Harold and Maude,” simply turned 80 and is not performing. She is making ready to retire quickly as inventive director, handing over the job to Willow, who’s 40. However whilst she approaches the tip of her profession, she has sturdy emotions concerning the function of theater in the face of a pandemic.

“You understand how many parks there are?” she requested. “You producers, get yourselves collectively go get a park. Simply do it! Go into some wealthy individual’s yard. It’s no excuse to cease. It’s essential to do theater now.”

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