Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Photo Essay: A Theater of Plants In the Cradle of the Canyon

Tucked into a mountain canyon in Topanga, you can watch a play under the shade of native oaks and with the scent of 15th and 16th century herbs in the air.



Just look for the wooden placard along the west side of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, announcing the current season for the Theatricum Botanicum.



It’s a hybrid theater / botanic garden founded by actor Will Geer, better known as Grandpa Walton from the TV series (not the film) The Waltons.



And although it's a bona fide performance venue now, it began more as an enclave for misfit artists...



...not the least of whom was folk singer Woody Guthrie, who lived in a shack on the property.



Today, this “garden theater” is a teaching facility as much as it is a performance venue...



...with kids of all ages coming from all over to learn The Bard’s words, techniques of stage combat...



...and a little botany to boot.



Geer was not only a Shakespearean-trained actor who'd debuted on Broadway in a production of Much Ado About Nothing, but he was also a horticulturalist...



...and when he founded his artist collective on his Topanga acreage in 1951 (having been blacklisted during the McCarthy era for for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities), he included every plant ever mentioned in Shakespeare’s works in his garden.



Neither the theater nor the garden had a name back then. It wasn't until 1973 that the "Theatricum Botanicum" was officially christened and incorporated as a non-profit.



Geer passed in 1978, but his ashes remain in the garden (as do the ashes of his former wife, Herta Ware).



The Theatricum Botanicum is one of the few mid-sized union houses in the Los Angeles area—but when you're there, it doesn't feel like you're in LA at all.



By using wood salvaged from the Santa Monica Pier, and by building around the protected oaks to create a natural sanctuary for the arts...



...the non-profit that runs the Theatricum Botanicum has reduced the impact on the environment as much as possible...



...while providing some accommodations for you to feel comfortable enough to go and stay awhile.



Sitting in the cradle of the canyon, listening to the waterfall that feeds Topanga Creek, you can watch A Midsummer Night's Dream during midsummer, at night, under a tree canopy that Shakespeare himself would probably approve of.



The whole spirit of the place feels very "This Land Is Your Land." You can practically hear Woody Guthrie plucking a tune in the wind.



A number of original plays are presented alongside the classics in every year's repertory season, but out of all the places in LA that I could catch a Shakespeare show (like the Old Zoo in Griffith Park), this is the one I chose first.

Is The Merchant of Venice my favorite play that the Bard ever wrote? Nah.

But in Topanga Canyon, I got to see a production that was directed by the daughter of Will Geer and Herta Ware (Ellen Ware Geer), that starred their granddaughter (Willow Geer-Alsop, Ellen's daughter), and that co-starred Herta Ware's daughter from another marriage (Melora Marshall).

It was almost like being invited over to a friend's house and watching them put on a show.

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