Los Angeles is known for its tangle of endlessly clogged freeways — which is why savvy commuters often wind up getting from city to Valley through the winding canyons, all of which have their own personality and character: Laurel, Coldwater, and Benedict, all rustic city getaways at one point but now dotted with modern, pricey homes…
…and then, there’s beautiful, bucolic Topanga, which may be the only one that feels like the residents never emerged from the back-to-earth movement of the 1960’s.
Valley residents who use Topanga Canyon as a direct route to the beach may wonder about the big sign indicating the entrance to Theatricum Botanicum. Is it a theater? Is it a garden? It’s actually both, as well as one of the Topanga community’s cultural centers.
The theater is located adjacent to the home of the late actor Will Geer (best known for his 1970’s TV role as “Grandpa Walton”). Blacklisted during the red scare of the 1950’s, Geer survived by selling vegetables, fruits and herbs he cultivated on his property. He also opened up his home to other blacklisted performers and sold admissions to live theater and music productions.
After Geer’s death in 1978, his family and colleagues formed a non-profit theatrical company. Since then, Theatricum Botanicum has served the city as an educational center and one of L.A.’s most picturesque Equity theaters: it seats 299 audience members in an outdoor amphitheatre surrounded by eucalyptus and oaks. This makes it a most enchanting setting for Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” performed each year in repertory by Theatricum Botanicum’s roster of players, headed by Geer’s daughter, Ellen, who serves as the company’s artistic director. Other members of the family serve the organization in various capacities, including performers Melora Marshall and Willow Geer.
Theatricum Botanicum’s school program serves 15,000 K-12 students annually. Additionally, the company offers acting classes for children, as well as adults and a five-week summer camp. The company also offers weekend Family Fun days and Kids Koncerts (see their website for details).
As a mid-size Equity house, a show at Botanicum will barely dent your wallet: the highest priced ticket is $33. They are also offering $55 evening dinner and show pairings for selected performances, where you can enjoy a buffet dinner in the garden before entering the amphitheater.
Audience members are welcome to bring their own picnic meals to enjoy in the garden prior to other performances. Visitors may also stroll through the Will Geer Memorial Garden, featuring many of the plants that are mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.
This year’s summer theater season features three additional plays in repertory: The George Bernard Shaw classic, “Heartbreak House,” Deborah Breevort’s 2003 drama, “The Women of Lockerbie,” and a second Shakespearean comedy, “Measure for Measure,” which director Ellen Geer has has set in 1968 California, which makes the theater itself a big part of the show.
Even before the play began on opening night last weekend, patrons were greeted out in the parking lot by cast members dressed as hippies. An old VW bus parked on the property looks so natural there, it’s hard to tell if it’s a part of the landscape or set dressing (it’s the latter). And the mood was set further by the distinct aroma of patchouli, which can be detected on the way into the amphitheatre.
Both acts of Measure for Measure begin with music from the era. The switch from Country Joe & the Fish to Elizabethan English is a little bit jarring at first, but overall, it works – and helps make the play more relatable to events of today.
Music, of course, is an important component of the Botanicum experience – Will Geer and his wife Herta Ware were friends of Woody Guthrie, who lived for a while on the property. Each year, Theatricum Botanicum holds a musical tribute to Woody. This September, that event will be celebrating his 100th birthday.
Parking at Theatricum Botanicum is $5.00. There is also plenty of free street parking above and below the theater on Topanga Canyon.
Performances are held in an outdoor amphitheater, and it tends to get cold after dark (even on hot summer days), so audiences are advised to carry light jackets and/or blankets. You may also want to bring cushions for the hard bench seating. Theatricum Botanicum also rents these for $1.00 each.