Ellen Geer holds a unique position in Los Angeles theater. She’s artistic director of Theatricum Botanicum, an outdoor theater sanctuary in Topanga Canyon founded as Geer’s Garden in the 1950s by her mother, Herta Ware, and father, theater, film and television actor Will Geer. Will Geer’s social activism in the 1930s and ‘40s, and refusal to name names during the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, put him on the Blacklist and had a significant impact on the family’s life.
But Ellen Geer, along with her family, is keeping her father’s multi-pronged legacy alive. For 45 years, since his 1978 death, she has successfully filled the open-air complex with theater professionals, students, and audience members. In addition to running the theater, she writes, acts and directs.
The Larchmont Buzz spoke to Geer on the occasion of Theatricum Botanicum’s 50th anniversary season. She shared memories about her family’s life in the theater and Topanga Canyon, as well as her vision for the future.
What was it like growing up in the idyllic setting of Topanga Canyon, with the anything but idyllic backdrop of the Blacklist?
As you can imagine, things were very different then. We didn’t have city water, we had well water, which was yellow. It was very country. I was a kid running around. At the time, this was Geer Gardens. We put a sign on the road and sold plants. In addition to his acting background, Pops was a horticulturist with a degree in botany from Chicago University. His delight and knowledge of plants made you see them almost as people: he knew how each one lived, how this one didn’t do well near that one.
A lot of other Blacklisters would come out and help because they needed work. It was pure survival. Times were difficult and we all pulled our weight. We didn’t always know where the next meal was going to come from. I don’t think people realize the effect of taking people’s work away and making it so they can’t get any job.
What makes Theatricum different?
I just read that the Taper is ceasing its productions this year. When organizations get too highly staffed, it overburdens the people you were doing it for in the first place, the actors. Theatricum is an artist-thrust organization, which is hard to do in this country. It’s a team, it’s how you live, and what you spread out into the community.
What is the history of theater at Theatricum Botanicum?
From the beginning, Topanga received us beautifully. There were a lot of folk singers, and Woody Guthrie stayed with us often. In the 1950s, we were putting on music and Americana shows, like Huck Finn and Walt Whitman. I think that’s because people had been so wounded by the country; it was needed to tap back into America.
After we kids grew up, we made our living all over the country, but in the ‘70s we all came back and landed in this healing place. Pop was making a lot of money doing [popular 1970s TV drama] The Waltons. That allowed him to start Theatrricum Botanicum. After he passed, we put our heads together and decided to continue. We looked to Joseph Papp’s incredible Shakespeare in the Park for inspiration. After all, royalties are expensive.
I went to corporations for funding and they laughed. So we created School Days [a field trip program] because corporations like to fund education and buildings. Through School Days, kids came out from LA to see a Shakespeare play, meet the actors and receive packets that told the story of the Shakespeare play we were doing. That was our beginning program.
We became a union house. And we’ve grown into something beautiful and strong. Our educational programs are equal to our acting program because our actors are our teachers.
Tell us a little more about the educational programs.
After School Days, we created our Academy for classics because actors needed to understand how to speak Shakespeare and understand the techniques that make you able to have this elevated language understood by an audience. If you can act Shakespeare, you can do anything.
We’ve had Academy students join the company. It’s important to have the new and old together, to bring new ideas to old material. We always have understudies, so if an actor gets a job, someone can fill in. We’re a weekend theater, and once the plays are up we need to keep it going. Otherwise, we wouldn’t get the caliber of actors we get.
We have 37 Actors’ Equity contracts. We pay for rehearsals, and put on four plays a year. We have been passing a hat for the interns but are trying to find out if corporations will support kids who are out of college and can’t get a job. [Former member of the LA Country Board of Supervisors] Zev Yaroslavsky understood how much money entertainment brings into the city. People need to create in this world, especially now, with it feeling so suppressed.
How do you put together your summer season?
We look for the best stories to help people with what’s going on in our society. That’s Shakespeare, as well as our other plays, like this year’s A Perfect Ganesh by Terrence McNally. In it, white people see how people in India survive and how different it is. It almost asks, “Aren’t Americans silly?” I think it’s important to see how we fit into the whole. Look what’s happening with the refugees.
[Last year’s] Trouble the Water came from a novel we decided to adapt, working with the author, Rebecca Dwight Bruff. The whole racial issue in our country for centuries has been difficult. And that show brought us new audiences. The Last Best Small Town [in 2021] by John Guerra was almost an Our Town about a Latino family and a white family.
Can you say a few words about A Midsummer Night’s Dream and its importance to your summer Shakespeare festival?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the best way to start anybody on Shakespeare. The kids love it. It’s also the way we get our young artists because they can play the young lovers and learn about meter and rhetoric. That’s why it’s a staple for us.
We also have always had a Shakespeare garden. Someone wonderful takes care of it and my daughter is creating plaques with Shakespeare quotes. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has 24 named plants. We include information about the plants in our educational packets so students can identify them in the garden.
Theatricum is a multi-generational family affair, which was particularly fun to see in last year’s West Side Waltz. How would you describe the legacy of Theatricum? What do you see as its future?
Two of the most extraordinary actors are [Geer’s sister] Melora Marshall and my daughter Willow, who I think will take over this whole place. My brother is very busy but comes in and out. And now Melora’s sons are back from Europe and want to bring more music in. My granddaughter and grandson are going to be in War of the Roses. It seems to continue and is wonderful to watch.
When people perform, it’s beautiful. You can’t replace the human experience of sitting next to other people and sharing theater. We care deeply about the people who study with us, and they will always think of us as their theater home.
The 50th anniversary season of Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., is underway, with performances of Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Queen Margaret’s Version of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses, adapted and directed by Ellen Geer from multiple Shakespeare plays. A Perfect Ganesh opens July 15. And there’s a 50th anniversary gala fundraiser, honoring Debbie Allen, on August 5, hosted by Wendie Malick and Pamela Adlon with performances by Beau Bridges, members of the Theatricum Company and surprise guests. For more information on all Theatricum events, click here.
Highly recommended for additional context is a visit to the Skirball’s fascinating exhibit Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare, on view through Sept. 3, 2023.