It was a gorgeous sunny California Saturday for Theatricum Botanicum’s Open House over the weekend. The day was a celebration of all things theatrical in an idyllic setting found nowhere else in Los Angeles. This year marks the 40th Anniversary of Will Geer’s Topanga Canyon theatre community, which began as a modest family retreat during the McCarthy era of blacklisting. When Geer chose not to name names, times grew tough for the actor and his family, so they sold their Santa Monica home and headed for the hills to create their own artistic future that included theatre, music, and a life surrounded by family and friends. Today it continues to be the artistic home of the Geer family, led by Will’s daughter Ellen.
This year, for the first time in its history, Theatricum Botanicum has begun a $400,000 fundraising campaign to ensure that Geer’s legacy will continue for years to come. Guests at the open house participated by donating funds, buying raffle tickets (for some pretty terrific prizes, including a $500 bike from one of the local merchants, Topanga Creek Bicycles), and found entertainment of all sorts – from theatre games and classes for the kids to guided tours rich with stories about Theatricum’s past, to a preview of scenes from the upcoming season.
I especially enjoyed the old stories that were part of the tour. Longtime company member Mike Peebler was my group’s tour guide and related all kinds of information, like the fact that Will was a botany major at Columbia University and that all of the plants in Will’s Garden are plants that are mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. We saw where the family first put on plays before the main stage was built, walked the property, and watched a bit of rehearsal on the main stage. I didn’t realize that the main stage is built from wooden planks that were once part of the Santa Monica pier, donated after the old pier was rebuilt following a storm in the early ‘80s – another piece of history in an already rich historical setting.
One of the private residences on the property located near the entrance of the main stage is nicknamed Woody’s Shack, for Will’s close friend Woody Guthrie, who lived on the property later in life. Theirs was a friendship that went all the way back to the 1930’s when they performed at rallies and immigrant camps together. Sadly, while he lived there, a fire broke out and Woody’s arm was so badly burned that he never played guitar again.
The afternoon concluded with scenes from Theatricum’s summer season of shows and featured Lucentio wooing Bianca from The Taming of the Shrew, the Rude Mechanicals receiving their parts for Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and scenes from The Royal Family and Merlin, featuring Melora Marshall as Merlin and original music by Marshall McDaniel.
For more information about Theatricum Botanicum’s upcoming season, their educational programs, and how to contribute to their fundraising campaign, visit www.theatricum.com.