If you’re looking for a play or concert that’s performed in a verdant forest, head over to Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, whose name literally means “garden theater.” Founded in the 1950s by actor/horticulturist Geer, perhaps best known for playing Grandpa on the television show The Waltons, the stage is situated between the Pacific Ocean and the San Fernando Valley, in Topanga Canyon.
With its unique West Coast woodland vibe, the venue has been producing plays in repertory since 1973, when an amphitheater was built. After Geer died in 1978, his daughter Ellen Geer became artistic director and has since produced and helmed more than 100 Theatricum productions, including plays by Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and Anton Chekhov and Greek classics. About 15 years ago, Geer, who recently turned 81, began the theater’s music series, “Under the Oaks,” which runs on four Thursdays in September and opens with a program dubbed “Much Ado About Music.” The other concerts feature music by Stephen Sondheim, the local recording and touring musicians known as Acoustic Asylum, and the McDaniel Brothers.
Asked about her ideas on programming, Geer replied: “When you’re building a repertory theater, it’s a community that flows in and out with the new and the old. We live within a community here, under the oaks, and it’s quite beautiful in the canyon. I’ve worked in repertory all over the country, and I thought there must be a way to help train young artists to give back.
“Those in the company,” added Geer, “we ask, ‘Do they have something that’s creative that could be good?’ We don’t spend a lot of money on marketing and what have you. And sometimes a young person will come up and say, ‘I’ve got this little band,’ and if it’s strong enough and it can hold 50 minutes, then OK.
“And we always like to celebrate composers,” Geer added. “We’ve had Holly Near, and now we have the music of Sondheim. There are different people we think of and want to share their work, so we ask our own company members by putting on the performance for free. We pay sound and lights, but it’s a way to teach some of the young people to give back.”
On the “Much Ado About Music” concert, Geer said the musicians, who performed during the series last year, will be playing two Beethoven string trios. As for Acoustic Asylum, she pointed out, “they’re local people, and they’ve been asking us for years to come. We don’t have a lot of money, and repertory is more expensive than doing just a single show then going on to the next one, but maybe when I’m gone they’ll turn [the series] into a moneymaking thing.
“It’s also nice,” Geer continued, “to have the audience on the stage. It gives them an intimate feeling, and a lot of people are excited to be on stage with them. It has a sweetness about it.”
There’s also a sweetness in the fact that Theatricum Botanicum is a family business: The McDaniel Brothers are none other than Geer’s nephews. “Marshall is a cellist, and the other, Kellen, is a viola player. They’re my sister’s sons, and they’ve been [living] in Europe for the last 15 years, and they’re back and they want to be back. They’re going to be doing stuff — classical, of course, but also jazz and music from the ballet.”
Then there’s Willow, Geer’s daughter, who will be taking the reins from Geer when the time comes. An actor as well, she’s in Ernest Thompson’s The West Side Waltz (through Oct. 1), a dramedy set during the tumultuous ’80s, a production that also stars the senior Geer and Geer’s sister, Melora Marshall.
In addition to her passion for acting, Geer created the Academy of the Classics for Theatricum in 1976, which now is home to a Shakespeare seminar, scene-study classes, teen classes, and the Youth Drama Camp. She also helped develop School Days, a field trip educational program for young people, now in its 30th year.
Indeed, with so many accomplishments to her name, when asked what some of the highlights have been from the past seven decades, Geer gushed:
“Being able to create a place where actors can learn how to educate and pass on the valuable tradition of theater to the next generation helps expose them [for example] to Rodgers and Hammerstein. We tried this with A Midsummer Night’s Dream [through Oct. 1], so we wrote some music for it.”
Geer says it’s another way to keep Shakespeare going. “How do you keep it alive? It’s the same thing. It’s an extraordinary way to express humanity. That’s why it’s so fascinating. If you take the higher emotions going on in a play and you put it to music, it awakens the students’ ears. They listen in a different way. They get some of the meanings, and sometimes they shut off. Language is swift and complex, which is why we’ve been [using] music. And it’s working.”
As for stepping down, Geer was adamant. “There’s no date. When you’re 4 years old and if you don’t read, you’re in trouble. But this is a gradual transition. It’s not like they do in corporate theater — this is done, then say farewell and everybody has a party. It will ease out. My mind and body will ease out. And people are easing in beautifully. It’s like osmosis.”