Act 1: Washington D.C., 1951
At the age of 49, Will Geer – botanist, singer, actor, activist – was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in Washington DC. He pleaded the Fifth and so refused to confirm or deny whether he was or ever had been a member of the American Communist Party. He also refused to comment on the actions or beliefs of friends, colleagues and acquaintances. When asked if he loved his country, he responded: “I love it enough to make it better”. HUAC, he felt, was antithetical to the values of the country he wanted to make better. He accused the Committee of persecution, pointing out that “The word ‘communist’ is an emotional, hysterical word, like the word ‘witch’ in Salem” (and this some two years before Arthur Miller would publish The Crucible). Geer was deemed to have been an uncooperative witness and spent much of the next blacklisted decade barred from Hollywood and mainstream stage work.
He was shattered. His response was to retreat into nature and, like Duke Senior before him, to try to make sweet the uses of adversity. He purchased some acres of land in Topanga Canyon, several miles uphill from the corruption of Hollywood and Los Angeles. In the early 1950s, Topanga was sparsely populated and densely vegetated. His wife, the actress Herta Ware, knew that Geer would only survive the trauma of blacklisting by getting his hands dirty and falling back on the botanical skills he had learned from his grandmother and, more formally, as a Masters student at the University of Chicago. They sold vegetables. Their daughters – ‘red diaper babies’ Ellen and Kate – learned how to steal from stores. The family homestead became a safe haven and an island of sanity for other political refugees from the madness of McCarthyism.
Act 2: Topanga 1973
Fitzgerald wrote that “There are no second acts in American life”, but Will Geer made it past the intermission. Two decades after the HUAC hearings, the space in the Topangan hills would be formally named Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum. (The picture above shows the company of 1973.) At roughly the same time – and with the blacklisting a distant memory for most – Will Geer got cast as Grandpa in the first season of the CBS show The Waltons. (His upswing in fortune can be traced to John Houseman’s offer to cast him as Sicinius in a production of Coriolanus in New York City). For the last few years of his life, Geer would combine filming The Waltons with producing and participating in theatre and folk music in bohemian, counter-cultural and sporadically louche Topanga.
Entr’acte/flashback: middle England, sometime in the early 1980s:
From the moment I discovered, a couple of years ago, that Grandpa Walton was (or might have been) a communist who formed his own Shakespeare festival, I’ve been looking forward to this destination. Like many tele-addicted kids of the ’80s, The Waltons was somehow part of my mental furniture. Though by no means as unmissable as Grange Hill or Scooby Doo (pre-Scrappy), an episode of The Waltons afforded a dependable pleasure, with its portrait of a wholesome and close-knit extended family and its unabashed nostalgia for the foreign – to my young eyes – country of America and the equally foreign country of the past. Despite the Depression-era setting, its dramas were usually gentle and the viewer reassuringly released by the formula ending to each episode, in which the lamps in each bedroom of the family home would extinguish to the sound of its residents wishing each other ‘Goodnight, John Boy’, ‘Goodnight, Mary Ellen’ et al.
My keenest memory of the opening credits is of Geer as Grandpa Walton, denim-dungareed, jabbing his forefinger towards us in mock reproach. (Perhaps he didn’t do that; but that’s what I remember.) Geer played Grandpa for six seasons and in doing so became synonymous in the popular imagination with folksy, down-home, all-American magnanimity. Indeed, it’s easy to see how the show overall encouraged a species of pro-family, small-town sentiment conducive to one strand of Reaganism. It was Reagan, we might remember, that stood on the opposite side to Geer in the ‘red peril’ scandals of the 50s; as President of the Screen Actors Guild, he was strongly sympathetic to the 1947 resolution that the Guild’s officers should be forced to take a “non-communist” pledge.
Act 3: Arriving in Topanga, a few days ago
The version of America on display in Walton’s Mountain (the fictional setting for the show) bears little resemblance to that found in Topanga today. It is hard to imagine a road sign advertising “Vegan landscaping” in Walton’s Mountain. (I can sort of guess what vegan landscaping is in reality but prefer to imagine several sandaled beardies tastefully arranged betwixt wind chimes and compost bins.)
After Utah Shakespeare, we spent a picaresque few days through shifting, endlessly photogenic, koda-chromatic landscapes of canyons and creeks, alpine forests, vermillion flat tops and deserts – days of freedom, wide horizons and impossibly star-filled nights. It was, then, at first hard to reconcile ourselves to the bad-tempered claustrophobia of Los Angeles traffic. (One consolation: a mock-Tudor dermatologist, depicted below.)
But then the climb to Topanga began and the memory of the city almost instantly vanished. It’s impossible to tell when you’ve officially entered Topanga – there is no sign on the road as there are technically no boundaries. Topanga is unincorporated and has neither town nor city status. As a ‘census-designated place’, it is legally as well as philosophically defined by the people who live there. There is no Mayor, no council, no police department. There are, however, tattooists, purveyors of organic smoothies and vegan landscapers. It would not have been surprising to see signs (like those in Austin, Texas) encouraging residents to ‘Keep Topanga Weird’.
The Botanicum complex is gently advertised to the driver by fluttering banners and rustic boards announcing the season’s plays. There to greet us in the unpaved parking lot were Ellen Geer, Will’s daughter, and Willow Geer, daughter to Ellen.
Ellen and Willow walked us around, first to the recent and intimate S. Mark Taper Foundation Pavilion, then to the piece de resistance, the outdoor amphitheatre. A broad and spacious central playing area is flanked by raised platforms and steps; off-centre, a substantial and handsome tiring house offers a large balcony and multiple points of entrance. Most spectacularly, the upstage merges into a wooded hill with pathways under majestic branches and canopies. With the possible exception of the Minack in Cornwall, I’ve never seen a theatre that blends so organically with its natural environment.
The space has been through various iterations, renovations and expansions. A strong principle is to recycle: the large wooden planks that provide the stage decking were salvaged from the old Santa Monica Pier. In the old days, the great doors to the amphitheatre were rescued from the set of Ben Hur and parts of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory made cameos in unexpected places. In a concession to modernity and safety, the audience now sit on wooden benches on a steeply raked cement staircase base, but the first audiences perched on recycled railroad sleepers set at such a gradient that they sloped by six feet from one end of the row to the other. The audience was thus required to lean to the left.
Act 4: Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 25-27 July 2014
Many of the highlights of our very happy three-day stay are in some way captured in audio posts. There you can hear about:
- The Botanicum’s long-term commitment to devising new works telling different versions of the nation’s history. One of their most important pieces – Americana – sounds like a dramatized version of Howard Zinn’s classic A People’s History of the United States. Two of most moving moments feature speeches of black emancipation and these were reprised as part of Theatricum Unmasked, the feast of story-telling we were treated to on our second night in Topanga.
- The Botanicum’s cradle-to-grave approach to education. You can hear 4-7 year old campers able to name more Shakespeare plays than the typical undergraduate and who are becoming conversant with Elizabethan dance, Commedia dell’Arte and social history, especially as it relates to personal hygiene.
- This Land is your Land – Woody Guthrie and Will Geer were great friends and fellow activists and Guthrie lived on site for a while. Theatricum Unmasked climaxed with a rousing communal rendition of the song Guthrie wrote whilst staying in Topanga.
- The Botanicum’s insistent tradition of casting against the grain. During our stay we saw an All’s Well that tended to cast Latino and African-American actors as ‘status’ characters and white actors as ‘inferiors’; we also saw a King Lear that selectively inverted gender, offering a mind-flipping, deeply affecting story of a Queen and her three sons and a male Earl of Gloucester (business as usual) but with two daughters. For a sense of the deep political commitment behind such casting practices (and for SO much more), listen to our interview with Ellen Geer.
Act V: Home
Many artists, musicians and writers have called Topanga home for some important part of their life – Jim Morrison, Marvin Gaye, Neil Young, Bertolt Brecht (I’d like to hear that quartet). Hendrix wrote “Purple Haze” and Woody Guthrie wrote ‘This Land is Your Land” here. Joni Mitchell was another over-talented resident and I find it hard to set foot in the state of California without hearing her song of that name. It ends with the repeated question “Will you take me as I am?” For over forty years, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum has been taking people as they are. The company needs to be big here – the epic stage must be peopled and the possibility of actors being pulled away for auditions, voice-overs etc is so great that there are not only understudies, but also under-understudies. Few of the company live in Topanga and many make long commutes across the city; they would not do so if they did not find in the Botanicum some version of home.
I was strongly reminded here of Sam Wanamaker’s story – another man whose life was almost irreparably scarred by McCarthyism and whose search for a home, for (as he put it) ‘something more permanent’ would ultimately lead to the construction of Shakespeare’s Globe in London. It’s not a coincidence that Geer founded the Theatricum Botanicum and Wanamaker founded the Globe Trust within a couple of years of each other – both acts were long-term reactions to the trauma of political exile, both attempts to create a place for free speech in which the lingua franca would be Shakespeare.