COVID-19 Theater Series: A 70-Year Theater Family Legacy – Ellen Geer and Theatricum Botanicum

Elaine L. Mura - LA Splash

Registered Critic, Writer

Currently the matriarch of a theater dynasty, Ellen Geer followed in the family footsteps from an early age. Both her parents were actors, with her father Will Geer earning national fame as Grandfather Zeb Walton on TV’s 1960s hit, “The Waltons.” Ellen worked in some of the major repertory theatres around the country and has been active in film and television since 1971. Her career stretches to the present. In 1978, Ellen became the producing artistic director of her father’s dream theater after his death – certainly a huge undertaking for a busy actor, professor, theater director, and writer. She has performed admirably in all these roles, including a parental role. Her sister, Melora Marshall, her brother Thad Geer, and her daughter Willow have continued the family tradition as accomplished actors. Ellen still remains very active in theater as actor, director, playwright, adaptor, and producer. She took time from her busy schedule to interview in April 2020.

Will Geer – Photo courtesy of Theatricum Botanicum

Tell us something about Theatricum Botanicum. When did your theater first begin its long career? Who/how/why/where was it founded?

Ellen Geer:  It was really founded in the 1950s. It was the cruel time of the McCarthy hearings, when people were blackballed and couldn’t work in show business. There were actors, technicians, writers, folksingers, all sorts of out-of-work people essential to theater.  We called our home “Geer Gardens.” We made a living selling plants and became a haven for out-of-work artists. At the time, I was around ten years old – so I was almost born into our family theater. And, given my dad’s career, I was most certainly born into show business.  In the seventies, the family returned; and my father Will Geer founded Theatricum Botanicum. We performed our first show in Topanga Canyon in 1973; it was Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night’s Dream – and we have been performing the play ever since. We also started free workshops in 1973. Hollywood actors wanted to do Shakespeare and other classics, so we had lots of support.

Michael McFall and Melora Marshall in “Midsummer Nights Dream” – Photo by Ian Flanders

When my father died in 1978, the family continued performing and kept the theater going. I took over the running of the theater. We became members of Equity, the actors and stage managers union. My mother was still alive, and the whole family, including brother and sisters, etched out the dream of theater and education. We got our first grant in 1978. That enabled us to begin our educational programs for kids and adults. We have an Academy of Classics; and we also run School Days, a field trip of Shakespeare, and classes for youth in the Los Angeles Unified School District. We have always been a professional theater, but we’re also non-profit and are able to accept grants and donations.

Theatricum Botanicum Company in 1973 – Photo courtesy of Theatricum Botanicum

Theatricum Botanicum has an outdoor stage. Have you had to make any special accommodations to perform on a hillside?

EG:  I absolutely love it. In fact, I like it much more than being indoors with wings and curtains. Nature and art are the best of friends. We have a beautiful natural background, so we don’t have to spend huge amounts of money on sets. Our sets are the great outdoors. But performing in nature also dictates some of our choices. Sometimes, the weather may also interfere. I remember once, a long time ago, it started to rain. The audience opened their umbrellas, so we had to keep going. In Merchant of Venice, a dove of peace flew on the oak tree during the court room scene – it sat there and observed the whole thing! Once a large rat fell from a tree in the middle of a love scene. Our star grabbed the stunned animal by the tale, swung it around over his head, and tossed it far away! There are lots of creative ways to deal with almost anything.

Willow Geer and Christine Breihan in “Twelfth Night” – Photo by Ian Flanders

When did you close the theater due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run?

EG:  It was a week before casting. We planned to open School Days at the end of April. Our main repertory season of five plays runs from June to September; and we have programs for the kids in May and October, as well as a camp in the summer. We were all ready to go. Many theaters were in the middle of a run – so hard. We were lucky.

Over the past weeks, how has COVID-19 impacted your theater?

EG:  We had to let go of some of our staff; now some are on unemployment. It’s interesting that unemployment is paying them more than we could as a non-profit. We really miss our artists and educators. At this point, all education is online.

Willow Geer and Ellen Geer in “Chalk Garden” – Photo by Liam Flanders

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Are you streaming videos? Do you have virtual meetings? Are you planning for your next show when you reopen? Any auditions coming up or fund raising?

EG:  All education is now digital. Our staff has learned how to use different kinds of digital platforms like Zoom. Elizabeth Tobias, our incredible educational director, has set a full schedule of monologue, poetry, movement, and technical approaches to the classics for adults. We’re also going to have a program on rhetoric and language taught by Milan Dragicevich, who’s an Amhurst professor specializing in Shakespeare. He was one of our original company members. We have teen online classes where students write their own monologues, and we even have a sword fighting class!  We want to have them move – even when quarantined! We’re working with the union trying to find a way to do story telling. We also plan to put on concerts. I’m wondering if someday they may unionize people performing in the digital world. Artists need to be paid!

Melora Marshall and Ellen Geer in “The Tempest” – Photo by Ian Flanders

What do you think will be the impact of COVID-19 on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you foresee any permanent changes?

EG:  Until we get a clear understanding about what COVID-19 is, we can’t really make any predictions. We have a huge population in Southern California, and Theatricum won’t open until it’s safe. But I sincerely believe that theater will always come back – maybe in a different form – but theater will still return. Some theaters may die, but new things will come out of it. If a group can’t pay their rent, they may go under for a while. But actors will always start up a new theater, and theater will take on a new form. For sure, the theater we see after the pandemic will be different because actors, crew, and audiences have gone through a life-changing experience. Theatre people will help define it.

Theatricum Botanicum is planning on going green. We’re revitalizing our creek and making other earth-friendly changes. We want people to see what can be done to alleviate climate change. We want to help people grow in their respect for nature.

Mark Bramhall, Willow Geer, and Ellen Geer in “Other Desert Cities” – Photo by Miriam Geer

What do you need right now to keep going forward? What would you like from the theater public?

EG:  Return to theater-going! Support young people’s desire to learn about great playwrights, and help them feel comfortable presenting before their peers. Theater helps create the next good society. Theatricum will survive and keep doing what we love. Artists keep going because you know deep in your soul that you have to. Arts have taken a back seat because this plague is so big. But we’re all creating new exciting stories, and the rugged time will change. Stay positive and carry on!

What are some of your future plans?

EG: To open or not to open is up to the scientists and medical world. We will continue our academic and educational work – with social distancing. Actually, social distancing is easier for us because we’re in nature. Where we go in the future will also depend on budgeting and funding and when audiences feel safe again to gather. But we plan to go forward because we have a strong company who have a passion for theater and education. We know that audiences will always have a need to get together and share theater. “O Time, must untangle this, not I: It is too hard a knot for me t’untie!” (Twelfth Night by Shakespeare).

This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Elaine Mura moved to New York City as an adult, where she completed her doctorate in psychology and worked in one of New York’s many State hospitals. Subsequently, she decided to scratch a persistent itch to travel and spent ten years living and working in Denmark, Germany, Portugal, and Iran – with shorter stops in the many scenic spots in between. She aplied her skills all over the world doing research, clinical practice, and academic pursuits. Since relocating to Los Angeles, she taught students in the graduate program at Pepperdine University for many years and spent the last 20 years as a forensic psychologist with the California State prison system. But the writing bug forever lay just beneath the surface, and she is currently writing magazine articles and theater reviews while working on a play, a novel, and a book of short stories.