November 28, 2022

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Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, California

A California live oak rises through the center of the stage at Theatricum Botanicum. These massive trees with their thick, gnarled branches can live for hundreds of years by setting down deep roots that help them survive through hot, dry summers in the mountains. Theatricum Botanicum, like the tree that stands at its heart, has deep roots.

The theater was founded by Will Geer and his wife Herta Ware. In the 1950s, Geer was one of the many actors, directors, writers, and singers called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Those who refused were blacklisted and unable to find work on stage or screen. Geer left Hollywood and moved to Topanga Canyon, where they built this mountain retreat.

Other blacklisted artists were invited to gather and perform at the theater, where an artistic community and a lush garden both flourished. Geer had been enamored with plants since boyhood and studied horticulture before starting a career in acting. The theater became a space where Geer could combine both of his passions. Its name comes from Theatricum Botanicum, a 17th-century treatise on botany created by English herbalist John Parkinson. The theater’s gardens contain every plant mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare.

After Geer died in 1978, his family and a small troupe of actors dedicated themselves to keeping Theatricum Botanicum alive. Today, the theater is run by Ellen Geer, who tends to the project that her family planted nearly half a century ago. In a 2021 interview, she told the New York Times “My mother made me promise that when she’s gone, I wouldn’t let anyone pave the parking lot.”

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