Monday, November 19

Keeping Shakespeare alive and affordable


Three local troupes bring Elizabethan theater to the people at a much reduced price

Aaron Hendry and Carl Palmer perform a scene from William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum. The company is one of several companies that put on summer productions of Shakespeare's plays. Along with the Independent Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare by the Sea, they offer Los Angeles residents a chance to see theatrical works at little expense.

Aaron Hendry and Carl Palmer perform a scene from William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum. The company is one of several companies that put on summer productions of Shakespeare's plays. Along with the Independent Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare by the Sea, they offer Los Angeles residents a chance to see theatrical works at little expense. Ian Flanders


The many works of playwright William Shakespeare date back hundreds of years, but thanks to a number of local professional troupes, it appears his work is as thriving as ever. These include the Theatricum Botanicum, the Independent Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare by the Sea.

Thanks to these companies, audiences in Los Angeles County can see Shakespearean plays in the most beautiful setting of all: underneath the California sky. These outdoor shows ““ in parks and amphitheaters ““ range from relatively inexpensive to free depending on the company.

Yet the essential magic within these companies lies with their humble origins: They were created for actors who could not find work. The companies have since grown into respectable acting troupes.

When considering the winning quality that makes Shakespeare so attractive to actors and audience members alike, Ellen Geer, a professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, believes that it is Shakespeare’s words that have made him timeless.

“It’s the elevated language. When you listen to it, it’s like listening to classical music, it puts you on a different plane of thinking … to a different place and to a higher intellect,” she said.

Geer is also the artistic director of the Topanga Canyon-based Theatricum Botanicum. Founded in the 1950s by her father, Will Geer, the troupe was originally for blacklisted actors during the McCarthy era who were unable to find work. Although she was just a kid back then, Ellen Geer recalls that the initial years were far from easy.

“We were living off the ground, off of land, (Pop) was a very fine gardener, and we had chickens and goats and all the things that people do,” she said.

From those humble beginnings, the company has grown into an official repertory theater and one of the most well-known in Los Angeles County. During the summer, the company puts on a mix of Shakespearean and modern plays in a Greek amphitheater in Topanga Canyon. This season’s repertoire includes “Cymbeline,” “Julius Caesar” and “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.”

Geer finds that when dealing with the Shakespearean language, there are is no age requirement to truly enjoy the famed playwright.

“We have kids starting out here at age 5. They are not frightened of it, and there are no hindrances,” she said. “The human mind is very excited by it.”

When it comes to Shakespearean words, the consensus is that his words can be easily understood, if performed correctly.

David Melville, the managing director of the Independent Shakespeare Company, agrees.

“After about 10 minutes, if it’s being spoken well, pretty much anyone can begin to tune their ears to it and understand what’s going on,” he said.

Melville and his wife founded the company in 1998 in Manhattan “out of frustration and boredom because we weren’t getting any work,” according to Melville.

Although the company’s first production, a Lower East Side production of “Henry V,” attracted just five people, they have since moved to Los Angeles and have expanded to include 12 core actors and a 10 week season.

Their summer season now takes place in Barnsdall Park near downtown Los Angeles, a hilltop location that overlooks the entire city and allows the company to play to an audience of 300 to 400 people a night. This year’s repertoire includes “Henry V” and “The Tempest.”

Melville, who is also acting in both plays, finds that diving into Shakespeare is a way of connecting with the past.

“While we’re in the theaters, everyone is laughing at a particular moment, and 400 years ago, at the opening night of the show, everyone laughed at the same thing,” he said. “It’s an incredible connection that we have with our past.”

Lisa Coffi, the artistic director and a founding member of Shakespeare by the Sea, feels this connection through the topics that Shakespeare wrote about, topics about the human condition that still make him relevant today.

“Shakespeare wrote about us. … He wrote about sex, he wrote about love, he writes about passion, he writes about jealousy,” she said. “Those are all topics that we still, as human beings, experience today.”

Shakespeare by the Sea was started by Coffi and two other classmates in 1998 when she was a graduate student at California State University, Long Beach, out of a lack of something to do.

“I noticed that there were a lot of people around, the actors and whatnot; during the summertime, we didn’t have anything to do.”

Since there was no summer program for acting students at the university, “I just made one up.”

That first summer proved successful, not just as a time filler but as a stable business venture.

In Point Fermin Park in San Pedro, with $8,000 in their pockets, the company did nine free performances to 3,000 people. From there, the season has expanded into nine weeks and now includes traveling tours.

During its summer season, the troupe covers 70-75 square miles in Los Angeles and Orange counties. This summer schedule includes “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and “As You Like It.”

Coffi finds that by performing in so many locations, she brings Shakespeare to people who would not otherwise have convenient access to it.

“By taking the shows to South Pasadena, that’s 600 people from South Pasadena that would not drive down to Point Fermin Park in San Pedro to come see us,” she said.

While the Theatricum Botanicum charges for tickets ““ from $10 to $30 ““ and performs in their own amphitheater, the Independent Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare by the Sea do their performances for free. The only caveat is that everything is simpler, from lighting to costumes to stage and scenery. The companies usually have to bring their own collapsible stage, and the audience members have to sit on the grass.

Yet the foremost emphasis for all three companies are not on lighting effects or fancy costumes, but on making Shakespeare available to the masses, through inexpensive or free performances.

“The nice thing that we can do is that people can come in large groups and bring their kids, and there are not any large (financial) risks for them,” Melville said.

There are always struggles to make ends meet, and with the present economic recession, it is becoming increasingly difficult for many theater companies to stay afloat.

Yet these Shakespearean companies are still surviving, thanks to cutbacks, grants and donations. For them, the most important thing the audience can do is come see a play and maybe give a little bit afterward.

“Especially in difficult times in society, people need entertainment,” Geer said. “They need good works in front of them.”

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