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

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.

Free Los Tres! Free Los Tres! - Part 1

"The people in their quest for a better life have the right to destroy the forces that threaten their survival." Origin unknown.

There are some stories that become legends, and we tell them over and over again. But there are other stories that are just as moving and powerful that we forget to tell. Sometimes those stories are found again, and in the telling we may wonder why we forgot them at all.

Free Los Tres! is a shout of defiance. It is also the name of a new play, and it is a powerful and sometimes flawed reminder of an essential moment in the history of Boyle Heights and the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. The story is very complex, spanning years and taking some of its dialogue directly from thousands of pages of court transcripts.

The play has already triggered a new reckoning of the events it depicts. It ran for only four weeks at CASA 0101 in Boyle Heights, but Free Los Tres! has been embraced by a community hungry for stories about their culture and history. The show sold-out every night of its run.

Rudolfo "Rudy" Sanchez, Alberto "Beto" Ortiz and Juan "Johnny" Fernandez – Los Tres del Barrio– were Chicano activists, and members of a community organization called La Casa de Carnalismo that wanted to drive drug dealers out of East Los Angeles. They were convicted of assaulting an undercover federal narcotics officer posing as a drug dealer in 1971. Los Tres became a rallying point for a community and a movement.

Photo courtesy Alberto Ortiz

We are living in a time that doesn't allow us to entertain any sentimentality about how far we have come; instead, with the reemergence of white supremacy, and the scapegoating of immigrants who are called criminals and thugs, Free Los Tres! confronts how far backwards we have actually gone. Those times are our times.

"It's not that I don't want people to forget it, it's that I want them to identify it with what is happening today," says Carmelo Alvarez, who directed and co-wrote the project with Beto and Miguel Lopez Vigil. He is an eclectic man, and a natural storyteller perhaps best known for founding Radiotron, the iconic hip hop venue and youth center that was located near MacArthur Park. He has also worked as a youth advocate for more than 40 years, creating a dozen spaces where kids can learn about culture and art, and find shelter from the gangs, violence and drugs out on the streets. He lives simply, completely devoted to making his art: Free Los Tres is his passion project.

I met Carmelo when I was researching a script dense with thehistory of downtown Los Angeles and cultural issues like homelessness. A mutual friend introduced us because Carmelo is an aficionado of local history, and during our first meeting, we spoke for more than two hours. Somewhere along the way, between being peppered with my questions and barely pausing while I frantically scribbled notes, he told me about Free Los Tres.

The script was still too long – about 170 pages – and he was cutting and cutting material. He seemed inundated with information, still sorting the piece out, which would in the end take about 18 months.

He had been looking for the story for years.

He became aware of Free Los Tres when he was 14 and catching the bus to school. The bus stop was near the courthouse where the Charles Manson trial was concluding, and he saw young women with shaved heads and X's carved in their forehead – Manson girls protesting his death sentence (later overturned.) The trial for Los Tres began just as the Manson's ended, and when Carmelo looked across the street, he saw another group of people holding signs and heard cries of "Free Los Tres!". The image stayed with him, and he wanted to know more.

Other stories about the Chicano movement have become celebrated, even iconic. Long before they became part of Los Tres, Johnny and Beto joined the high school walkouts of 1968. Thousands of students from Theodore Roosevelt High and other East L.A. schools protested against inequality in the Los Angeles Unified School District: classrooms were overcrowded and understaffed, and activists charged that the curriculum ignored their experience entirely.

A year later they the also joined the Chicano Moratorium, an Anti-Vietnam War movement which organized several protests, the largest of which drew more than 30,000 protestors on August 29, 1970-- an essential date in Los Angeles history, and the same day LA Times reporter Ruben Salazar was killed. The war was placing a heavy burden on East L.A. communities like Boyle Heights as Chicanos were being drafted and killed at higher rates than other ethnic groups. The Moratorium was a continuation of what started with the walkouts; young activists taking to the streets to rally against injustice.

Moises Rodriguez (Rudy), Joshua Nicholas (Johnny) and Alex Anthony Correa (Beto) as Los Tres del Barrio. Photo by Rosa Navarrete

"They made a movie about the walkouts and the moratorium is celebrated every year, but this story has been hidden for 47 years," says Carmelo. He wanted to know why. Little has been written about Los Tres. An internet search finds only an excerpt from a book which mentioned Los Tres very briefly, and also a few pictures and flyers from the era– but nothing cohesive, only fragments that hinted at the story he knew was there.

He kept looking, but the play might never have happened but for a chance encounter in 2017. Carmelo was at a funeral paying his respects to a relative who'd been a Chicano activist. He was talking to his cousin, who'd also been involved in the movement, and mentioned he was writing a play about Los Tres. Do you know where I can find them? "Do I know them, his cousin said, Dude, I know those guys, I was on the Committee to Free Los Tres!" An introduction was arranged. 

Shortly thereafter, Carmelo met Beto and Rudy, and they gave him permission to write the script. Beto collaborated closely on the script with Carmelo – he had saved pictures and letters from members of the Committee to Free Los Tres, still in their envelopes more than 40 years later. Beto spent months getting the trial transcripts, nearly 3000 pages. He painstakingly copied them one page at a time. Those pages were very delicate, sometimes stuck together. Beto's memories of that time had grown fuzzy he says, but as Carmelo picked at his brain they began to resurface. First they worked from memory, then they began interviewing committee members. They wanted the play to become something beyond a history lesson– Free Los Tres is a call to action.

"We're kind of hoping that this will inspire the youths of today because I see the play being for this generation now, for those who didn't know or never heard about it, and we want to let them know how the conditions were back then and hopefully it will inspire them to get involved," Beto said when interviewed with Rudy at Casa 0101 just before rehearsals began late last year. "The issues have multiplied instead of diminished," Rudy said, in no small part, he believes, because of the current president.

Los Tres were very young when the confrontation took place, Rudy being the oldest of them at just 26. Beto and Rudy are the two surviving members of Los Tres (Johnny passed away in 2012) and they remain politically committed: attending rallies and marches, and still consider themselves pro-immigrant and pro-undocumented. "We're native born here," Beto says, "and it gets me upset that people are saying go back to Mexico because we never crossed the border. Our people didn't cross it and the Indians never did – the border crossed us."

Photo courtesy Alberto Ortiz

Every play has its premise, its own life as Carmelo says, and Free Los Tres asks, do the ends justify the means, and when is it okay to take the law into your own hands. And what actions are ethical if the guys carrying badges are committing illicit acts themselves? The authorities were infiltrating the community, trying to disrupt the movement, beating suspects, and intimidating witnesses – but their actions were considered legal, at least at the time.

"That's not justice, that's not legal, so they're breaking the law," Carmelo says. "And they send in informants and infiltrators – is this legal? Why is it legal to infiltrate into a community and bring in arms, and tell them you need to fight them, you need to shoot the pigs, we need to have an armed revolution? Informants were paid to tell the movement these things. So in this case, the government was doing things under the color of law, but they're not ethical, they're right in the law of true justice, or true humanity."

There is another message to this story: drugs have been been used as a tool of suppression to, as Beto says, "keep our people drugged up and killing each other." Los Tres had already helped circulate a petition asking local shops to stop selling glue to kids in the neighborhood, and were working to get rid of the heavier stuff too – angel dust, reds and heroin. The movement believed the cops were at worst abetting the problem and at best doing nothing to stop it.

Carmelo takes this from an abstract idea to something more personal, an analogy that puts the question on what you might do to protect your own family. "If someone takes drugs into the community and you do something about it, you say, hey, don't be selling that shit to my sister, get the fuck out of here, and then somebody moves into your neighborhood, and befriends you, and says I'll take care of your sister, but he starts giving her drugs, and he's doing it under the color of the law, is that legal?"

Los Tres began chasing drug dealers out of the neighborhood and for awhile Beto says it was working. They were partly inspired by the film Battle of Algiers, the 1966 film showing the guerrilla resistance against French colonizers. Rudy saw it when he was in prison, and it transformed his life and inspired his actions. The group would approach a drug dealer, tell them we don't want you selling your junk here, and then intimidate them into leaving.

They did not initiate the meeting with the undercover agent. Rudy was contacted by a man who wanted to sell him drugs. In the play we see this exchange as two backlit figures behind a scrim, two shadows arranging to meet for a drug deal. "We didn't go there to shoot the guy or kill the guy or anything like that, we went there to run him out of the neighborhood," said Beto, but the transaction turned into a confrontation.

We see this incident several times during the play, reminiscent of Rashomon, the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film that demonstrated the slippery nature of truth. The shooting is dramatized from several different perspectives, especially during the court scenes when the actors rearrange themselves as the testimony continues behind them. This is a bit awkwardly staged, but it's very funny when we see the actor playing the undercover agent enter on a moving cart with giant handlebars representing a lowrider motorcycle.

There is controversy about how many shots were fired, was it three or was it two. We do know that the officer did not identify himself as a federal agent or show his badge before reaching for his weapon ("if he'd shown one we wouldn't be sitting here talking," Carmelo told me.) Get of the neighborhood, Los Tres told him, and they demanded he give up his drug money. The cop, perhaps panicking, dropped his wallet to the ground, the money scattering, and reached for his weapon. Carmelo believes the agent expected Los Tres to go for the money. Seeing his weapon, they opened fire on him, and from there the incident gets even murkier.

There were four backup agents waiting in a car, and when they heard the gunshots they came running to the scene, the first of them arriving maybe 10 seconds later. Three claimed they didn't have weapons with them – they said they had left them in the car – one of them using the rationale he didn't have his weapon because he had taken off his shirt to blend in within the community (his exact words taken from the transcripts.)

"You're the backup agent, but yet you leave your gun in the car?" Carmelo asks me incredulously, wondering if there might be a motive for this, if it wasn't really an accident. We do not know the answer to that question, but even more mysterious is who fired the shot that hit the agent. Beto and Johnny each fired once, but there was a third shot that isn't clear what weapon it came from, and no ballistics tests were done, except on Johnny's weapon, and the results were inconclusive.

"Why didn't anyone question that," Carmelo says, "if you go up to anyone on the street, and you say three backup cops didn't have their gun, they'd say...what??"

Photo courtesy Alberto Ortiz

The shooting, this one brief incident, lasting maybe 30 seconds or so according to Alvarez, had long reverberations. "That one minute transformed their life," Carmelo says. "That one split second incident unraveled a lot of things." Chicano activists considered Los Tres political prisoners, and believed they that had been set up by the Federal government and other authorities intent on dismantling the movement (and indeed anyone considered subversive or radical.) The National Committee to Free Los Tres eventually merged with a community center called CASA (Centro De Accion Social Autonomo) and fought for the release of the three activists. They were triumphant, but so much had already been lost in the long, slow struggle in the courts and on the streets.

Los Tres were arrested when the Chicano Civil Rights movement was at its height, but by the time they were released in in the late 70's, it was badly weakened, it's many factions beginning to splinter apart, its fragile unity having been wounded by years of governmental intimidation as much as ideological differences. be continued