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Program Nurtures a Love of Shakespeare

Theatricum Botanicum's summer seminars introduce youths to the classics. Kids gain a lasting appreciation of tradition.


Ellen Geer, whose late father Will Geer built his Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon to keep theater alive, believes that theater not only must exist, but that it has a responsibility to inform.

"It's important for us to educate," said Geer, "not to just do a show for young people, but to educate them as to what it is. It's the same as kids needing to be educated about relationships, about morals, because they're not getting it in society."

Part of that process is accomplished by the Theatricum's annual School Days program, during which thousands of Los Angeles schoolchildren are exposed to what is often their first theater experience, and almost always to their first taste of Shakespeare.

As a follow-up to that, the Theatricum conducts summer theater seminars for youngsters from 8 to 14. There is also a concurrent high school Shakespeare seminar, with training in commedia dell'arte, movement, text, fencing and other techniques, in preparation for a public performance.


Seminar director Susan Angelo, an actress long associated with the Theatricum, says she is amazed at the ease with which the very youngest become friendly with the classics, standing on the stage confidently spouting Shakespeare's words.

"They're not that frightened of it," Angelo said. "It's the adults who are frightened of it."

Angelo has found that early familiarity with theater, and classical drama, stays with the youngsters. Many return for the high school seminar, and some for the concurrent High School Repertory program, which this year will result in the public performance of a staged version of the King Arthur legend, presented for the next two Saturdays at the Theatricum, followed by a Sunday performance at the L.A. Public Library downtown.

But the training can have value beyond the obvious.

Angelo explained, "We often pull them in to intern as assistant teachers with the little kids. They start developing their leadership skills. They really live up to it. It's pretty impressive. We've had them as 8-year-olds, and then they come back and are hired as teachers."

Although these summer theater camps prove beneficial to all youngsters, they are particularly attractive to teenagers who have their hearts set on acting careers, such as three young men featured in "King Arthur."

A first-year participant in the program, Justin Ables, is playing Arthur. Although he has appeared in numerous plays, the young actor, who goes to Rolling Hills Prep School in Malaga Cove, said he is thrilled for the opportunity "to get more experience in the theater. I've seen their professional company, but it's great they have a program for teenagers. It's teaching me a lot of technique, stuff that I didn't have, that as an actor I could use."

Jared Swanson, from downtown's Los Angeles Baptist High School, is playing Lancelot, and finds the learning process "amazing, and a lot of fun." Swanson said that acting is definitely something he wants to make a part of his future. "It's something worth working for," he says, "and even if you're not completely successful, if you think you're successful in yourself, it can still be a lot of fun."


The magical Merlin in the production is Adam Reich, from El Camino Real High School in West Hills. Reich has been in the program for several years, and for two years was a member of the high school rep, in addition to appearing in the professional main stage productions at the Theatricum.

"I had a passion for acting all the time I was growing up," Reich said. "To work in a professional theater like this is a wonderful experience."

In addition to her enthusiasm about the summer seminars and the high school repertory, Angelo is impressed with the Theatricum's classroom program during the school year. Company members go into a class for a week and direct an abbreviated version of a Shakespeare play, involving the students and the teachers.

"Then they perform for the whole school," Angelo said. "Even the teachers are amazed at how exciting the material is. They've kind of forgotten about that. We try to inspire the teachers."

These programs are all a way of passing on a heritage.

The secret, Ellen Geer said, is in delivering the message to the youngsters.

"You start when they're very young, passing it on rather than hoarding it," she said. "If you pass it on, it is much more fulfilling. It is much more exciting. I go through this thing sometimes, that I am not just an actor anymore. I'm educating. It's the times. I think we have to, all of us."


* WHAT: "King Arthur."

* WHERE: Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga.

* WHEN: Noon Saturday and Sept. 7.

* HOW MUCH: $6.

* CALL: (310) 455-3723.

* FYI: There will be a free performance of "King Arthur" at the Los Angeles Public Library, 630 W. 5th St., at 2 p.m. Sept. 8. Call (213) 228-7470.

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