The secret to Botanicum's longevity, according to Geer, is that it is a home for actors. The Geer family has been performing Shakespeare since the 1950s on their Topanga estate. But Botanicum's outdoor season is just one component of the company. The company also performs indoors for students. Geer hopes that Los Angeles will become a destination for summer theater fans, like the Delacorte in Central Park or the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, but she also says that outdoor theater will continue to struggle in L.A., just like regular theater: "The film business is a mighty powerful older brother," Geer said.
Matthews thinks that L.A. can host a world-class outdoor Shakespeare venue ("but it will be devilishly hard to start in this economy"), but says it would have to overcome one particular fact: "If an L.A. actor is a star or a good face, and they want to get cred by doing a serious Shakespeare play, they will come to New York first."
Before Joe Papp, the only way to get serious Shakespeare cred was for an actor to go to Broadway or London. Now stars like Al Pacino and Anne Hathaway work for a fraction of their film quotes in Central Park. What L.A. needs is its own Joe Papp, Matthews says.
"It does take a single person, I think, who puts it all together," he says. "I thought Ben was on his way to it. I'm not saying he's been sidetracked … but a company's focus can start to shift so much to education so they can no longer think in terms of larger productions."
Donenberg concedes that his company is moving away from the Papp model. "When Mr. Papp was around there was money for the arts, lots more federal funding, local funding. … It was a different environment," he says. "The financial crisis has made us become a lot more specific about our goals … we have to grow up."
As Shakespeare Center has been redefining itself, the company that is emerging as perhaps the closest thing to Papp's vision of Free Shakespeare for All in Los Angeles is Chalsma's Independent Shakespeare Co. Like Donenberg, who says acting in Papp's production of "Henry IV" in 1981 was a key motivation, ISC's founders met on the 1995 Broadway production of "Hamlet" with Ralph Fiennes. They moved west and mounted their first production in 2003 at Franklin Canyon Park. The next year they moved to Barnsdall Park, where the first performance was attended by 14 people and a dog, according to Chalsma. In 2009, their last season there, nearly 12,000 people attended the festival.
Last year, the ISC moved out of Barnsdall Park and set up shop in Griffith Park, which is probably the closest thing that L.A. has to Central Park. The troupe performs in a natural amphitheater in the Old Zoo and Chalsma says the move was a blessing. "I can't imagine a better venue. There's a lot of parking. In L.A., that's a critical thing."
Last month, the ISC opened its second season at Griffith Park with "The Merry Wives of Windsor," and 1,700 people attended the first four performances. This marks ISC's ninth season of free Shakespeare, but don't expect any recognizable faces from TV or the movies in its productions, whereas in Papp's ninth season, George C. Scott and James Earl Jones starred in "The Merchant of Venice," and the Delacorte was inaugurated.
Chalsma is well aware of the uphill road she and her company are traveling, but she remains optimistic: "I think there's no reason L.A. can't be considered a Shakespeare town. In my experience, audiences are fantastic, vocal and crazy-supportive, you just have to get them to the theater."
For Donenberg, this summer is a time to regroup and prepare for the next generation. He's hopeful that there will be a next 25 years for his organization — and despite the difficulties, he still talks about the legacy of what Joe Papp did in New York. "The things he tapped, the idea that theater is a birthright, it's as true now as it was then."
Of course, free Shakespeare is never really free. Joe Papp's trick was to make Shakespeare in the Park sexy enough so that city officials and those who could donate wanted to. Matthews says that the only way L.A. will have a world-class Shakespeare venue is when being on its board has as much prestige as being on the board of LACMA or the L.A. Philharmonic.
Chalsma says that her board thinks a new permanent outdoor theater like the Delacorte would help distinguish her company. She agrees that this would be great, but insists that money is better spent on the actors and the productions.
"Look at Ashland, it's out of the way but people don't just drive 60 miles from Oregon to go there, they come from all over the world." She adds that they're making the pilgrimage not to see the architecture of the theater, but rather the work that's onstage. Putting on high-quality productions that rival the best companies in the world is ultimately what will make Los Angeles a Shakespeare destination. "Just because L.A. doesn't have it yet," Chalsma says, "doesn't mean that it isn't possible."