Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Theatricum Botanicum - Topanga, CA

I pass'd, methought, the melancholy flood,
With that grim ferryman which poets write of,
Unto the kingdom of perpetual night.

On a drive along pacific coast highway  you can eventually take a turn away from the Pacific, leave the iconic California coast line of LA county behind, the glitter of Malibu, and begin  a Narnia-Wardrobe-like transition into Topanga Canyon.  The six mile road twists and turns with rocky cliff sides towering above: sagebrush-accented and prehistoric looking.  There's a deli and one or two cafes, but not much else besides pure nature until you see an unobtrusive sign indicating you've arrived at the Will Gear Theatricum Botanicum

Actor Will Gear opened the Theatricum Botanicum on his property for fellow black listed actors who were victims of McCarthyism.  Since he could not get work in Hollywood, he and his family survived on his Topanga Canyon property by selling herbs, vegetables, and theatre.  When the blacklisting ended, he converted the Theatricum Botanicum into a non-profit organization that offered free workshops, and since his death educational programs along with traditional productions.

This is not  your typical theatre experience.  Not the conventional concert hall or play house, with assigned seating or air conditioning.  Attending a production here is like entering a time machine, going back to how plays were traditionally preformed: in the open air.  But I am getting ahead of myself.  When coming to see a play at the Theatricum Botanicum, it will not be a complete experience if you arrive just in time to sit down for the performance.  Arrive early and have a picnic on the grounds before hand.  There are picnic tables provided and the Hamlet Hut offers some concessions as well.  Camping trip meets night at the theatre is an unexpectedly perfect marriage.

Although matinee shows are also offered, the evening performances are the way to go.  The walk leading up to the amphitheater are lit by antiquated lamps, which begins you passage into thespian fantasy.  The set up of the stage itself is what distinguishes the viewing experience at the Theatricum Botanicum from other theatre outings you might have.  The stage itself seems like one of the actors or at least an interactive, elaborate prop rather than merely a platform that supports the actions of the characters, but remains largely unseen, forgotten.  It is a simple wooden set up with two balconies and a set of doors.  There are no curtains so no scene changes made in the dark.  If props need to appear in some scenes but be removed in others, the actors come up with creative ways to do this with the audience watching, we become part of the production.  The hill side above, with pathways leading through trees, and the stairs leading past the benched seating of the audience, become an extension of the stage.  The movement of actors from in front, behind, and to either side of the audience keeps us engrossed and integrates us as part of the play, forced participation, rather than leaving us detached and distant. 

The open-air element, to me, was the best part.  Feeling the breeze, hearing frogs and crickets mixing melodies, and the sight of periodic leaves falling form the trees above somehow made the play feel more real like it was possible that we simply went on a hike on some walking paths in the woods and stumbled across an engaging interaction with a troop of people in uncommon costume.  Best of all, since its rather chilling in Topanga Canyon in the evenings, everyone comes equipped with blankets.  So now not only is it camping trip meets night at the theatre, but you now throw in the feeling of watching a movie from the comfort of your home, bundled up in your favorite throw with a warm cup of hot coco in your mittened hand.

Our maiden voyage at the Theatricum Botanicum was for Shakespeare's Richard III.  I'd, shamefully, never read the play but was instantly absorbed.  The cast was captivating from the first uttered line and had me holding my breath in anticipation at some points and laughing out loud [too loud?] at others.  The costumes were over-the-top in ideal Shakespearean fashion making me long for a return to an era where all were required to wear cloaks and capes.  Most of all, however, is the undeniable passion the actors of this production have for theatre.  I mean, good acting is good acting, but you can tell when an actor or actress truly has a passion for it, sees it as art, as part of breathing for them, rather than just their means to a paycheck.  All the actors of this production were clearing of the former type, creatively committed to their characters, and exhibiting their devotion for their chosen art.

I can't believe that I did not know this place existed.  For all the money people are willing to shell out for performances of various kinds, many are missing out on a truly unique experience [and at a much more reasonable price at might add] at the Theatricum Botanicum.  A great way to spend an evening: picnic dinner, bundled in blankets, and transported into fiction as if a participant in its making.  The end of the performance will leaving you wishing you could stay the night, hoping that this theatre-Narnia might just keep you forever.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Laguna Beach Art Walk: Hangin' with Horace & Co.

There are these rare moments in life when you find yourself sharing in what feels like the first chapter of what will be a well loved novel [or call it a life path, niche, or creative purpose] of someone dear to you, a chapter that you will re-read over in your mind's eye for years to come.  Tonight was such a night.

Laguna Beach hosts an Art Walk the first Thursday of every month.  Various galleries & shops in Laguna Beach feature well established or budding artists.  Essentially, if you're looking for something free to do after work in Orange County this is your ticket: free peeks at art, free music, and [at some locations] free drinks and snacks.

Although art exhibitions are enjoyable in-of-themselves, the are made much more exciting and memorable if you know a bit about the artist... or if they just so happen to be a very dear friend. 

Tonight was the first public exhibition of the art of my friend, Kristina.  Since the first days of knowing her, noticing her sketches on the back of a church program while sitting next to her in a pew, I was enamored with her style.  And that captivation has only increased as she shared bits of her work, which was done mostly for herself, not to share.

The past few weeks especially have been a blessing and privilege because I was allowed to see various stages of the pieces she was working on to exhibit in the Art Walk.  It was almost like watching the growth of a seed from something with great potential, yet not quite itself, into a stunning bloom, a creation one can't drink in quite enough.

I don't just express enthusiasm here for her work because she is my friend, although I will say that it is convenient bonus.  I truly think her work is amazingly creative, original, and inspiring.  After seeing each piece I was immediately inspired to write, and what better purpose for art than to prove a catalyst for thought and further creativity?

This exhibition featured four works.  All are wood burnings with color added after with acrylic pencils [*need to verify the correct terminology with her...out of my element here :)].

While I adored all four, three of the pieces were more thoroughly tied together with the motif of a old man.  Her old man character started with Horace [as she called him]: an elderly gentlemen made complete with a pipe, smoke billowing out from both sides of his mouth, a crew cut slate-blue sweater, and white-with-side-burns-connected beard.

Each of Horace's posse that followed would contain similar features: smoke, vacant white eyes, a defined nose, boney hands, and shar pei wrinkles [and I mean that in the most endearing way possible because who is not comforted and intrigued by the outlandish wrinkles of a shar pei?].

The second piece was inspired by Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea [as an aside, both Kristina and I were delighted to discover that on this day in 1952 Hemingway first published The Old Man and the Sea in Life Magazine...perfect timing? I think so...]. The old man drifts at sea on a stormy, full-mooned night while dreaming of a past memory [nightmare?] when his ship was wrecked by a giant squid.  His lacquered yellow rain coat fails to shield him from being haunted by the memory of losing his ship, what every fisherman and captain would be most dishonored by.

The final old man, a pilot, evokes bits of Charles Lindbergh and the Red Baron [the Snoopy version or Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen variety], but mostly just bits of her husband as he might look 50 years from now.  Bomber jacket, red scarf, goggles poised on his head and twisted-point-mustache make the pilot all the more endearing.

There is something so very inviting about these old men, such that I wish I could crawl into their frames and sit down for a cup of earl grey served with a blue berry scone and just drink up their tales of their adventures from long ago and soak in their lifetime of wisdom.  If only.  But seeing these characters frozen onto their flat wooden realms is the next best thing.  I could just stand and look at them, share their company, for hours, imaging what their life could have been like.

Besides day dreaming of fire-side chats with these fellas I was also thrilled to have the chance to collect some wall-flower moments of watching strangers become intrigued by her art and then compliment the pieces or ask her about her process.  To share artistic creations, especially the first time, is a risk, anxiety provoking.  It is making yourself vulnerable because every creation contains a piece of their creator.  To see others around me become equally as swept away and in awe of her work gave me as much joy as if they were my own works they were enjoying, probably more joy in fact.  To see someone, especially a friend, in their creative element is one of the greatest blessings to be had.

Art is not limited to conventional platforms either.  Part of the exhibition was also displaying the pieces in just the right way.  With the help of our mutual friend, Kristina's pieces were displayed at the Hobie in downtown Laguna Beach, where Luci works.  As Kristina set up her pieces our friend worked in the window nearby to create a display for Tom's Shoes.  After observing both girls at work I have a much greater appreciation for the creative energy, patience, and artistic vision that goes into a window display.   Kristina set up her pieces by hanging from twine and placing the other two among an menagerie of wicker baskets, rope, balls of string, and pieces of drift wood. 

Our friend's display featured, among other things, shoes draped over antique books, some with the centers carved out to act in lieu of the traditional clay pot for tiny succulents.  I'd like to hire her, the bashful & modest interior designer, to decorate my house.  Artists abound in more venues then you imagine.

So the Art Walk is most certainly worth in investigating.  Laguna Beach has much to offer the art appreciators among you, permanent galleries abound, but the Art Walk has a lively vibe and you have the added bonus of being able to speak one-on-one with local artists while enjoying their creations [something unattainable at most larger art galleries].

Check back here soon because Kristina is working on getting an Etsy sight going to sell her designs. I will post a link here soon!