Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum: Where a kid can meet Shakespeare under the trees
"Registration for drama camp?" a young guy asks with a smile.
"Over the bridge to the main stage."
Over the bridge is a handwritten sign taped to an old post. Camp Registration is scrawled
quite imperfectly with a felt tip marker. An arrow leads past another old bridge to a clearing, sur-rounded by trees and slightly dilapidated railings. Wrought iron, wooden and cement benches are placed about; dusty walkways promise to lead one and all astray.
"This place is totally cool" Russell says, a trace of awe in his voice.
The gardens are a bit overrun. A flagstone is missing here and there; the lawn chairs are
mismatched, a rustic sign leads to Will's Shakespeare Garden where a bust, not of Shakespeare but of Will Geer, sits beyond the neglected arbor. I smile and tell my ten year old son I'm glad he likes it. I don't tell him I think the place has magic - he would think I was way too corny - and I wonder if he'll find that magic for himself.
After climbing the meandering path we join the line leading to the main stage. It's Day One of the Theatricum Botanicum summer drama camp in Topanga and at nine am it's still chilly under the canopy of trees. I make a mental note to force Russell to wear a sweatshirt that he can stuff in his backpack when it gets hot. Russell's group, the Pucks, are doing an adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I've already rented the Kevin Klein/Michelle Pfeiffer version but he complained it was so boring, I turned it off after forty five minutes.
After check in I join up with my friend Laura in the theatre. The sun is beginning to do that dappling thing through leaves. Magic, I think to myself, more and more magic. Our boys sit a couple of rows down as some guy in a baseball cap takes a handful of returning campers on stage. The kids create a robotic teacher; one boy wags his finger up and down continuously.
"Too much noise, too much noise" he creaks.
A girl joins in, hands on hips, shaking her head side to side.
"Two plus two is four. Two plus two is four." The other kids fall in with their own zany antics.
We all laugh and applaud. I can see the curve of my son's cheek and I know he's laughing too.
"Are there any first timers?" Ian asks. Laura's son Hunter pushes Russell's arm high in the air.
"Hey, thanks for volunteering" he says. Everybody laughs. "C'mon up."
He has Russell and two other kids take turns walking around the stage. It's just an ice-breaking exercise but Russell glows clear to the top of the theatre.
Afterwards the camp director goes over details, there's even a Harry Potter warning.
"If I have to wait until three in the afternoon to read it, so do you. No Potter at camp! Besides" Mary-Carol adds with a grin, "while you may think J.K. Rowling is the world's greatest author, I happen to know JK. Rowling thinks that Shakespeare is."
Another staff member brings a big paper bag on stage and takes out a series of "inappropriate" shoes.
"Bad shoe!" she admonishes a blue beach thong harshly.
"No! You can't come to camp," she shouts at a nice leather sandal with a heel. "You're
the one that made me twist my ankle. You're staying home. Do you hear me? HOME!!!!"
"You too, parents" she announces. "Go home!"
We file out rather pathetically, calling out last minute instructions.
"Don't forget to put on more sunscreen."
"You have your hat, right?"
"Wait! You left your script on the bench."
"See you later."
"See you at three."
"See you," we call longingly.
But the kids aren't listening; they've already left us behind as they group up in two's and three's, parents mere blurs in the background.
"Bye" I try one more time.
"Bye," Russell nods his head almost imperceptibly in my direction.
When I return, throngs of noisy boys and girls are scattered about. A string of kids with grimy faces skips by an older crowd; a girl with Angel emblazoned on her butt, some boys in huge shirts and ankle length shorts. I scan the area like a VIP looking for my limo driver at the airport until I find Hunter holding the bright green Pucks sign. Gathered in a small bower by the creek, several Pucks are singing a chant as they rummage through a big plastic tub for backpacks and lunch boxes.
"We're the Pu-ucks. Oh we are the Pucks. We're the Pu-ucks."
I'm waiting for someone to let its four letter sound-alike slip but no one does.
As I sign Russell out a boy calls "See ya Russell," another joins in "So long."
"How was it?" I want to know, once we're settled in the car and the air is on full blast.
"Did you have a good time?"
"Are the counselors nice?"
"How about the kids? Are they nice too?"
"So you had fun?"
"How about if we finish watching A Midsummer Nights Dream tonight? Dad can get pizza. "
I take a deep breath and pay attention to the road. I wonder if I'll remember to turn in the video before it's overdue? And if we're not having pizza, what should we have for dinner?
The next day I make him wear his 'sweatshirt because the morning air is so cold.
"We can not be late, Mom. They said whatever you do, don't just drive up at the last minute."
"Some lady. The camp mom, I think."
"Okay, okay. I'm doing my best. It's only eight twenty."
The traffic on PCH is jammed but the sun is already glinting on the water and there's a swarm of surfers in the sea and the tall palms with their mop tops are lined up along the crest of the cliff and I'm driving right through this particular postcard, getting a rush out of rush hour. Russell makes it to camp with five minutes to spare.
He's still wearing his sweatshirt when I pick him up six hours later and it's 94° out. His blond hair, dark with sweat, is matted to his forehead. His face is flushed.
"Aren't you dying?" I moan. "It's so hot!"
"Why didn't you take it off?"
"Dunno." He shrugs. "Too much hassle."
I pull it off him as while we walk. Tomorrow he'll have to spend the first hour being cold.
"Nice work today, buddy" a young guy calls. He stops traffic so we can cross Topanga.
This is Eric, the Puck counselor, but Russell has no idea why he said "Nice work"
To my "Well what did you do?" he answers "you know. . . stuff"
"Stuff" is improv, Elizabethan dance, theatrical make-up. Willow works with them on Voice. Nick teaches them fencing and stage combat.
"Mom, it's so cool. You put your hand on top of the other person's head like you're dragging them along by their hair but it's all staged. It's so funny when they're screaming "Help, ouch, ouch!"
He shows me how to fake slap and punch. He practices his fencing moves and asks if I know why the hand not holding the sword is up in the air.
"For balance?" I suggest weakly.
"Nope." He loves it when I'm wrong. "Back in the old days, so many people were dying from sword fights they made it illegal so if you challenged someone to a duel you had to sneak out at night."
"And it was dark so you had to hold your lantern in your other hand!"
He lunges with his imaginary sword victoriously. Touche'!
They put their top three choices for the parts they want on a slip of paper. Russell wants desperately to be Demetrius. He likes the idea of fighting with Lysander and leaving the stage together "cheek and jowl." He thinks he has a chance because practically everybody else—all the boys anyway
- wants to be Puck.
"I think I'm the only one who wants the part."
I look at his sweet face, dimple in chin, blonde hair falling over his forehead.
"Break a leg" I offer as he pushes open the car door.
"It's not the play yet, Mom," he laughs, shaking his head at my superstitious nature.
Too superstitious to simply say good luck. I hope you get the part you want.
Today they'll get their parts. He thinks he'll get Demetrius because the director had him do it at a read-through.
"The boy who was supposed to read Demetrius' part wasn't there so I got to do it."
I think the other boy will get the part.
"Maybe he'll have the other boy do it when he comes back." I suggest. I don't want himto get his hopes up.
"Maybe. But I think I did a good job."
"Break a leg," I tell him again. He rolls his eyes.
When I pick him up there's a secret bubble behind his smile.
I lean in and whisper under my breath, "Did you. . . ?"
He grins, tries not to gloat. "I got Demetrius" he mutters between his teeth.
He even lets me give him a hug. Back home he wants to watch A Midsummer Night's Dream.
"I thought you said it was boring. I took it back."
"It was due."
"Can we get it again?"
I sigh. I can't help it.
"Are you sure? You didn't seem too interested last time."
"Yeah. I really want to watch it. Luke said Demetrius rides in on a turtle."
We rent it again but it's Puck not Demetrius who rides in on a turtle. At least we finish the movie this time; Russell allows it's not too bad.
Laura offers me a pair of her old black velvet leggings so all he needs for his costume is a large shirt; I find a long-sleeved creamy silk shirt at Goodwill.
"These aren't ladies' pants, are they?" Russell asks, rolling Laura's leggings up just below the knee.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I tell him.
He’d die if he knew both the tunic and the pants are womens’ clothing. Seeing him in the shirt, the rather regal looking pants, brown suede belt slung on his hips, I see what the director saw. I see Demetrius. A boy Demetrius.
After supper, he plows through a pile of DVD’s.
“What are you looking for, honey?”
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
I find it in the stack and try to hide my pleasure. It’s like choosing healthy cereal over Lucky Charms.
Three days a week, for five weeks we've been driving up and down, up and down until I'm careening the curves with all the chutzpah of a local. We've passed surfing and volleyball camps on the beach. The Cali-camp buses drive Topanga in our wake. He could have gone to science or tennis or even private eye camp but for Russell this was the perfect summer place. From the age of two when he got his first Superman cape he's loved to pretend, to be someone else just for the fun of it. And now it's performance day - the day all the other days were working toward. An opening, and a closing, at the same time.
Before the play, they demonstrate fencing. Russell and Luke present a duel they choreographed themselves and when Russell collapses in the dirt, dead; the applause, to my ears, is thunderous.
But of course, the play's the thing. Is that my son holding that pretty girl's hand, pleading
"O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!"?
Afterward Russell runs up breathlessly requesting a pen and disappears. When we track him down he has Luke's email address printed neatly on the palm of his hand.
"You were wonderful," my husband, my mother and I all gush.
"Thanks" he says with the tiniest trace of surprise. "But when we get home, can I go on-line? I want to email Luke."
I realize then, the play's the thing but it's the people who make the magic.
To learn more about the summer camp program, here's the clickable link: Theatricum Botanicum
Go to the TheatricumBotanicum site for more info.
Image via The Carrie Source