Over the years, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum has become a summer stock favorite for outdoor theater fans. The Topanga Canyon company presents a repertory season of five shows each year and in each one, actress Melora Marshall is always an audience favorite.
That’s because she keeps everyone guessing. Marshall is known for taking on multiple, unexpected and often gender-bending roles. This summer is no different.
“It’s 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'Titus Andronicus' and these scripts too,” says Marshall as she plunks down multiple bulky scripts on her coffee table. She lugs a stack of them along wherever she goes.
“It’s a lot of text!” she laughs.
It’s the actor’s life she’s learned to love, but, not so much in the beginning.
“I got very rebellious when I was like 15,” Marshall says. “I was like, ‘I’m not going to be an actress. I’m going to be in rock 'n' roll!’ [Laughs] So I sang in bands!"
While she was on the road in those days, she got invited to audition at the Mark Taper Forum. Before long she was understudying the lead actress in the 1975 hit play, “The Dybbuk.”
“I got my union card. I was very young — like 17,” Marshall recalls.
While that was her first professional theater gig, she’s actually been performing since her childhood. How could she not? Her mom was Herta Ware, a trained Broadway actress, and her step-dad was Will Geer.
Fans of the classic TV show, “The Waltons,” know Geer for playing the role of Grandpa Walton starting back in September 1972. Marshall says the money Geer made from acting on the hit program helped him and the family launch a small theater company in Topanga Canyon.
Over the years, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum has become a summer stock favorite, presenting a repertory season of five shows. All of which feature Melora in completely different and often gender-bending roles.
"When it was first made, it was just earth," Marshall says. “And the railroad ties were set into the side of the hill. And he planted it all with herbs, so the audience could smell the herbs and walk on them.”
Stowe’s words are a favorite for Marshall to recite, given the current presidential election. Her favorite line? “Frederick Douglas said, ‘The world would be a better place if women were involved in the political sphere.'
“Don’t you love that?” Marshall says. “It’s just in the last few weeks that has come out because now we are looking down the barrel of a woman emerging in a such a high place in our government. And the audiences, they can’t get around that. They are laughing! It’s possible!”
Between shows, Marshall pops into her house, which is steps away from the main stage. It’s the same home she grew up in.
While she washes carrots, she says: “Let’s cut those up so we can chew on that while we change into the next world, which is ‘Titus Andronicus!’"
With some healthy snacks at the ready, Marshall pulls out her make-up bag and hair styling supplies. It's already time to transition to the next show. But first, the show’s composer stops by to say hi. He just happens to be her son.
Marshall McDaniel, 31, is not only her son, but also her neighbor — and in his younger days, even her fellow cast member.
“When he was a kid, he and his brother, Kellan, they were all in shows,” Marshall says. “It’s cheaper than a baby-sitter. If I’m in the play and Marshall is in the play, then I’ve got them there with me.”
But as for McDaniel, being on stage is less than thrilling. In fact, he has trouble remembering the last show he was in. “It was, like, back in high school," he says. "I think it was 'Our Town.' I had a line or something."
Melora proudly says: “The family started Theatricum Botanicum. And I think it’s very satisfying that they get folded back into it. Because then the spirit of it stays intact in many ways.”
This land saved the family in many ways from early on, because times were often tough for the family. Will Geer had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era. But this theater offered the family open spaces to cultivate gardens and sell what they grew. It was even called ‘Geer’s Garden’ at one point.
But it was Marshall’s mom — Herta Ware — who found this property back in the '50s. It was as if Ware knew this would become the family’s artistic home for generations — and her’s too.
“She appeared in a lot of plays even after she couldn’t remember the lines anymore,” Marshall says. “We’d just have her in the plays. And sometimes she had lines in the book and she would read them. But toward the end, she couldn’t really talk anymore because she had dementia. But we would bring her into the plays because she loved being onstage.”
And while aging might be the ultimate sin in Hollywood, it’s not something that scares Marshall, who is 60. She’s played it all through the years — from ingenue to leading diva. And with that experience comes wisdom.
“In the midst of all that leading lady business, when you start getting older you recognize that in Shakespeare, the parts start to thin out for women. I was too greedy to not perform. Why be shy about it? Why not just say ‘okay!’”
Okay to going after roles that are reserved for men. In fact, in "Titus Andronicus," she plays the title character's brother, Marcus.
As Marshall's four-show weekend winds down and everyone has left, she walks onto the quiet darkened stage to hear her home the way she's always known it.
"In the wintertime, it’s so different out here because it’s abandoned. It’s deserted,” Marshall says. “And you come out here and sit and you feel like spirits or ghosts come and act on the stage when you're gone! It’s like they come out to play. [Laughs] It feels like it!
"I’ve made my home here. And now I’m growing older in this place and helping the new generations of performers and theater people emerge here and I get to be part of that cycle.
"In our times that are so stressed and accelerating so fast, when we all come together here and the audience is all here and we share that experience together, it’s like time stops.”