fD Interview

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fD Interview: Ellen Geer

June 06, 2008
by Isabel Cowles
FindingDulcinea’s weekly feature offers interviews with intriguing people on the cutting edge of business, the arts, technology and journalism. This week, we talk with actress Ellen Geer about her love of theater, the power of family and what she’d like young actors to know.

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Ellen Geer has always been part of a theatrical family. Her father was actor Will Geer, best known for his role as grandpa in the 1970's show "The Waltons." He was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, leaving the Geer family homeless and ostracized. Despite such adversity, Ellen Geer became a successful actress and teacher. She maintains the "Theatricum Botanicum," a San Fernando Valley theater founded by her father that puts on outdoor productions. Ellen works as an actor, director and producer at the theater, frequently casting her daughter and UCLA students in its performances.
fD: Did your father inspire you to become an actor?

EG: That’s correct, it stemmed from family. Theater is something we always had in our lives, from the very beginning. By a certain age you just knew all these roles of Shakespeare. My father would pick one of us and say, “OK, do that speech,” so it just became part of our life.

fD: Did you encourage your daughter to follow the family profession and become an actress?

EG: Our family always worked together. That’s the norm, and so it’s something that was always part of our lives. It’s our way of making money during the hard times. And during the fat times, it feels so good to be able to make a living as an artist. That’s an extraordinary thing.
fD: Do you see a change in today’s culture from when your father was a working actor?

EG: It’s very different now. I’m a professor at UCLA and I’ve been there for about twelve years. I notice that new technology makes students have a tendency to focus on just one thing, rather than to be versatile.  When we grew up, you used to have to know how to sing, dance and play an instrument. Because you wanted to be able to get jobs any way you can. And I’m finding that with the young people, it’s just not as varied. You don’t have as many Renaissance actors.

fD: What are some of the characteristics of today’s young actors that inspire you?


EG: I am overwhelmed by what they have to deal with today as young people. The artistic at this time is so important for them. The arts can help give kids their strength back as human beings—which the society can squelch so easily.

fD: What are some of your favorite pieces to direct or act in?

EG: There are so many great writers, Tennessee Williams, Molière, Chekhov. It’s harder and harder today to find great material because so much has turned into sitcom dialogue. But more and more people are beginning to come back to the root of what writing is.
fD: Do you think that people are going to return to the theater?

EG: I don’t think there’s a return, because I think it was just something that is always there. It is a purist art form for actors; it’s an enduring story for everyone involved. And then there’s the audience and the bond with the audience. You don’t get that when you’re in television or film, it’s pure appearance.

fD: What is the most important lesson that you’d like to pass on to your students?

EG: This is going to sound funny—keep hope alive. To always be involved in what’s going on in the world, and not to isolate their art form so that it becomes precious. Keep it within what’s going on. Because theater can help make change in a way that other art forms can’t.

fD: What is the most gratifying aspect of your career?


EG: It gives you an incredible sense of being worthwhile and useful, every day. All of it, everything that I do, acting and teaching. Because isn’t that what it’s about: to be worthwhile and useful, not only to your family, but to everyone around you?
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