As soon as we manage to push through “May Gray” and “June Gloom,” it seems like all we want to do in Southern California is be outside.
From our weekday workouts to our weekend brunches, we’re looking to take it all outside — whether it’s to our lawns, beaches, patios or rooftops.
But while most crowds descend upon popular standbys like Hollywood Forever or the Greek Theatre over and over again, there are plenty of other places in Southern California to break free from those four walls and go au naturale.
Here are five of the best performance spaces in Southern California, where you can get cultured in the great outdoors … catch a performance with a picnic … and see a show under the stars.
In many cases, the venue is just as interesting as the show you’re there to see!
1. Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, Topanga
Tucked into a mountain canyon in Topanga, the Theatricum Botanicum is where you can watch a Shakespeare production under the shade of native oaks and with the scent of 15th and 16th century herbs in the air. It’s the hybrid theater / botanic garden founded by actor Will Geer, better known to many of us as Grandpa Walton from the TV series The Waltons. Geer was not only a Shakespearean-trained actor who had performed on Broadway and in numerous films, but he was also a horticulturalist — and when he founded his artist collective on his Topanga acreage in 1951, he included every plant ever mentioned in Shakespeare’s works in his garden. Today, this “garden theater” is a teaching facility as much as it is a performance venue, with kids of all ages coming from all over to learn The Bard’s words, techniques of stage combat and a little botany to boot. And by using reclaimed wood and building around the protected oaks to create its natural sanctuary for the arts, the non-profit that runs the Theatricum Botanicum has reduced the impact on the environment as much as possible — while providing some accommodations for you to feel comfortable enough to go and stay awhile. Have a walk around the grounds and you’ll see a shack where Geer’s friend Woody Guthrie once lived, various fountains and statuary (including a bust of Geer himself), and even a waterfall that feeds Topanga Creek. The repertory season runs from June to October, this year featuring two Shakespeare favorites (The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream), a musical version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and new productions of other plays such as Other Desert Cities (which won over critics during its 2011 Broadway run) and the 1955 play by Alice Childress, Trouble in Mind, which will be directed by Will Geer’s daughter Ellen Geer. On select “Dinner and a Play” nights, you can enjoy a buffet in the garden before your show; but any show night, you’re welcome to come early, bring a picnic and enjoy the gardens. On-site concessions also available for purchase.
2. Old Zoo, Griffith Park
While we now know the Los Angeles Zoo in its current location along Zoo Drive by the 5 Freeway, from 1912 to 1965 it was located farther into the Griffith Park interior, off a trail near the Merry Go Round parking lot. When its 1930s structures were deemed no longer appropriate for housing animals humanely, they were abandoned and the animals were moved about two miles north. Many of those original structures — including cages, grottos, buildings — still remain, and have been preserved as not only a reminder of the past, but also a quirky place to picnic. The grounds of the “Old Zoo,” as it’s called, are also the outdoor performance space for the Independent Shakespeare Co. and its annual free Shakespeare festival in Griffith Park. This year the program features performances of the comedies Measure for Measure (through July 23) and The Two Gentlemen of Verona (through September 3), both on Saturdays and Sundays as well as select Wednesdays through Fridays at 7 p.m. Seating is first-come, first-served, but you’re allowed to bring your own as long as it’s low (legs shorter than three inches) and set up behind the official chair line. Feel free to bring a picnic and set up on a blanket in the lower area closest to the stage, but leave the booze and the pets at home. Concessions are also available for purchase.
3. Getty Villa, Pacific Palisades
What has become the Getty Villa first started in 1945 as a repository of J. Paul Getty’s personal art collection that opened to the public in 1954, with a 1920s ranch house at its center. Of course, what we know now is a sprawling estate that was modeled after ancient Rome as more buildings were added during the 1970s and 80s — and that wouldn’t be complete without an amphitheater, the result of a 1996 renovation. You can go watch an outdoor show there in a comparatively modern setting, as you sit across from a recreation of a first-century Roman country house that’s full of antiquities. This year’s annual outdoor classical theatre production at the 500-seat Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater is Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides, with shows at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from September 7 through 28. Tickets are on sale, online or by phone, starting July 1. And while all the world may be a stage, so many other parts of the Getty Villa are also used by various theater troupes. This summer, the Troubadour Theater Company’s commedia dell’arte-style “Mercury in Uranus” is staged in the Inner Peristyle (one of the Villa’s four gardens) at 11:15 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays through September 3. Free with advance reservation.
4. Grand Performances at California Plaza, Downtown Los Angeles
Up on Bunker Hill, tucked between the two California Plaza towers and just behind the top station of Angels Flight Railway, you’ll find a “water court” that provides multiple performance spaces for the multi-cultural extravaganza known as Grand Performances, which has brought a bevy of free shows to audiences of all ages every summer for the last 30 years. It’s an experience that’s so good — and so unique — that it almost doesn’t matter what the lineup is. Just show up with your picnic (which can include wine), find a seat and jam out to whatever is being offered. This year’s highlights include a gospel lunch, evenings of electro-cumbia, Cuban, Afro-Latin, and Indian and Pakistani music, Art Garfunkel (of Simon & Garfunkel) in conversation, and multiple renditions of Prokofiev’s Peter & The Wolf in Latin, electro-funk, and classical styles. There’s even an “Ale Academy” in partnership with Angel City Brewery (21+ only, advance RSVP required). And who knows? Maybe after Labor Day, you’ll be able to park your car and have dinner at Grand Central Market and then take the “World’s Shortest Railway” up the hill to see a show. Or leave the car at home and take the Metro Red Line to the Pershing Square station, which is one block and one escalator ride away from the plaza level.
5. Spreckels Organ Pavilion, Balboa Park, San Diego
Although many buildings in Balboa Park that were built for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-17 were intended to be torn down after two years, a couple of "anchor" structures were always meant to be permanent — and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion is one of them. Just beyond the bonsai trees and koi pond of the Japanese Friendship Garden, it rises 75-feet tall and serves as both bandshell and band (with over 5000 pipes inside), holding the unique distinction of being the "World's Largest Outdoor Pipe Organ." The Spreckels Organ Society holds free organ concerts at the Italian Renaissance-style pavilion every Sunday at 2 p.m.; and on Monday nights from June 26 to August 28, audiences can enjoy more free music during the 30th Annual International Summer Organ Festival. Its current civic organist has managed to attract crowds (sometimes of 1000 or more) with somewhat more contemporary and less sacred repertoire — from David Bowie to The Doors — so get there early for a seat. Pets and picnics are both welcome at this outdoor venue; and if you can’t make it to San Diego, you can watch online via livestream.