Hey, Let’s Build An Amphitheater!

I guess it’s pretty obvious that I’m on a sort of quest, a neurotic pilgrim in search of reasons to feel hopeful, maybe even inventing a few along the way. And when I encounter something affirmative and wonderful, my impulse is to point it out and make sure others notice. There is, for example, the Folly Bowl, a beautiful, creative, and slightly loony testimonial to the power of a dream: “Hey, let’s build an amphitheater!”

Its creators are Sue and James, two of my favorite people in the world, a pair of painters who met at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and have shown their work in Los Angeles galleries. James is known for his oil paintings of botanical themes, and Sue has recently shifted to jewelry making. They have crafted lamps of metal and crystal and painted murals together in cities all over the United States. In fact, everything they do seems to be ignited by a lively muse who never sleeps, but the flame is sustained by their passion, commitment, and a plain old willingness to work hard. Their garden, which they are determined to render as an unkempt oasis of nature, is itself a work of art, no doubt the one that matters most.

And it was out here in the garden area that this whole Folly Bowl business started. Shortly after moving into their house on the edge of the San Gabriel Mountains, Sue and James discovered that the hill beneath them was nothing but sand that was rapidly falling away. A retaining wall was essential, and the two began the task of building one. “After a few months of working on this sporadically,” Sue explains, “we took a look one day and saw that if we were to remove one Monterey pine and relocate a certain heap of sandy soil, we would have a full circle, like an amphitheater.” H-m-m-m.

They took out what they had begun and reconfigured it into a circular form, bringing in mountains of dirt, courtesy of the local water company. (The street was dug up one day and huge mounds of earth were destined for the dump; the fellow with the bulldozer was happy to oblige Sue’s request that he deposit it at their place instead.) They later planted the dirt mound with native wildflowers, succulents, and acanthus. Sue estimates that they used about 80 tons of broken concrete, including pool coping to serve as seat edges.

“It’s funny,” reflects Sue, “but if you just decide you will do something and it happens to be large, it isn’t hard if you don’t put a time limit on completion. I have discovered that anything is possible, but I think people get insecure about their abilities to undertake big projects. Even the inevitable mistakes are okay if you learn from them.”

The depth of the amphitheater is approximately 40 feet, the grass at the bottom 35 feet across, and the diameter of the top perhaps 100 feet across. The stage is 15 feet wide and 13 feet deep, and the curved wood back acts as a musical instrument, so the acoustics are surprisingly good. Meanwhile, the plants soften the reverb on the concrete walls, and two newly planted sycamores and a large oak provide shade. The columns supporting the proscenium arch are made out of the Monterey pine that James chain sawed into forms inspired by Brancusi and Sue’s childhood in South Africa.

The bowl took four years to build and Sue and James still amend it a little now and then, but it has been in use for three years and is beginning its fourth season.

“James and I did most of the work ourselves,” says Sue, “and I think people were a bit aghast at the huge piles of concrete that lay about. One of our friends would always carry a bucket of earth up the hill whenever he visited. Others helped us raise the proscenium arch into position. Sometimes it was discouraging, but I read a story about a lady who planted daffodils up at Lake Arrowhead, one at a time, year after year, for about twenty years, and now there is a whole mountainside of them. This sort of made sense to us and we forgot to worry about the mess.”

Sue readily admits that when they began the project, they didn’t know what its use would be. They started out inviting musician friends and held parties where anyone could play anything they liked. Gradually musicians spread the word, and they now have shows about every two or three weeks, consisting mostly of professional artists who don’t fit well into the regular rock, folk, or chamber music scenes. There are microtonal musicians, minimal and ambient musicians, those who play Indian and other ethnic styles, and madrigal singers, as well as shadow theater, some multimedia, and poetry readings.

I can’t resist asking Sue if she can share any particularly colorful Folly Bowl anecdotes. “Do you mean like when the bear walked across the stage?” she replies, “Or when Janet Klein was singing her heart out as a huge garden spider took the opportunity to create an enormous web in the corner of the proscenium arch and anchored it to her microphone, dancing back and forth to the music? At the same time she was dive-bombed by a striped stag beetle. Being a bunch of environmentalists we were all pleased to glimpse the wildlife!”

The community has been supportive and several neighbors regularly attend concerts. Although the music is different, many people are thrilled to hear something unusual or eccentric. More aficionados of modern music are showing up as the word gets out. “Welcome to our world,” declares Sue, “dedicated to love, growth, and as much giggling as possible.”

As for me, I love just knowing that the absurdly unlikely Folly Bowl exists. I love that it celebrates the arts, and the impulse to create, and the better side of human nature. We’re all in this together, but I don’t think it’s healthy to assume prematurely that our cramped little hand basket is headed to hell – plenty of folks are steering frantically around negativity, pushing against the currents of despair, working collectively to change course.

We might just succeed.

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