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A playhouse like no other

Search anywhere and you won’t find anything quite like UCSC’s International Playhouse, an annual program of short theater pieces staged in different languages by students in the university’s Language Program.

Language lecturer Miriam Ellis planted the seeds for the playhouse in 1972 when she started offering a program of theater and music in French at UCSC.

Now, admirers of the program, including Cowell College provost Faye Crosby, are fundraising for an endowment to keep the theater, which does not charge admission, viable for many years into the future.

In 2001, Ellis and other language lecturers brought Ellis's idea to fruition and founded the playhouse, which has run productions in Chinese, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Over the past few years, the Playhouse has performed to capacity audiences for its four annual free performances and typically offers a program of at least four different languages, with English ‘super-titles’ so the audience can follow along. In 2012, there were 8 languages on the bill; the 2014 season features five.

One recent Playhouse poster advertised such productions as “Three Pots of Tea” by Ting-Ting Wu, performed in Chinese, and “Cheburashka and Crocodile Ghena” by Eduard Uspensky, performed in Russian.

Four years ago, when Ellis approached Crosby about a fundraiser, the two of them “fell instantly to reciting together a classic poem by Pierre de Ronsard that all French school children had to memorize,” Crosby recalled. “I knew in a flash that the fabulous International Playhouse needed an endowment to assure sustainability."  

Crosby sought the help of another Faye — Faye Alexander — also a Francophile and an ardent admirer of Miriam Ellis.  Together they staged a set of elegant $200-a-plate French dinners at the Cowell Provost’s House.

“The dinners were just lovely," Alexander said. "And the (fundraiser) just mushroomed."

Ellis – who still directs the French performances herself -- said the troupe has done a fine job of holding high-quality productions while keeping costs down.

"We don’t put on big extravaganzas," Ellis said. “We do ask for the actors to have a modicum of makeup and costumes, but as far as Hollywood type sets, we don’t have that. It is stripped-down: tables, chairs, and imagination."

Now in its 14th season, the playhouse puts a special emphasis on liveliness, humor, dramatic impact, and authenticity. “Through its diversity, we try to demonstrate the similarity of human experience in different cultures,” Ellis said.

Deanna Shemek, who has joined the campaign, said this honor for Ellis is long overdue. 

"Miriam Ellis is a brilliant teacher; she invented the International Playhouse as a vehicle for language learning at its best. It opens us up to many possibilities: new friendships, employment opportunities, and life-long learning.

"One of the biggest barriers to second-language learning is inhibition," Shemek continued. "For some students, enunciating in a new language through theater allows them to leap over that barrier. Shyness melts away behind the 'mask' of the character."

Those who wish to give to the Miriam Ellis International Playhouse fund may visit UCSC Online Giving, select "Click here to select a gift designation," and search for "International Playhouse." Under "notes or special instructions," donors can mention that they giving in honor of Miriam Ellis. Potential donors may also contact Kathy Rouhier at kathyr@ucsc.edu or at (831) 459-1792.