Miriam Ellis International Playhouse Endowment

UC Santa Cruz students present foreign language theater

Students learn language through theater

By Kara Guzman

More than 40 years ago, Miriam Ellis, then a graduate student, began producing French plays at UC Santa Cruz as a way to teach the language.

Ellis, now a professor emeritus of French, is co-producing the 14th season of UCSC's International Playhouse, a free showcase of foreign language theater.

The playhouse was renamed in Ellis's honor this year after the campus secured a $25,000 endowment to help with operating costs.

Theater is already a demanding craft, let alone in a foreign tongue — making for a "complicated but very rewarding" experience, Ellis said.

This year the playhouse features short plays and songs in five languages: Hebrew, Spanish, French, Russian and Mandarin. Directed by their lecturers, foreign language students serve as actors, playwrights, crew and translators. Each play will have text, translated in English, scrolling above the stage.

Ellis said the playhouse is the only one of its kind, with undergraduates performing in many languages on the same bill.

"My really big dream is to make it an open source — to have other schools do this because our students gain so much," Ellis said.

Beyond building confidence in a foreign language, students also gain understanding of other times and cultures, Ellis said. Most students have never been onstage, she said.

"The other thing is, they learn about themselves, which is what college is all about: learning what you're capable of doing," Ellis said.

Senior linguistics major Brittny Fadelli will be performing in a Mandarin comedy written by students, inspired by Lao She's play "Teahouse." Collaborating with other students, some native speakers, to write the script gave her new cultural sensitivity, Fadelli said.

"We got an opportunity to see what are the American ideas of Chinese culture versus Chinese ideas," Fadelli said.

For example, she said she realized compared to others, native speakers have a different stereotype for a Chinese fortune teller.

"There's certain things you can't really translate into English, certain terms and certain ideas," Fadelli said.

Danny Brooks, a senior language studies major, will also perform in the Mandarin play. Speech and language are performance-based, Brooks said, and learning a foreign tongue through theater makes sense. To perform well, actors must understand their lines to emote, he said.

"It takes a little bit of finesse, a little bit of prowess to be able to express ideas," Brooks said.

Spanish language students will perform a short play inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez's short story "Algo Muy Grave va a Suceder en este Pueblo," adapted for the stage by UCSC instructor Marta Navarro.

Navarro said by teaching Spanish through theater, she's gained a new understanding of both literature and theater. Navarro said reading a translation of Garcia Marquez doesn't come close to the experience of the original.

"He can just do wonders with words," said Navarro. "If Garcia Marquez can be popular in English and in so many other languages, you can imagine what magician he is in Spanish."

What's interesting about the playhouse, said Ellis, is seeing commonalities differently expressed. No matter the language, all cultures deal with relationships, she said.

"You see that we're all the same under the skin in many ways," Ellis said.