Every year the International Playhouse attracts a crowd of hundreds. This year, after four nights of shows, the Ninth International Playhouse stayed true to its successful tradition.
Miriam Ellis is the producer of the playhouse as well as the director of the French play. This year the International Playhouse consisted of four plays, one each in French, Japanese, Russian and Spanish — some old, some adapted, and some brand-new. The International Playhouse is Ellis’ pet project, and she has seen it evolve over the years, staging performances in nine of the 12 languages offered at UC Santa Cruz.
“We always have full houses, and we always run out of programs to hand out,” Ellis said. “The students come and they bring their families and friends. We also invite schools like Cabrillo and Santa Cruz high schools. It’s a unifying tool, or an outreach tool, to attract students. We have community people who come, sometimes from far away, to hear something in their own language.”
The playhouse offers students a chance to employ the languages they learn in a classroom in a more interactive way, Ellis said.
“The pieces that we pick have a lot of historical, social, political or psychological elements — besides the comical side, of course,” Ellis said.
This year’s biggest hit was the Japanese play, a musical about three foreign students visiting UCSC. The play was written and directed by Japanese lecturer Sakae Fujita, together with her students.
“They worked for two quarters on the show,” Ellis said. “She had the concept and worked on the show, but the choreography was done by students.”
Choreography ranged from square dancing to break dancing.
“The range of versatility, all of the singing and dancing that they put on, was amazing,” Ellis said.
In many ways it resembled last year’s very successful Russian play, which was also a musical about UCSC entitled “UKSK.” Bill Nickell, a lecturer in Russian literature who wrote and directed the play, had something else in mind for this year’s International Playhouse. This year’s Russian play was an adaptation of a play from early 20th century playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky.
In the preface to his play, “Mystery-Bouffe,” Mayakovsky encouraged future generations attempting to re-enact the play to “change the content, making it contemporary.” And that is exactly what Nickell did — from casting Sarah Palin to staging the foreclosure of heaven.
Third-year Ariadna Anisimova plays an angel in Nickell’s play.
“We had barely six full weeks of rehearsal,” Anisimova said as she waited in the theater for her time to go backstage. “The play is brilliant. It’s more serious than last year’s, but Bill continues to impress me with his innovations. Absurdity is Bill’s expertise.”
Nickell, however, insists that the International Playhouse is primarily about the students.
“What’s important for me is that it’s a chance for the students to learn lines that they can embody and act out,” he said. “It makes the language more personal.”
As for next year, Nickell declined to disclose his next venture. What he can say, however, is that it will be even more experimental.
Ellis, on the other hand, said she was thinking of adapting something.
“But I’m more interested in seeing my students write a play,” Ellis said. “One of them wants to be Napoleon.”
The International Playhouse, Ellis said, allows students “to use their imagination and fantasies and creativity to make a character and function in a different world. It’s much more than just a play.”