Playing it forward

Marieke Rothschild's $250,000 gift will keep the Miriam Ellis International Playhouse operating long into the future.

Marieke Rothschild (left) was a re-entry student who needed a little friendship and guidance. Miriam Ellis (right) was her kind and understanding mentor. Now, Rothschild is returning the favor by endowing the Miriam Ellis International Playhouse at UC Santa Cruz. Contributed photo.

Marieke Rothschild was a transfer student, feeling a bit lost at UC Santa Cruz, hoping for a helping hand.

Then she met a mentor who turned her college career around. Miriam Ellis, Rothschild’s kind, gentle, and wise French instructor, took Rothschild under her wing, helping her undertake an ambitious translation project for her senior thesis and find her way on campus.

Now it’s Rothschild’s turn to take Ellis under her wing. More than 30 years after Ellis’s kindness made such a difference in her college experience, Rothschild has made a gift to endow the Miriam Ellis International Playhouse, an annual program of short theater pieces staged in different languages by students in the university’s Language Program (now the Department of Languages and Applied Linguistics.)

Ellis planted the seeds for the playhouse in 1972 when she started offering an annual program of theater and music in French at UC Santa Cruz. The expanded playhouse, created in 2001, often performs to capacity crowds and has run productions in Chinese, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Students perform in several languages on the same bill, with English supertitles making the works accessible to audiences.

Rothschild’s $250,000 gift will allow the high-quality theater with a modest annual operating budget to keep going indefinitely, covering costs to put on productions, as well as staffing. “I feel so strongly about this because, in the two years I was there at UC Santa Cruz, Miriam Ellis was such a big support to me,” Rothschild said.

Rothschild has many stories about Ellis helping her out in large and small ways. She was born in Holland, and had no context for certain American educational traditions, including Phi Beta Kappa, the society for academic high achievers. When she received a letter informing her that she had been selected for this coveted honor, she automatically assumed she was being courted to join a sorority.

“I thought I was getting pledged!” Rothschild said. “Miriam Ellis told me, 'No, no, no, this is an honors society. You need to join.' She taught me to think in a wider scope—that this was not just about me, that I was a woman getting an academic honor, and there were larger implications.”

Ellis is thrilled by the recent gift, and by the chance to reconnect with Rothschild, whom she remembers as an early re-entry student, balancing the demands of family and studies. “Life can be very serendipitous,” Ellis remarked.

The endowment should go a long way, considering the theater productions are “minimalist,” Ellis said. “We’ve got a couple of chairs, a table, a door that often doesn’t open and close. That’s it. It’s not a spectacle, nor is it supposed to be. It’s about the students, the language, and the culture they are sharing with the audience. It’s about young people wearing 17th-century costumes and interpreting rhymed couplets. It’s also about original productions created by students and faculty working together--such as a musical in Japanese that reflects American traditions from that culture’s perspective. But much more importantly, it’s about multicultural, multilingual views of the human condition and the ties that bind us together in shared experiences, no matter who we are or how great our differences seem to be.”

The 17th season of the playhouse will take place from May 14-21, 2017.