UCSC’s Rainbow Theater celebrates 20 years of breaking down cultural walls and promoting dialogue
For two decades, Don Williams has opened every Rainbow Theater production at UC Santa Cruz with a boisterous call and response between himself and the audience: “Rainbow, Rainbow!” “Rainbow, Rainbow!”
The chant is both a greeting and a celebration between members of the company—the only student-run, multicultural theater in the UC system—and their supporters.
“When we first started the troupe, that calling out was to demonstrate the connections that people made within the organization,” explains Williams, Rainbow’s founder and producer. “There’s still an underlying current about Rainbow that is constantly renewing itself through the thousands of voices that are given the opportunity to tell their stories.”
Rainbow Theater’s 20th anniversary season kicks off Nov. 1 at UCSC’s Stevenson Event Center. Over three weekends, the company will present four plays, a poetry performance, and a dance show.
A special Rainbow Theater alumni weekend will be held Nov. 8–10, featuring alumni-led acting workshops, meet-and-greet opportunities, and the aforementioned student performances.
“The fact that there is a historic train of people that have come through the program, reminds our current students that they are members of a bigger family,” explains Williams. “I’m sure that there’s urgency within them to do a greater job telling their stories, and a sense of excitement to meet the pioneers of this group.”
While Rainbow Theater’s mission—to create unity, higher visibility and an understanding of the various cultures represented within the UCSC community and beyond—hasn’t changed over the years, original members will notice one big difference: the size of the company. In its first 1993-94 season, Rainbow Theater staged three one-act plays with only 30 students. Today, well over 150 students on average audition for the company, and this season boasts a cast and crew of around 90.
“What’s really beautiful about Rainbow is that you don’t need to have any experience in theater whatsoever—if you’re interested, you can be a part of it,” says Rainbow alumna and the program’s administrative assistant, Crystelle Reola. “Because it is all student initiated and organized, students really have the space to communicate what they want to see on this campus.”
Reola recalls being drawn to Rainbow Theater because of its commitment to bringing marginalized communities into the spotlight. For example, showcasing African American, Chicano/Latino, and Asian American playwrights has been a staple of every Rainbow season since its inception. Additional components to the company, like the dance troupe and Poet’s Corner, were added over the years to provide ample artistic outlets for every participant.
“It is so important that we have Rainbow on this campus,” says Reola. “It has engaged so many more students about their culture, as well as everyone else’s.”
This attention to the perspectives of minority groups is fitting, as Rainbow Theater was named in honor of the Rainbow Coalition founded in the 1960s by lead activists in the Black Panthers and Young Patriots, both of which were dedicated to solidarity and unity across cultural difference.
“From what I understand, Rainbow Theater was started to provide a space for students of color to talk about their experiences from different cultural backgrounds,” says Brenda Covarrubias, Rainbow Theater president. “But, it’s not just for people of color—it’s for anyone who is willing to put in the work to bring these shows to life and educate our campus.”
Opportunities to get involved with the company extend beyond acting, and include set design, lighting, costuming, and makeup with the Tech Crew, or Rainbow TV. There is also Rainbow Theater’s Community Enhancement Outreach Team, which travels to California high schools to speak to students about the benefits of higher education.
“You don’t even realize until afterward how many theater fundamentals you can learn with Rainbow Theater,” says Veronica Pulido, a Rainbow Theater alumna and recent UCSC graduate. “There aren’t a lot of theater troupes that cater to the demographic Rainbow works with, and it really does help you network. It’s a stepping stone to connect with a greater community of creative minds.”
Those networks are something that the current president, Covarrubias, hopes to learn a lot from during alumni weekend. Having attended Rainbow productions since seventh grade, she believes that those enduring relationships are a big part of what has sustained the company for so long.
“The Rainbow family is a huge supportive community of artists that encourages everyone to speak up and tell their stories,” says Covarrubias. “Working with the alumni in person will help bridge the gap between generations, and ground the current members in how far this organization has come.”
Rainbow Theater’s fall season runs Nov. 1-17. All six shows will be held at UCSC’s Stevenson Event Center, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. Admission is free for UCSC students with an ID, $7/seniors and non-UCSC students with an ID, and $10/general. For tickets and info, visit cadrc.org/rainbow-theater.html or call 459-1861.