Alumna returns to teach theater classes at Gavilan Collegeby Jan Janes on Feb 5, 2021
Isabel Cruz – Gavilan and UC alumna – bridges first generation students,
two continents and multiple centuries in her research and teaching theater arts.
As a first generation student herself, she enrolled, only to leave twice, before returning to achieve her goals.
“I tried different things,” said Cruz, “But I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t have anyone to guide me or help prepare me. And I gave up.”
She came back, a second time. “I went back in, tried again and focused on performing arts,” she said. “There were benefits on a personal level. On education? Not so much.”
She returned again in 2012. “This was the real deal,” Cruz said. “I set goals for myself, declared as a Theater Arts major. My goal was to transfer to UC Berkeley, my dream school.”
And she did.
“I was called a non-traditional student because I wasn’t fresh out of high school,” she said. “I learned I had to grow up a little bit to become a good student at a community college before I tried being a student somewhere else.”
“Isabel Cruz was one of my students,” said Dr. John Lawton Haehl, Gavilan College theater director and instructor. “Meeting her, I was impressed by her fierce intellect and amazing performance background with El Teatro Campesino.
“From the start, I encouraged her to consider the UC system for transfer.”
Cruz learned the timeless adage many college students embrace: you get out of it what you put into it.
Transferring to UC Berkeley, Cruz said, “By the time I learned that, I put everything into it. And I got everything.”
“I spent three years at UC Berkeley, when it should only have taken two,” she said. “But I really wanted to make the most of the experience. I was at my dream school, and I overcame the real dangers of never getting there.”
Cruz took advantage of the UC summer abroad program, and traveled to Ireland to study theater. Her very first airplane trip was a transatlantic flight of ten hours.
“At the beginning, it was something I didn’t think, or know, I felt the need to do,” she said. “But after arriving, I was blown away between the similarities of Latin American culture and history and Irish culture and history.”
Cruz compared two national heroines: La Virgen of Guadalupe in Mexico and Kathleen Ni Houlihan in Ireland, two women who symbolize indigenous rights in the face of longstanding colonialism.
She took a year off, then applied and was accepted at the UCSC Master’s program.
“It was a one-year MA program,” said Cruz. After her work at Gavilan, UC Berkeley and the study abroad program, her vision was set. “I went in knowing what my thesis would be, writing an adaptation of an Irish play.”
“I was privileged to be given the time and space to work on something I was very passionate about,” she said. The thesis became a staged reading, and Cruz directed a workshop production of Playboy of the Golden West in the Barn Theater, the student-run theater at UCSC.
Cruz began with a 1907 play, Playboy of the Western World, written by John Millington Synge, and adapted its concepts to write Playboy of the Golden West. “The concept of the play traveled from the west coast of Ireland to the west coast of California in the 1870s,” she said. Initially she viewed the play as a farce. Working with UCSC students, she refocused her adaptation as not only farce, but comedy and melodrama. The Alta California of the 1870s was transitioning to statehood while San Juan Bautista residents were still proud Californios.
Dr. John, her Gavilan theater instructor had stayed in touch. “I was able to see Isabel in Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard at UC Berkeley,” said Lawton-Haehl. “Her UCSC project, set in San Juan Bautista, infused some of the comedy and performance style of El Teatro Campesino into the script.”
Lawton-Haehl, looking for a signature play to celebrate Gavilan College’s centennial celebration, asked his former student if they could adapt the one-hour play into a longer performance. “It was also a chance to highlight the artistic work of a LatinX Gavilan alumnus,” he said. “I was delighted when Isabel agreed to let us stage and produce her work.”
COVID March occurred after the cast of Gavilan’s production Playboy of the Golden West had been costumed and were in full rehearsals.
“We moved rehearsals into a Zoom room,” said Cruz. “The class staged a Zoom reading of it. They had put so much work into it, but were so disappointed to not perform onstage.”
Heartbreak. For the cast and crew. And for the playwright and director. “This would have been the first full production of it,” she said.
As all of this swirled, Dr. John asked Cruz to think about teaching a class at Gavilan, Theater 3, El Teatro Campesino.
“I have the benefit of being a recent student myself,” said Cruz. “My first time teaching was as TA as a graduate student, and conducting discussion sessions every term at UCSC.”
Cruz begins teaching a new group of students in Theater 3 this week, her second semester teaching at Gavilan.
“I said to the class this week, it is a privilege to share this time and space with you,” said Cruz. Most Theater 3 students are not theater students, and many have never read a play before.
“We start with actos,” she said. “They were performed in the fields, on flatbed trucks, and are several pages long.” The material, developed in the conflicts between field workers and agricultural owners, was written as broad commedia dell'arte-style sketches. “We take the Actos in chronological order, and talk about the forms of Chicano theater.” The one we read at the end of the semester was written 10 years ago, very close to the present.”
Cruz noted that her students, last semester, all identified as Latina and Chicana. This semester’s class demographics match.
“I didn’t have my first – and only – Latina professor until I got to UC Berkeley,” said Cruz. “That was a gift.”
She lives in San Juan Bautista, a few blocks from the El Teatro Playhouse. And she teaches theater at Gavilan College.
“I feel privileged. And I love that I get to do this,” said Cruz.