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Sunny Side Theatre’s Johánna Crystal Creates a More Diverse and Inclusive Theatre Platform

Johánna Crystal is the founder and CEO of Sacramento-based nonprofit Sunny Side Theatre Co. Photo: Sweet Raspberry Studio

Johánna Crystal, CEO of Sunny Side Theatre Co in Sacramento, is breaking down barriers by developing a more diverse and inclusive platform that provides equal opportunities for actors to shine.

“There are so many artists who don’t always get picked. It could be for reasons outside of their control or because of the nature and competitiveness of theatre,” Crystal said. “I wanted to create a space where people can feel like they get their own bit of spotlight.”

Crystal has been performing since she was 4 years old–beginning with ballet, piano and choir. While she currently focuses on playwriting, acting and directing, the arts have always been a core part of her life and family.

“When my sister and I were little kids, we would put on impromptu shows for our parents in our living room,” Crystal said.

While pursuing journalism and theatre at California State University, Sacramento, Crystal observed drama industry norms that she would later aspire to transform.

“I didn’t have a great experience there but it inspired me to build an atmosphere,” Crystal said. “The kind of theatre environment I wanted.”

In 2018, Crystal began writing her first full-length play, “City of Trees”. It follows three childhood friends who reunite as adults to prevent the closure of a classic Midtown diner. As they work together, challenges related to their cultural identities and dark pasts emerge–woven with humor and ending in hope. The play was published and can now be borrowed from Sacramento Public Library. Its premiere at the W.J. Geery Theater in 2019 was a turning point which further fueled Crystal’s desire to form her own organization.

“I didn’t know right away that I wanted to start a nonprofit,” Crystal said. “I reached out to friends I worked on productions with, including Maggie Perez from Cosumnes River College and Sarah Dedal Lopez from Sacramento State. I knew they were two people I wanted to work with.”

Crystal envisioned an ensemble that would provide more opportunities for queer people, people of color and those with disabilities to tell their own stories on stage–with cathartic roles and empowering practices rather than discouraging, exploitative ones. With this goal in mind, she founded Sunny Side Theatre Co.

“Art should be collaborative, and it should be a space where people don’t go away feeling triggered, used, or like they didn’t have a say in what they were doing,” Crystal said. “I want to foster the healing aspect of art.”

Sunny Side Theatre Co is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity dedicated to multicultural representation and mental health awareness in Sacramento theatre. It works to connect disenfranchised theatrical artists of color while producing collaborative art that is both humanizing and economically accessible.

With three productions under its belt, Sunny Side Theatre Co is excited to introduce a new showcase supported by APIs RISE Fund. “Parallel Veins” is a hybrid film and live performance project addressing issues of anti-Asian hate and anti-Black colorism within the community. It aims to spark positive conversations to move forward together and highlight artists who want to make a change too. It will run at the West Sacramento Black Box Theater on May 20-21, 2023.

“We’re a small and mighty theatre company, but we’re growing,” Crystal said. “We are constantly learning the best way we want to do things and what we want to create.”

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