By Lance Sabado
Full Casts, Empty Houses
In Hawaii, a subculture of singers, actors and dancers are emerging from the community and finding interest in an age-old art form: theatre. Despite their ultimate purpose to entertain through song, drama and dance, however, these performers are finding themselves in a time when theatre goers are dwindling.
“It’s interesting. If I look at our numbers in recent years, participation in our community theatre shows is definitely up, and attendance to watch these shows is down,” says Castle High School Performing Arts Center (CPAC) Director and Drama Teacher Karen Meyer. “Because people are watching shows like ‘Glee,’ ‘American Idol’ and ‘The Voice,’ we have the luxury of having so many people audition. But the economy is bad, and it trickles down. People don’t have as much spending money to see shows.”
According to freedictionary.com, community theatre is defined as, “theatrical performance made in relation to particular communities—its usage includes theatre made by, with, and for a community.” Here, on the island of Oahu, the Hawaii Community Theatre Web lists 13 community theatres. These theatres house no more than 1,000 people and feature musicals, plays, operas and other live performances. On the windward side there is the Bright Theatre, Paliku Theatre and the Paul and Vi Loo Theatre. On the leeward side of the island, there is Leeward Community College and Richardson Theatre (home of the Army Community Theatre Company, which recently had its “last curtain call” in October, 2011). In town, there is Diamond Head Theatre, Doris Duke Theatre, Kennedy Theatre, Kumu Kahua Theatre, Mamiya Theatre, Manoa Valley Theatre, Princess Kawanakoa Auditorium (home of the Hawaii Repertory Theatre group) and Tenney Theatre (home of the Honolulu Theatre for Youth community group).
Many of these community theatres have been a diverse, well-established and popular part of Hawaii’s culture. Manoa Valley Theatre is in its 42nd season, presenting “contemporary, mainstream and unseen Broadway and Off-Broadway shows.” Some of the theatre’s shows explore taboo, yet relevant topics. Their upcoming production, “Spring Awakenings,” delves into adolescent sex, masturbation and even suicide. The show is so controversial that it was “once ruled pornographic.” As for Diamond Head Theatre, it was established in 1915, making it the third oldest community theatre in the United States. After being around for almost a century, the theatre’s website says that it has “entertained, inspired and enlightened” hundreds of thousands of people through its many performances. On the flipside, Paliku Theatre, located on the Windward Community College campus, opened up recently in 2002. Since it’s opening, it has found continued success. Paliku Theatre Manager Tom Holowach says about this. “My first show here, as manager in 2002, was ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” says Holowach. “We had a new theatre that nobody knew and somehow did a show that was an excellent hit, the first time at bat—which was totally unexpected. This started Paliku on a strong upward path here on Oahu.”
So, why the steady decrease in theatre goers? Well, besides the economic downturn, Holowach attributes the lack of spectators to the changing of the conventional theatre audience. He says, “Our traditional audience is literally dying. Adults tend to want to see well-known shows, mostly musicals, and don’t want to take a chance on the unknown. Younger audiences are not coming to the shows very much because of all the other distractions.”
In attempts to remedy this problem for Paliku Theatre, he adds “We keep the ‘child’ rate for all students and anybody up to the age of 25. At least if it seems affordable, they might be adventurous (sometimes more than older adults). Shows like ‘Spring Awakening’ coming to Manoa Valley have much bigger appeal to young audiences. At Paliku we only do ‘family-friendly shows, so you won’t see ‘Hair’ or ‘Rent.’”
Nevertheless, theatre prospects and partakers are on the rise in current community productions. More boys are even auditioning now. Meyer says about this, “The society is now changing as far guys in performing arts. It’s not as stereotyped as it use to be at all, and that’s wonderful, glorious and to be encouraged. She adds jokingly, “Majority of them are in it for the girls. When you can dance with all these pretty girls, what’s not to like?”
Regardless of their gender, both Holowach and Meyers recognize that Hawaii is already saturated with lots of theatre and acting talent. “It comes as a huge surprise to many what a deep talent pool we have here,” says Holowach. “We have incredibly talented folks who go to the mainland and make their mark, then move back home and have to take unrelated jobs. We get people, often former actors, who have decided just to move here because it’s a special place. The TV shows that have shot and are currently filming here are very happy with who auditions locally.”
Meyers tells a story about this talent, in which American Musical Theatre Composer Dana Rowe came to see some local productions of the musical, “Zombie Prom.” (for which Rowe wrote the music for). Meyers says, “He was blown away by the caliber of talent. He said, ‘This is Hawaii. The theatre here is amazing.’” Meyers adds, “Rowe even talked about someday having a workshop for new play ideas. He saw that Hawaii has such a wide range of talent and that he could do that here.”
Young Pro, Old Soul
Even if Kim Anderson has been doing theatre for over a decade and a half now, she intends to do it as long as possible—if not the rest of her life. At only 21 years old, she is practically a veteran in the business: starting out in Diamond Head Theatre’s (DHT) “Shooting Star” kids program when she was 5 and writing her own plays since she was 15.
“Theatre is something that I’ve always been so passionate about,” says Anderson. “I’m in love with theatre and I hope that I can continually grow in it.”
“It’s almost as if I’ve been doing theatre for as long as I can remember. I feel like there was never a time where I wasn’t doing it,” adds Anderson.
Indeed, Anderson got her start in theatre early on. Her mom Sandy did some community theatre productions also, and Anderson recalls going to the rehearsals. It was there that Kim would remember the show’s lines or songs. This ultimately led her to develop her own in interest in performing, and she did her first show, “Little Shop of Horrors,” when she was 6 years old.
She talks about this first experience of being on stage, “I was really, really shy when I was younger.” says Anderson. “I didn’t talk to anybody. But once I was on the stage, I felt like I could hide behind the music or character. I was way more comfortable in front of a lot of people than I was just one on one.”
Since then, Anderson’s interest in theatre continued, and she has done about a dozen shows to date—eight of which she has been cast as the lead role. Currently, she is starring in DHT’s “Titanic,” as one of the two female leads.
Yet, as much as Anderson loves performing, she also loves the writing and producing aspects of theatre. She even has a pen name, “Kitsune,” which means “fox” in Japanese and represents her cultural heritage. Under this pen name she has written, produced, directed and starred in five plays with her self-started troupe, “The Triple Threat Theatre Company.” The troupe usually consists of six people: Anderson, her sister Sachi, her boyfriend Tony, and three other male friends. In the shows, the group sings, acts, and does some improvisational theatre at New Hope Leeward.
Even with all her experience, Anderson remains meek and humble. In one of ˙†he most memorable theatre experiences she’s had so far, she talks about how fortunate she felt to work with such a talented cast. She says, “One of my most memorable experiences was playing Dorothy in DHT’s 2003 production of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ I was 13 and it was my first leading role. I was privileged to work with a director who came in from New York and taught me a lot of essential techniques. She was very creative and made decisions that pushed the show in a non-traditional direction. For instance, she had me wear a red dress instead of the iconic blue. Also, our wicked witch was glamorous as opposed to hideous . And the Scarecrow was played by an extremely talented female actress and dancer. In 2004, I received the Po’okela award for ‘Leading Female in a Musical’ for the role. This show was what really propelled me forward and gave me further opportunities to learn from some of the best on the island and abroad. It was an honor and I still look back on it with gratitude.”
Just the same, Anderson has always had a mature understanding of the relationships she’s developed through theatre, especially with those who were older than her. “People used to always say that I’m an old soul when I was a kid. I always gravitated to people that were older than me when I was younger.”
She adds about what theatre has done for her overall, “Theatre has really allowed me to connect with people and come out of my shell socially.”
Community Theatre to a Manager, Teacher, Veteran and Newbie
As community theatre brings together people from all walks of life, community theatre has a different significance to different people. From those who manage and teach it to those who have been doing it since they were a kid and those who started when they were an adult, community theatre is special to these people in many ways.
For Paliku Theatre Manager Tom Holowach, community theatre is a worthwhile investment for both prospective spectators and participators. He says, “I have potential customers ask all the time whether the show is any good (probably because it is at a community college, and they are expecting only student performers.) I tell them to give us a try and see. It’s not a huge investment, and they are all pleasantly surprised. I constantly get people stopping to talk to me in the lobby as they leave, telling me they have seen professional productions of the show we have just done and that they thought ours was better. With the decrease in funding for the arts, both in schools and for non-profits, community theatre is one of the few places you can see quality live performances at a reasonable cost.”
As for the participators, he adds, “I recommend that anybody audition for a show or work offstage because it is hard work, but enormously, personally rewarding. Although participants aren’t paid in money, what they earn in friendships and life skills are totally worth its weight in gold.”
To Karen Meyer, Castle High School drama teacher, the lessons community theatre teaches and the sense of belonging that it creates is what makes it special. “I think theatre is a wonderful vehicle for teaching acceptance and tolerance. Everyone has a part in theatre. Whether you’re a technician, a dancer, or whatever it is, we accept you as you are.”
Meyers then remembers a reference to theatre’s unsaid acceptance policy made by DHT Director John Rampage. In an acceptance speech for a lifetime Po’okela award, Rampage said that on tour they told him, “If you’re in emergency, and you’re in another country, the first place you go to is a U.S. embassy. If you can’t go to a U.S. embassy, go to a theatre and say that you’re an actor. They will accept you because you’re one of their own. They understand you and will see what they can do to help.”
For theatre veteran, Kim Anderson, community theatre is about the immediacy and intimacy of being on stage. “That’s what I love about the performing arts; it’s so fleeting,” explains Anderson. “It only lasts a split second and then it’s gone. There’s really no way to capture it, which makes it far more precious.”
She adds, “There’s a lot of art, like painting, that can last forever. But things that can’t be captured or held on to makes it special, makes you really pay attention to it, connect with it and take advantage of it.”
To theatre newbie, Levi Oliveira, the social aspects of community theatre have made it so encouraging and gratifying. He says, “I’ve made a lot of friends through theatre, many of them which I am really close to. They are my second family.”
Oliveira shares a story about these friendships in one of his most memorable theatre experiences. “When we did ‘Once on this Island’ at Paliku, which is a musical that deals with love and death, I was in a very dark place,” says Oliveira. “My grandma was diagnosed with cancer. Because I was going through some of the same things the show was about, people in the cast were very supportive. The fact that I had people that were there for me in that show during that emotionally confusing and sad time made it more special.”