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Wednesday, November 26, 2014         

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Steady funding losses might shutter Kumu Kahua Theatre

By John Berger

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One of Hawaii's major community theater groups says it is running out of money and could be forced to close its doors in February.

Harry Wong III, artistic director of Kumu Kahua Theatre, said local playwright Lee Tonouchi's "Da Kine Space" could be the last production for the 40-year-old theater.

"We're right now in the fight for our lives," Wong said at Kumu Kahua's quarters on Merchant Street.

Joining him to make the group's case for immediate public support were Kumu Kahua co-founder Dennis Carroll, Kumu Kahua board Vice President Katherine Aumer and former Managing Director Scott Rogers, who is working pro bono as the group's grant writer. They said Kumu Kahua's state funding had been shrinking over the past two years and that without another source of money, Kumu Kahua is approaching a crisis.

"What we're hoping to do is get enough money from the community to survive through the short term -- all the way until next season," Wong said. "We're asking for a significant amount of money because we're hoping the ... grants are going to come back."

Rogers said the most recent cut represented a loss of about $60,000 needed to cover fixed costs such as rent and utilities.

"In 2006 our budget was $294,000, and then for 2010-2011 it was $264,000, so we've actually gone down in five years. It's not a case of us growing our expenditures or staff size or anything like that," Rogers said.

Charles Medeiros, arts education coordinator for the State Foundation for Culture and the Arts, said Kumu Kahua's state funding comes partially from his agency and in part directly from the Legislature.

The recession cut funding across the board for arts institutions including the State Foundation, which lost 30 percent of its staff, he said.

"People are lucky to get a dime out of the state," he said.

Wong said the state "has been really supportive of this theater (over the years). That tells me that the state believes in our mission."

Wong described the current problem as twofold: Its state grant support is shrinking, while its fundraising efforts need to be revamped.

Ticket prices cover about 45 percent of Kumu Kahua's costs, with state grants covering most of the 55 percent remaining. Kumu Kahua has kept ticket prices as low as possible to keep its productions affordable for local audiences.

The state support that made that possible in the past has been cut by "a whopping 60 percent" in the aftermath of the nationwide financial crisis, he said.

That leaves Kumu Kahua looking for a minimum of $68,000 in immediate funding to get through the rest of the 2010-2011 season, and "closer to $150,000, about half our annual budget," for the 2011-2012 theater year.

Kumu Kahua has cut its full-time paid staff to two from three, Wong said. In the wake of former Managing Director Rogers' resignation, Margaret Welch is the acting managing director.

Kumu Kahua reluctantly raised its ticket prices recently for the first time in 10 years, but while doubling or tripling ticket prices could theoretically bridge the financial shortfall, that also would raise ticket prices above what the group's core constituency can afford. Shows this year have been running at about 80 percent capacity, Wong said.

Carroll noted that when Kumu Kahua was founded in 1971, there was no Hawaii-based theater group with a commitment to present the works of island playwrights and plays about "local" people. That has changed somewhat, he acknowledged, but Kumu Kahua remains the primary venue for home-grown theater and the works of local playwrights.

People can make contributions to the theater at www.kumukahua.org.






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