The only theater dedicated to the original work of Hawaii playwrights is in dire financial trouble.
First, I must acknowledge my conflict of interest. I have had a long relationship with Kumu Kahua Theatre, which performed my first play in 1998. I have had seven plays produced in the 100-seat theater and have taught summer play-writing courses there. Playwrights get a royalty of $50 per performance, which ends up being about $900 for a play that has taken years to write. Actors get paid a $120 honorarium for the entire three months of rehearsals and shows. It’s not a get-rich scenario. Many of us give the money back to the theater as a donation. Community theater is something people do because they love it.
The most cherished memory I have of Kumu Kahua has nothing to do with any show I worked on. I went one night to see Sean T.C. O’Malley’s "To the Last Hawaiian Soldier" in 2002. There was a group of high school students in the audience who were made to watch the play for a class assignment. Restless and fidgety, it was clear they would rather be seeing a movie like "Spider-Man" or "Transformers."
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Then the lights went down, and the kids were completely swept up in the story of a young man struggling between what is heroic and what is right. In Kumu Kahua’s small space, the audience is often close enough to feel the actors exhale. When the play was over, close to 30 kids waited outside the theater to meet the cast. They chanted to the lead actor, Moses Goods, calling him out of the dressing room. When Goods emerged, the kids started singing to him in Hawaiian in that full-throttle, pep-rally way teenagers have of expressing their highest approval. Goods stood there, his eyes filled with tears.
After the teachers finally herded the students onto the bus, the kids were still so fired up they all came streaming back out to sing to the actors a second time.
In theater there’s always the hope for a connection with the audience. I have never seen an audience so deeply moved by a performance as those kids were that night.
There is the temptation to compare Kumu Kahua’s financial situation to that of the Honolulu Symphony, though the two are very different. Kumu Kahua, which was founded in 1971, has a paid staff of just two people and relies on volunteers. Kumu Kahua also has very low ticket prices—the highest is $20. Attendance at Kumu Kahua has been good, and the plays pay for themselves. Their financial crisis is because of recession-related cuts in grants. The big similarity between the symphony and Kumu Kahua, though, is the awful loss of an arts organization in a place like Hawaii.