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Maui community theater groups set the stage for a new normal

  • COURTESY LUANA WHITFORD-MITCHELL
                                In place of a traditional “ghost light” — a single light bulb left burning on stage when a theater is empty — a Pegasus prop is illuminated on the Iao Theater stage in Wailuku. Filled with hundreds of tiny LED lights, the winged horse was used in “Xanadu,” the last production at the theater before it temporarily closed in March.

    COURTESY LUANA WHITFORD-MITCHELL

    In place of a traditional “ghost light” — a single light bulb left burning on stage when a theater is empty — a Pegasus prop is illuminated on the Iao Theater stage in Wailuku. Filled with hundreds of tiny LED lights, the winged horse was used in “Xanadu,” the last production at the theater before it temporarily closed in March.

At first glance you might think there’s a show happening at the ProArts Playhouse in Kihei. Outside, glossy theater posters are on display. Inside, scenery sits on the stage, props are neatly lined up on a table and costumes hang in the dressing rooms.

The only thing missing? A cast, crew and audience.

In March a production of Ray Cooney’s comedy “Out of Order” was halted midrun in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Today the small storefront theater at the Azeka Shopping Center Makai is seemingly frozen in time, ready for the next performance to begin.

And the show will go on. It’s just a matter of when, said Lin McEwan, executive director of ProArts Inc., the nonprofit that runs the ProArts Playhouse.

“Out of Order” was postponed along with several other shows slated to open in the spring and early summer. Ticket holders were offered refunds, but many opted for a credit or donated the value of their ticket to the nonprofit, which helped offset some of the financial strain.

“As with nearly every sector of the economy, the arts have been hit hard during this time, and ProArts is, of course, no exception,” McEwan said. “That said, when the quarantine has been fully lifted, we are poised to pick up where we left off.”

The latest rules from state and county officials allow most businesses and activities to resume starting Monday with social distancing modifications. But theaters and other public gathering venues are to remain closed until further notice. When theaters receive the green light, McEwan said, “We intend to go above and beyond with regard to whatever safety measures are recommended by our governmental bodies at the time that we are able to safely welcome patrons back to the theater. These measures will mean more costs and man-hours, even for smaller audiences, but we want to take all possible precautions.”

She said the cast of “Out of Order” is eager to get back on stage, and when they do, it may be a live­streamed performance in front of a small, socially distanced, live audience. Until then ProArts will continue an online “Quarantainment” series it debuted in late March.

“We’ve received an overwhelmingly positive response from the community, including both collaborators and viewers, and we are so very grateful for their support,” McEwan said.

Like ProArts, Maui OnStage faces an unknown future. Following the state’s stay-at-home order, the nonprofit hit the pause button on a scheduled production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at Iao Theater. At the time, rehearsals were in full swing, with opening night just a few weeks away.

The show is postponed, and a new date has not been set, said Luana Whitford-Mitchell, executive director of Maui OnStage. “We have every intention of doing this show when we are able to,” she said. “When exactly that will be … it’s anyone’s guess at this point.”

While “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is waiting in the wings, two summer shows, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert — The Musical” and “Madagascar — A Musical Adventure Jr.,” were canceled. Additionally, Maui OnStage had to pull the plug on its spring classes for kids and adults and canceled or postponed several rentals of the theater space.

When the curtain rises again, there will be new health and safety protocols in place, including physical distancing measures for staff, cast, crew and patrons.

“Seating people 6 feet apart means taking out every other row of seats and having people sit with three empty seats between them,” Whitford-Mitchell explained. “A full house for us is an audience of a little over 400. Seating people 6 feet apart brings that down to about 70.”

Those empty seats will deal another financial blow to Maui OnStage. In addition to issuing thousands of dollars in refunds for canceled shows, classes and rentals, Whitford-Mitchell said 75% or more of the nonprofit’s annual budget comes from ticket sales.

“This has been devastating. … Community theaters already work on a shoestring budget, but add on the sudden and overwhelming burden of a global pandemic and nationwide shutdown. Many theaters will not be able to survive this,” she said. “I believe Maui OnStage will survive. We’ll be doing things a little differently for a while, but we’ll be here.”

In line with its counterparts, the Maui Academy of Performing Arts is also in wait-and-see mode. In mid-March the nonprofit paused its spring semester dance and drama classes and pivoted to synchronous online classes.

The spring semester ends June 13, and MAPA will hold summer dance classes and a theater camp online. A decision on whether to offer fall classes virtually or in person is pending.

“There’s just so much uncertainty,” said MAPA Executive Director David Johnston.

Long before the pandemic, Johnston scheduled MAPA’s large-scale musical, which usually takes place in August at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater, for late November. Like so many others, he hopes for a return to normalcy by then but is bracing for a new financial reality due to physical distancing that would allow seating for only about one-third of total audience capacity.

Plans for the production are on hold for now. Johnston and MAPA’s staff and board of directors are actively exploring a number of possibilities, including a hybrid format whereby the show would be performed on stage in front of a scaled-down audience and simultaneously broadcast online pay-per-view style. MAPA is also considering some smaller-scale productions using the hybrid model.

The experience of seeing live theater can’t be duplicated, but watching it online in real time is the next-best thing, and the accessible format might draw new audiences and help build Maui’s theatergoing community, Johnston said.

“It will be a different landscape,” he said. “I’m excited to see what it looks like … and to be a part of shaping it.”

The future may be murky, but Johnston, McEwan and Whitford-Mitchell remain optimistic. After all, Mc­Ewan points out, the bubonic plague didn’t derail William Shakespeare’s career.

“If necessity is the mother of invention, then hardship is often the mother of innovation,” she said. “Despite the inability to gather, artists around the world have found ingenious ways of presenting their work to the masses via virtual means during this crisis. Art survives and it always will.”


To help ProArts, Maui OnStage and MAPA weather the COVID-19 storm, visit proartsmaui.com/support, saveiaotheater.com or mauiacademy.org.


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