by Aarin Correa
photos by Corey Lum
A serene goddess in a crown and floor-length white robe floats across a nearly empty stage, accompanied by music drawn from traditional Chinese opera. As the ancient tale unfolds, the goddess and her charge—the mischievous and acrobatic Monkey King—encounter a comical, elaborately costumed cast of characters, including a fierce dragon king, a ridiculous three-horned ogre and an uptight immortal guru. While the goddess helps the naughty monkey discover lessons in patience, compassion and forgiveness, the onstage action is accompanied by a noisy, unscripted chorus: the squeals of laughter and excited whispers rising from the audience of elementary-school children.
An Oahu staging of the play WAR.
A few months later, on another stage across the island of Oahu, four modern-day teenage boys threaten, bully and demean each other against a backdrop of graffiti-coated panels and chain-link fence. They wear T-shirts and baggy pants, their voices angry as they sort out their own relationships with violence, power and the world that waits just beyond adolescence. Save for a few brief moments, there is no laughter from the high-school audience, only thoughtful silence.
In audience, style and message, the two plays—The Amazing Adventures of the Marvelous Monkey King and WAR—differ greatly, but they share a common goal: to help the children of Hawaii make sense of a complex world. This is the mission of the acclaimed Honolulu Theatre for Youth, which for nearly half a century has been entertaining Island kids, while offering them a way of exploring the difficult questions of growing up, based on what HTY Artistic Director Mark Lutwak refers to as "playground politics."
"HTY has a reputation for being a risk-taking organization," says the company’s director of drama education, Dan Kelin II, "because we do more original plays about the community we’re in. Educationally, we continue to explore and experiment, allowing ourselves to take chances."
Founded in 1955 by Nancy Corbett (then the creative drama director for Honolulu’s Department of Parks and Recreation), HTY has since evolved into the only nonprofit professional theater company in the state, employing more than thirty actors, technicians, educators and administrators. Each year, HTY stages some 350 performances of its traveling shows, which reach as many as 120,000 schoolchildren throughout the Islands, ranging from kindergarten through high school. In addition, the company holds public "family showings" of its productions at venues like Ala Moana Park’s McCoy Pavilion and downtown Honolulu’s St. Andrew’s Cathedral.
HTY also offers a variety of educational classes. But unlike theater classes that focus only on performance and the mechanics of acting, HTY’s programs also use the process of drama to help students discover their own opinions and voices, while exercising critical thinking, problem solving and language skills. As education director Kelin points out, it takes time for students to arrive at the moment of discovery, so there’s always a temptation to rush in with the answers. "But that’s not the point," he says. "What we want is for the students themselves to take us there."
This is true of HTYs traveling productions as well. The company’s plays are not chapters from Life’s Little Instruction Manual, with a tidy little moral waiting at the end. No matter what age group an HTY production is geared toward, the story is a journey that poses questions to its audience—What does it mean to be a friend? How do you deal with loneliness? What’s it like to be an outsider? It’s a mark of HTY’s respect for the intelligence of its young audiences that viewers are allowed to look for their own answers.
This kind of commitment has earned HTY an international reputation for excellence, which in turn has lured visiting directors from around the Pacific, and as far away as Russia, Korea, China and Canada. Over the last four decades, it’s also earned the company virtually every award given out by the American Alliance for Theater Education, including an Outstanding New Children’s Theater Company Award in 1962, an Artistic Achievement Award in 1986, and the award for Youth Theater Director of the Year, which went to Kelin in 1995.
This kind of recognition becomes even more impressive when one takes into account the sheer difficulty of HTY’s task. In addition to the logistical nightmares of taking a traveling children’s theater troupe to schools and theaters throughout the Islands, there are such ever-present problems as gymnasium acoustics, assembly-style seating (and assembly-style behavior), and even the occasional misguided pep talk from an overly anxious teacher that kills any chance for laughter or audience participation.