Issue 6.3: June/July 2003

Creative Risks

by Aarin Correa
photos by Corey Lum

 
An Oahu staging of the play WAR.

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.

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.

 
But even beyond these challenges lies the fundamental question of how to create drama that works for kids in the first place. Even after seven years in the business, HTY Artistic Director Lutwak says he still learns from every production. As an example, he cites a play several years ago "that I thought was really funny, yet it was one of those plays that was funny and also deep, with lots of little ironies. We played it for the family audiences, and it was a hit: People were rolling in the aisles laughing. But then we’d hit the schools, and two out of three audiences would just go dead.

"Then, at the last family show, this ten-year-old boy came up to me and said, ‘You know, I saw this play with my school last week, and I thought it sucked. And now I came back and saw it with my family, and I really loved it. How did you change the play?’" Lutwak finally realized his mistake. Adults’ laughter can help tune young audiences into subtle humor, he says, but when the grown-ups aren’t around, "the kids really aren’t up for irony. They take things very literally and very seriously, very straightforward."

And the thing about children’s theater is: If it’s not working, there will be no polite applause for effort. The actors, crew and director can be faced with total silence—or sometimes worse. "The kids are very honest," says actor Henry James—or "BullDog," as he’s known to friends and fans—who has been an HTY company player for four years. "They don’t censor themselves at all."

Even when they’re enjoying themselves—especially when they’re enjoying themselves—the young audiences are always a force to be reckoned with. One of Lutwak’s favorite examples of this is from a production of Winnie-the-Pooh in which Eeyore, the melancholy donkey, loses his tail. His friend Owl comes across it in the woods, mistakes it for a door ringer and hangs it up on his front door. When Eeyore came looking for the tail, Lutwak says, all hell broke loose in the bleachers.

 
"The whole next scene might as well have been in Polish," he says with a grin. "They’re all screaming, ‘The tail! It’s the tail! Give him the tail! No, no, it’s right there by the door! No, no the other way!’ Five hundred kids, six hundred kids: It’s intense."

"It’s taught me better endurance as an actor," says BullDog of HTY’s tough crowds and rigorous schedule. "We’ll sometimes perform twelve times a week for three to six weeks, and there’s no understudy. If you get sick, you still have to go on. But it’s like boot camp; you wouldn’t be a real soldier without it."

The real payoff for all this effort, HTY staffers say, comes in the moments when they can really see kids "getting it," and they know they are having a tangible impact on young lives. As an example, BullDog cites staging a production of Eddie Would Go, about the revered Hawaiian lifeguard and big-wave surfer Eddie Aikau, on the small island of Lanai. On the other islands, the show had been averaging crowds of about 250 students, but at Lanai High School the number swelled to 600. With kids packing the full length of the gym, the set had to be pulled back to half court, and the actors, without amplification, had to compete with buzzing florescent lights overhead.

"We had to push it to the max," says BullDog. "But the audience totally got it. There were a lot of young Hawaiian kids, and they got to see this show about a young Hawaiian hero."

 
First-time HTY guest actor Scot Davis talks about playing "Tommy" in WAR, the edgy play about teenage aggression. A member of the ROTC, Tommy nonetheless lacks all self-esteem, turning his feelings of inadequacy into anger. As the storyline progresses, his abusive relationship with his girlfriend takes a horrible turn.

At the end of each show, the actors would take the stage in character for a discussion forum, allowing audience members to pose questions and give advice to the boys. At one of the first school shows, a girl in the front row grilled Tommy/Scot: Why does he treat his girlfriend that way? Why is he so angry?

A week later, a group of letters arrived from the high school, addressed to the characters as part of an extra credit assignment. In one, a girl revealed that she was in a relationship with someone like Tommy. She said that she didn’t know why he was so angry, but realized it didn’t matter—she needed to get help. She identified herself as the girl from the front row.

WAR’s director, Tony Pisculli, recalls that one of the most rewarding performances took place at Windward Oahu’s Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility. The audience of incarcerated teens listened intently, stayed focused from start to finish, and, in the end, asked more insightful questions about the play and its issues than the actors were able to answer.

 
"They really got it," Pisculli says. "Their questions were right on."

And so, after forty-eight years of performing to more than five million audience members, the HTY show goes on, despite devastating state budget cuts in the 1980s and ’90s that stripped the theater of 75 percent of its former annual budget. The company’s upcoming season, which kicks off in the fall, will include an operatic retelling of two Dr. Seuss stories—Green Eggs and Ham and Gertrude McFuzz—co-produced with Hawaii Opera Theatre and the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra; a work based on Korean folk tales by celebrated local author Nora Okja Keller, titled When Tiger Smoked His Pipe; and a comic adaptation of The Iliad, by local playwright Yokanaan Kearns.

Also ongoing are plans for HTY to someday build its own venue—a 500-seat theater, skirted by classrooms and rehearsal halls. It’s a $20 million dream, that even in the best of economic times would take immense creativity and determination to finance. But then, HTY has always had plenty of both. `

For HTY performance schedules, call (808) 839-9885, or visit htyweb.org.