New Beginnings

Sue Kiyabu • Spotlight: Hawaii • February 6, 2007


A new home, a milestone anniversary and changes behind the scenes mark a turning point for Hawaii’s only professional theatre company.


Honolulu Theatre for Youth is one of the oldest professional theatre companies for youth in the country. It turned 50 years old in 2005, the same year it took permanent residence at the Tenney Theatre and appointed Eric Johnson as its new artistic director. Previously, venues changed with each project, limiting not just play selection, but performance times and technical abilities. With its new artistic director and historical digs right in the heart of downtown Honolulu, the venerable company began a new era.

The 300-seat Tenney Theatre, which is located on the grounds of St. Andrew’s Cathedral (founded in 1867), was dedicated in October 1932. HTY made big changes to the historic theatre to accommodate its needs. The company hung blackout curtains along the Anglican style gothic windows. It also added a light board and multimedia board, upgraded the rigging and electrical systems, repainted the interior, added eight feet of stage and upgraded the sound system.

Outside, they added a small box office. To contrast the staid exterior, they transformed the blacktop leading to the entrance into a Candyland-style, patchwork walkway. “It’s a long time coming,” Johnson says. “Having a permanent home helps us establish who we are and gives people a grounding.”

The new space also gives the company new creative freedom. Prior to its home at the Tenney, each show was created and carried on site. Sometimes they played outdoors, sometimes indoors. Sometimes there was air conditioning, sometimes not. Its new air-conditioned home allows the company to invest and upgrade its media and lighting equipment and also allows for a scene shop and permanent rehearsal space, says H. Bart McGeehan, production manager and resident designer. “We had limitations with each space,” he says. “If we were performing outdoors, we obviously couldn’t do video. There was no theatrical lighting. Now, we are able to do more. Cooler, faster, more interactive shows — in keeping in time with the kids.”

Most children in Hawaii are familiar with HTY, Hawaii’s only non-profit professional theatre company. For more than 20 years, HTY has made a mission ensuring all of Hawaii’s children have access to live theatre. Despite its new home, actors, props and costumes regularly travel throughout the islands — even to the small island of Lanai. Annually, the company gives 300 school performances in addition to the 80 public performances.

That means shows are designed to be stripped down — and quickly. Turnaround time between shows is sometimes less than 48 hours. Each traveling show must break down into standard, airline-regulation luggage sizes. And because smaller islands in the state can only be reached by smaller planes, that limits each piece to 40 pounds and 36 inches in length.

“Designers have to design shows according to different specs,” McGeehan says. “Sometimes we play a 2,000-seat-theatre, sometimes it’s the school gym, but it all has to break down to luggage size.”

And while its work in school gyms under flourescent bulbs isn’t theatrically ideal, it’s estimated that 85 percent of school-aged Hawaii children, who number more than children, see an HTY show annually. This year, HTY celebrated its five millionth audience member.

HTY has an extensive program of outreach and education designed to facilitate original work. In-school workshops, artist residencies, playwriting workshops, developmental workshops for schools and teachers and organizational partnerships with agencies all contribute to new work. One-third of their performances are world premieres.

Hawaii’s large multicultural melting pot, while sharing many of the same values as mainland culture, dictates the plays’ tone and selection. Many of the hour-long plays are written in Hawaii’s Creole English pidgin.

“Even though our work tours other places, what I think is really exciting is that our work really reflects our community in the Pacific, which is distinct and really specific,” Johnson says. “Theatre can reflect your backyard for all its complexities and still be of great interest to others.”

Last year, an HTY original work played the Seattle Children’s Theatre for more than four months. The play, Nothing is the Same, focused on fifth graders on the day of the attacks at Pearl Harbor. Nothing is the Same grew out of a partnership with a school. Fifth graders interviewed students who were in the fifth grade at the time of the attacks. The oral history project was then turned into a play by the playwright-in-residence, Y York. Originally workshopped at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., the play deals with racism and multicultural societies. And though the central characters speak pidgin and its issues are directed toward the Hawaii-based community, the Seattle show sold out before the run began.

This season, HTY teamed with the department of health to promote public and environmental health through a series of six original works. Other collaborations include working with local ska and punk rock bands to create a teenaged focused play based on their music and working with a sexual abuse treatment center to create a play that will be performed only for teenaged males. The latter project is about how men treat women and about sexual violence toward women. It will have curricula for teachers.

“It’s a different kind of partnership, but it’s with a group that’s interested in a social aspect of this community,” Johnson says. “It’s a piece of theatre. It’s not a docudrama or after-school special. Whether it’s working with a local punk band or working with a health agency, those are the kinds of partnerships I want to explore.”

At 52, HTY’s national reputation is solid. But with its new home at the Tenney comes the promise of more contemporary and dynamic work.

Sue Kiyabu is a freelance writer living in Hawaii.

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