Mention Cinderella to thousands of Hawaii youngsters and they will tell you about a young Korean woman who rises above adversity to become a K-Pop star and entrepreneur.
“A Korean Cinderella,” written by playwright Alvin Chan and first performed in 2013, opened Honolulu Theatre for Youth’s 2019-2020 season in typical HTY fashion: no glass slipper, no handsome prince, but lots of music and a message about empowerment that the young audience will remember.
“We try to tell stories that other people aren’t telling,” says HTY Managing Director Becky Dunning. “We see ourselves as a conversation starter, both in the classroom and in the home.”
HTY has been telling stories to keiki for the past 64 years. They began when Nancy Corbett, who worked for the City and County of Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation, launched a professional theater and drama education program designed to make a difference in the lives of Hawaii’s young people and families of all cultural and economic backgrounds. The first performance was “Jack and the Beanstalk” and the organization became a nonprofit four years later.
“She had a strong belief that every child should have exposure to the arts,” Dunning says of Corbett.
HTY is still Hawaii’s only professional acting troupe. Its $1,876,000 annual budget supports a staff of 23, including 6 full-time actors and 6 others who are hired for specific roles and talents. It has finished in the black financially for the past 9 seasons, thanks to a combination of ticket sales, grants and private donations.
Its primary audience is students in 539 different schools who range from pre-school to 6th grade. Its main venue is the 300-seat Tenney Theatre at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in downtown Honolulu, but troupes also travel to Hawaii’s 5 other major islands, performing in schools or local theaters.
“A Korean Cinderella,” for example, has scheduled 117 performances statewide with a potential total audience of more than 40,000.
HTY works closely with both public and private schools and with transportation companies to bus Oahu students to Tenney Theatre for performances. Dunning says it has become much easier to get the public schools involved after they stopped “teaching for the tests” a few years ago.
Dunning is proud to point out that HTY has played to more than 5 million people throughout its history and, excluding sports, typically reaches more individuals annually than any other entertainment venue in Hawaii, including the city’s Blaisdell complex. She notes, however, that HTY lost its bragging rights last year to a former Honolulu resident when Bruno Mars sold out 3 performances at Aloha Stadium.
HTY’s top management operates as a 3-person team: Dunning as managing director, Eric Johnson as artistic director and head of the creative team, and Dan Kelin as director of drama education and head of the education team. Its offices on Bethel Street across from Hawaii Theatre lead some people to think that the two organizations are related. They are not, Dunning says.
HTY has 7 plays scheduled for the current season. Under Johnson’s direction, they begin with a theme, followed by discussions among the actors, playwrights and designers. Much of the material is original.
“We try to make each show relevant,” Dunning says.
For example, next on the schedule is the world premiere of “Shhhhhh,” a play about “listening … listening to others … listening to ourselves … really listening and finding your voice … finding the freedom to speak up as well as the courage to enjoy silence.”
The target audience for “Shhhhhh” is youngsters ages 3 and up, but HTY offers weekend performances for the general public. Dunning says HTY shows have a loyal following among parents, grandparents and other adults. Visit www.htyweb.org for details.
In addition to the 7 shows, HTY holds professional development workshops for teachers on how to use art as part of the core curriculum. Artists in residence spend 5 to 10 days in 30 to 40 schools, incorporating drama as part of core subjects. HTY also holds summer workshops in which participants write and perform their own scripts.
I asked Dunning whether any former HTY performers have gone on to noteworthy careers. “Well, there was Bette Midler,” she replied, “and Loretta Ables Sayre.”
Dunning says she was attracted to the performing arts at an early age but determined later that her talents lay more on the business side than on stage. Born in California, she moved to Hawaii at age 10, attended Waikiki Elementary and Punahou schools and graduated high school from what then was The Learning Community. She went on to earn a degree in English from the University of Hawaii.
Her first job out of school was with Manoa Valley Theatre. She then became head of development for PBS Hawaii before joining the Blue Planet Foundation as director of operations and development. HTY hired her as its managing director in April 2011.
A mature organization now in its 65th year, with a balanced budget and the state’s largest audience, Honolulu Theatre for Youth is focusing on “cautious growth,” Dunning says.
Dunning has many of the challenges that other nonprofit executives face, but she says she has a ready-made outlet for dealing with the pressures.
“If I’m having a bad day, I’ll go up to Tenney and watch the kids watch the show,” she says.
Contact Becky Dunning at email@example.com.