Kumu Kahua Theater

Kumu Kahua Theater
Image: Matthew Akiyama

Harry S. Wong

Kumu Kahua Theater / After decades of providing original local plays to the Islands, Kumu Kahua Theatre recently announced that the Lee Tonouchi-penned Da Kine Space may be its last production ever. Artistic director Harry S. Wong explains the situation and what patrons of the arts–no matter what they’re wearing–can do to save the theater from closing.

What do you want for Christmas?

Just for the community to pull through for us. It’s been a week since we went public and the response has been great so far. Truth is, I think I have what I want for Christmas. The next shows in the season are strong and entertaining and educational. As artistic director, I have that. I just want to make sure that it can be presented.

How did this situation happen?

[A] massive amount of grants were cut and [we didn’t respond] quick enough or with urgency. Now we’ve kinda changed the way we do business and I think that [we need] time to implement that.

The implementation time would take one season?

I think so. If we do it successfully it will, because we have all the shows and come January we can start looking for sponsors. We’re doing all these business things that I don’t have the accumen for, and looking at our cashflow, how that can be supplemented with corporate sponsorships.

At this time, where does the theater get its money from?

We get 43 percent from ticket sales. Almost 39 percent comes from grants. When we first did our budget it looked like we were gonna get $80,000. Instead we got [$20,000]. Because the money we make for the shows pays for directors, stipends to actors, the sets, the props, costumes, advertisements and programs. The shows basically pay for themselves. It’s the day to day overhead costs, like my pay, the phone lines, paying for the box office to manage the calls, the Internet, water, electricity… The grants make up for that.

What measures are you taking now?

Although we’re looking at other grants, we’re trying not to make that our major source of overhead funds. We’re gonna try and find sponsors for the shows and the money from ticket sales can help cover overhead.

Another thing is that, Kumu is set up in such a way that the people who sit on the board are basically artists. And they give their time and they build the sets, act and manage the box office at night and that’s basically the board’s main responsibility. The major thing we’ve done is that we want to bring in people on the board who have ties to money.

In the vetting process of that, they have to understand we are gonna be doing controversial shows. I believe that all the theaters in town are doing fine work, but we can’t do Sound of Music. We’re not gonna do it as long as I’m here. We’re not gonna do Miss Saigon because it’s offensive to Asians.

So we won’t be seeing your version of Cats?

I’d rather do Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre than T.S. Eliot.

What kind of fundraising measures are you taking?

We’re gonna do a First Friday. We’re gonna open up the theater before the show on First Friday of February. There’s no donation, we’re just gonna have alcohol and people can make a donation too. It takes at least a year to do a proper, big money-making fundraiser and so it’s that kind of planning that we’re looking to have time for.

Kumu’s a weird animal in the sense that–this is gonna be bad–the fundraisers I liked in the past have been our karaoke fundraiser. I know that people are gonna say that you want people with money to come and they can feel, I don’t know, special. If you don’t make me sound too horrible, I don’t want to sound elitist, but I want people to be able to come in their sweater and sweat pants, because the theater is cold. You need to be a house where everybody is welcome. We’re not gonna do a major ball like the opera where people are wearing Tiffany’s jewelry. Although that’s probably the thing that’ll save the theater, I don’t want the theater to go in that direction and seem exclusive and elitist. I think that’s one of the reasons why local people don’t come to the theater. And they’re having a hard time financially.

You mentioned you’re raising ticket prices. How much is it now?

It’s $20 and it used to $16. We still want to have a student price of $5 on Thursday and Friday.

Are things competitive with other theaters?

I think we all know that we have three major competitions. One is Netflix and the Internet–you don’t have to comb your hair and leave the house. The other is Wahine Volleyball and UH Football–you can drink a beer and spill it and answer your cell phone. And the last, it’s just that we live in paradise. It’s getting [tourists] to think about how they’re going to spend their evening after they’ve been to Germaine’s Luau. People have saved their money to experience staying out at night in the middle of winter wearing a bikini, I’m not gonna stop them from doing that. But if they want to learn something about Hawaii and be entertained, it’s [at] not the other theaters. All of us are trying to create a culture of theater in Hawaii that’s valuable.

What can the common community member do to help?

I want them to come to the shows. I want them to support the mission of putting their lives on stage. I do want their money, don’t get me wrong. If you go to the website you can click onto a Paypal donation [link]. Their donations sustain us until we can figure something out, but I’d rather them come and watch the shows.