Arts: Going Pro

Can a professional repertory company make it in Hawai‘i?

Brian Lee Sackett aims to fill the stage—and theater seats—with a professional troupe. photo: Rae Huo

Seeing 640 empty seats each night may discourage some directors, but not Hawai‘i Repertory Theater (HRT) founder Brian Lee Sackett. “We didn’t expect a huge turnout for the first show,” he says of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, HRT’s inaugural production, which drew roughly 70 people each night. “We thought we’d be lucky to get five people.”

Attendance isn’t the only challenge Sackett faces. General auditions in October 2005 did not produce the company of professional actors for which he had hoped. HRT’s space, the historic Kawananakoa Auditorium at Kawananakoa Middle School, is not air-conditioned and needs upgrades. A number of competing theaters already flourish on O‘ahu. So why establish a repertory company?

HRT wants to introduce what Sackett calls “challenging, meaningful theater.” For example, Doubt, by John Patrick Stanley, planned for this spring, centers on a Catholic nun confronting a priest over his suspected sexual abuse of a student. HRT offers such fare in contrast to the more mainstream blockbusters typically offered in town, such as Manoa Valley Theatre’s (MVT) Cabaret, or crowd favorites such as Diamond Head Theatre’s (DHT) Thoroughly Modern Millie.

“I love the work [MVT and DHT do],” says Sackett. “But someone is already doing it.” In fact, his love of theater began with musicals, and he toured the Midwest performing and designing sets, moving to Hawai‘i in 1993 to pursue a master’s degree in theater at the University of Hawai‘i. It was there that his horizons were broadened under the mentorship of theater professor Terence Knapp.

HRT holds auditions on a show-by-show basis, building its company from there. Ultimately, it will employ a full-time company of 12 paid actors under exclusive contracts, showcasing the best local talent available.

A similar company exists at Honolulu Theatre for Youth (HTY). Sackett aims to take the concept further. “Our ultimate goal would be to operate as a LORT [The League of Resident Theaters] theater,” says Sackett. “There’s a commonality in their pursuit of what theater is and what their goal is.” LORT began as a union organization for regional theaters, and now represents an artistic goal as well, spreading professional theater throughout the United States.

By joining LORT, HRT would unite with such renowned theaters as The Actor’s Theater of Louisville, Seattle Repertory Theater and the La Jolla Playhouse. Being a member requires a regular season of at least 12 weeks and an Equity union cast, among other things. Reaching that level of professionalism means a lot of funding, which will ideally come from grants, sponsors and such government programs as the National Endowment for the Arts. This will keep tickets costs at a manageable $22.50 per adult, comparable to community theater prices on the island.

Will it work? Sackett thinks so. “It amazes me that we have an opera in Hawai‘i, which is rare.” On this premise, he is confident an audience for HRT already exists in Hawai‘i. “If we can support an opera, we can surely support a [professional] theater company.”