Beyond the Yellow Brick Road: A Honolulu Theater Makes a Move

There’s lots to like about the new performance space for The Actors’ Group (TAG) in downtown Honolulu.

TAG—you’re it! See The Actor’s Group perform in its new Chinatown home, the historic Mendonca building.

Photo: David Croxford

There’s the antique couch that greets you in the foyer; the comfortable audience seating for 50—a perfect size house for an intimate, but not in-your-face, theater experience; the weathered red brick peeking out from behind the set walls; and the roomy lanai that wraps around a greenery-filled courtyard, just right for a charming intermission.

Eric Nemoto is one of TAG’s founding members and serves as its current president. His favorite thing about the theater’s new digs? “The air conditioner! We don’t take anything for granted. Good air conditioning, running water—I hate to be so basic. We’re still in that honeymoon phase, but I’m like,  wow.”

TAG artistic director Brad Powell: "We have had the best actors to work with.  It really boggles my mind."

Photo: Mark Arbeit

In Honolulu’s theater community, TAG is known as the go-to place for a good, straight play, the kind in which dialogue isn’t the white bread that surrounds juicy song-and-dance numbers. Since its first full season in 1999, TAG has racked up an impressive number of Pookela honors, often dominating the performance categories for plays—but, until recently, seeing a TAG production meant that you had to suffer for your art.

TAG’s former venue, at the now-defunct Yellow Brick Studio, was in a decidedly non-waterfront part of Kakaako. Says Nemoto: “I used to greet people at the beginning of the productions by saying, ‘You know you’re gonna sweat, because the air conditioner doesn’t really work. Your butt is gonna ache, because the seats are hard. You’re gonna hear the next-door garage, because there’s no soundproofing.” There were barely two dozen seats, and actors had to be careful not to trip over the legs of the folks in the front row.

The rent was cheap, though, and a theater with low overhead costs doesn’t need a river of cash flow. Instead of sticking to surefire blockbusters, TAG put together carefully chosen lineups of thought-provoking, interesting work. Glengarry Glen Ross. Equus. Albee. Pinter.

TAG’s 2002 production of Equus.

Photo: courtesy of TAG


Word got around: The roof might leak, but the plays you’ve been wanting to see are finally here. The group also gained a reputation for riveting performances. “As lousy of a space as it was,” says Nemoto, “for an actor, it was a real turn-on.” Brad Powell, TAG’s artistic director, agrees: “We have had the very best actors work with us. It really boggles my mind.”

As the Pookelas stacked up and the building aged, it became increasingly clear that it was time for a change. After a long search for the right blend of bohemian and comfortable, TAG found a diamond in the rough in the historic Mendonca building in Chinatown’s gentrifying arts district, dense with performance spaces and other urban gems. Now, a lot of late nights and hammered fingers later, there’s a well-designed, well-furnished new theater across the street from Little Village, with the galleries, eateries and watering holes of downtown Honolulu a stone’s throw away.

TAG’s production of Fences.

TAG opened its first production in the new Chinatown space on the auspicious date of 8/8/08. It’s been less than a year, but it looks as though the group has settled in. Props are stacked up backstage—a tiny, non-playing piano, racks of costumes. Elegant wire horses’ heads from a favorite production peer down from a partition in the group’s offices. “This is only our third production here, and already it feels like home,” says Powell. “For 10 years, at the old space—it’s hard to remember how we did that.”

And the future? There’s reason to be optimistic. “Season tickets have increased a lot [in number],” says Powell. Nemoto cautions, though, that it’s a tricky time for a growing theater that wants to keep doing it for love: “Now that we’ve made the commitment to be in that space, our rent has tripled—and that’s our big challenge. I’m staying away from the word guarantee, because you never know, but we hope that we will continue to be the theater that takes risks, and puts forth productions that we want to do, rather than what we have to do.” 

Go to the next page to read about TAG’s next play, Inside Out.


Richard Tillotson, playwright, tears up the university setting with Inside Out.

Photo by: Mark Arbeit

TAG makes a point of supporting new work, particularly from local playwrights. This season it’s got two lined up, and one is playing this month. In 2007, Inside Out, the debut work of playwright Richard Tillotson, was named a National Finalist for the New York-based Christopher Brian Wolk Playwriting Award. It’s a big honor for a first-time playwright, but Tillotson is no stranger to words. If his name sounds familiar, that’s because he served for decades as one of Hawaii’s most prominent advertising and marketing executives. The man with the knack for serving up snappy ad copy has transferred his skills in wordsmithing to a longer form.

Tillotson describes Inside Out as “Survivor in a university setting,” though he adds that the idea came to him before Survivor aired its first episode. It’s a character-driven comedy about scarce resources, high stakes and hard choices: There are four cross-cultural graduate students, each with a distinct personality and past, each with a worthy Third-World issue to study—but there is only enough money for one of them. Throw in a few bureaucrats, a hairball of romantic entanglements and TAG’s signature stellar lineup of director and cast, and you get a play that promises to tickle your funny bone and your brain with equal skill. Says Tillotson, “When you’ve got believable characters in a situation that is both simultaneously awful and hysterical—something that really matters, something you’d really be angry over, something you’d cry over—that’s also when you get the best laughs.”

Inside Out

Jan. 30 – Feb. 22, 2009

General admission: $16 (students, seniors, military get a discount)
Valentines’ Day Special: $14 each for couples.

Visit for tickets.

TAG at the Mendonca Building
1116 Smith St.  Second Floor
Honolulu, HI 96817