This is How Honolulu’s Resilient Arts Organizations are Performing Through the Pandemic
From Broadway to Beretania Street, performing arts shut down early in 2020 and will likely be among the last industries to return to the previous normal.
The year 2020 looked like it would be a good one for Hawai‘i’s performing arts industry. Diamond Head Theatre and the Honolulu Theatre for Youth were financially stable and expanding their audiences, Kumu Kahua Theatre was preparing for its 50th season, the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra welcomed a new director, and the Hawai‘i Opera Theatre was working on making its opera more relevant to the Islands.
Then, the coronavirus forced them to lower their curtains midseason. Stay-at-home and social distancing mandates shut down in-person performances, and while the organizations were assisted by Paycheck Protection Program loans and other financial support, revenues shrank.
“The arts in general are dancing on a knife’s edge as far as our audiences go and finances, so we knew we couldn’t just go dark,” says Andrew Morgan, general director of the Hawai‘i Opera Theatre.
So while many actors and artists exited stage left, the organizations themselves adjusted their existing spaces, shrank casts and shifted to drive-ins and virtual performances. Some changes were improvised, others were accelerated using plans already in place. Yet, they all found a way for the show to go on.
From Theater To Film
Click on Hawai‘i Opera Theatre digital and you’ll find a virtual concert hall filled with a season of five operas and other online content, such as educational videos and an “Opera Kanikapila,” which pairs opera singers with local musicians.
The pandemic accelerated HOT’s transition to present opera in different ways and spaces, says Jason Walter, HOT’s marketing director. “We’re not alone in seeing subscription attrition,” he says. “I think we’ve been in good shape and we’ve had a few years where we’ve actually increased subscriptions, compared to the national trend of year-after-year decline. But opera as a whole has an older audience, so we were trying to figure out how do we adjust.”
Putting on a show during a pandemic looks very different from normal operations. Productions have smaller casts, more on-island talent and the music that accompanies the performances comes from a single piano rather than an orchestra, Morgan says. Filming takes place in HOT’s black box theater, a former art gallery in the Hawai‘i Opera Plaza. It’s a small space, so singers lip sync to songs they prerecord rather than sing live, which can potentially spread the coronavirus.
He adds that HOT is not trying to replicate stage versions of these arias and one-acts; instead, it is embracing the digital medium with what Walter describes as indie opera films. I watched Bon Appétit! Opera in the Kitchen, a one-woman opera based on an episode of Julia Child’s cooking show. HOT Orvis Opera Studio Resident Artist Sarah Lambert Connelly humorously sings and bakes a chocolate soufflé. HOT uses lighting and different camera angles and movements to help tell the story. For example, Lambert Connelly takes advantage of the entire “kitchen” area, and you see her making the cake from different angles and closeups as she mixes the cake batter. I think this gives the audience a fuller and sometimes closer look at what she’s doing than what you’d normally be able to see on a mainstage. It’s a bit more immersive because you feel like you’re in the kitchen with her as she makes a mess.
The Honolulu Theatre for Youth also shifted to a different medium. It launched a series of 30-minute video versions of theater performances called “The HI Way,” which aired on TV and HTY’s website and YouTube channel, and a virtual season of five plays that are either entirely new productions or HTY classics reimagined for the screen.
HTY replaced its subscription model with memberships for families, individuals and educators. Members get access to the plays plus creative and educational content aimed at teachers and parents, such as videos on social emotional learning. Tickets and discounts for in-person performances and classes will also be included in the membership when it’s safe to gather again. Educator memberships are free, though there is a charge for classes to participate in virtual field trips.
HTY has created more than 100 videos since the pandemic began, says Becky Dunning, HTY’s managing director. Most of the content was filmed at Tenney Theatre at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, and all staff members are picking up editing, shooting and lighting skills as a result of this digital transition. Eric Johnson, HTY’s artistic director, says this will enable HTY to continue to work across different media, even after the pandemic.
Live On A Digital Stage
Kumu Kahua Theatre’s 50th season is being presented over—and specifically staged for—the videoconferencing platform Zoom, and these plays look like nothing you’d expect, says Donna Blanchard, the theater’s managing director.
She is right. I sat in the audience of Aloha Fry-Day, a play set in the 1990s that tells the story of four people mourning a friend’s death in the forest by telling stories and taking hallucinogens. Most of the show was presented in Zoom’s gallery view, where actors had their own video windows and used virtual backgrounds to depict them sitting around a campfire and walking around the forest. Kumu Kahua even incorporated image overlays of campfire sparks and sounds of a crackling fire to create a theatrical experience. I felt like I had been transported into the forest and was sitting among the group as they told their stories.
“Very different than the Brady Bunch squares we’ve all gotten accustomed to in Zoom,” Blanchard says.
Four of the five shows in Kumu Kahua’s 50th season were written prior to the pandemic and required some changes to be presented on Zoom, such as figuring out how actors, who are performing their parts remotely, will move in front of their cameras to facilitate the story. In Aloha Fry-Day, actors leaned into their cameras as they “passed” snacks to each other around the campfire.
The theater chose to present its shows on Zoom, rather than as films, Blanchard says, so it could perform live. “It’s much more, I feel, like real life, because there is no editing. You’re only in the moment.”
However, she recognizes that the platform is not a replacement for the stage. “We want to get back into the theater and do shows the way we always have ASAP. And this is another art form that is growing and offering entertainment and shared humanity and stories in the meantime.”
Dave Moss never expected that so much of what he’d do at the helm of the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra would be in front of a camera. The executive director is also the co-host of a weekly online show called Tuning Up with Iggy and Dave, where he and concertmaster Ignace Jang talk story over a bottle of wine, sometimes with a guest. They cover topics that include life as a musician, what Moss does and how the orchestra picks its music. He adds that the show gives the audience a behind-the-scenes look at the orchestra and helps break down barriers that might prevent people from getting acquainted with the art form. For example, Moss and Jang explain orchestra jargon, such as concert, symphony and F minor. About 1,000 people watch the show on demand each week.
“I feel like—and this is pandemic aside—classical music is much like insider baseball,” Moss says.
The orchestra has also been livestreaming performances through its “Sounds of Resilience” concert series since September. Each pay-per-view performance features a smaller group of musicians, masked or separated by clear plastic barriers, physically distanced on the Hawai‘i Theatre Center stage. HSO works with a videographer and audio engineer to create cinematic performances.
“I can’t wait until this is over, for many reasons, but mostly because I think of what this is going to do to our creativity, what this is going to do for our [artistic] output, what this is going to do for our missions as organizations. … Does what we’re doing right now really count?” Moss says. “I think yes, absolutely, it does. I think even more so because of what was before insurmountable is suddenly the only way forward.”
In-Person Performances At A Distance
Diamond Head Theatre did not want to go online.
“For us, live theater is live, and anything other than that is film, it’s movies,” says Deena Dray, DHT’s executive director. “We perform on stage and the audience is part of that. That whole give and take of people laughing and applauding or whatever they’re doing. That energy between the audience and cast is what makes our theater work.”
In the summer and fall, that stage was the theater’s loading dock. Cars pulled into the parking lot for the drive-in concerts, each featuring five performers, who were heard through FM radio. Dray says 40 cars, each with three to five people inside, came to each show.
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“People came and picnicked and brought their pets and they loved it,” she says. “So, if I can do that instead of streaming, I’m going to do that.” Revenue was far less than what a full show would draw, but many people added donations when they bought their tickets.
DHT next resumed one-act stage shows in its theater, though with much smaller casts, social distancing and a maximum seating capacity of just 115 people in a house that holds 475. The first show, Mele Kalikimaka, Honolulu! debuted in December, Dray says. The theater plans to have six in-person shows this year.
And when COVID-19 is behind us, DHT plans to be ready with a new theater with a nearly 500-seat auditorium, an orchestra pit, a fly loft, expanded dressing rooms and additional restrooms. It is scheduled to welcome guests in fall 2022.
The Bigger Picture (And Audience)
I had never seen the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra perform until it aired a televised version of The Nutcracker in December. The made-for-television production pieced together orchestra performances at the Hawai‘i Theatre Center from 2020, along with footage of Ballet Hawai‘i’s past performances, with narration by actress, former professional ballet dancer and Punahou alum Amanda Schull. Despite viewing the show on a 37-inch TV, I felt like I had been transported to the Kingdom of Hawai‘i in 1858, accompanying Clara as she journeyed with her beloved nutcracker and encountering characters such as dancing flowers, sea turtles, fish and the Sugar Plumeria Fairy.
Mine was among 36,000 households that watched The Nutcracker, which aired three times in December. Another made-for-television HSO concert called “Journey Together” with Ron Artis II reached almost 210,000 households. That’s more people than HSO would reach in a full, normal season. “Some of the silver lining with this is we’ve been able to provide our mission of providing music to this community on a scale that we’ve never been able to do before,” Moss says.
Across town, Mānoa Valley Theatre, with its intimate off-Broadway setting, paused traditional shows, pivoted to virtual talk-story sessions early on and is planning hybrid shows that will host both a live audience and a live-streamed show. Other organizations that switched to virtual performances have also been able to reach broader audiences. HTY typically reaches 120,000 students, teachers and families in a normal year. “The HI Way” has had more than 3 million broadcast views since it launched last spring. In fact, Johnson says the number of people who watched an HTY production since then rivals the total audience numbers from the past 20 years of performances. Blanchard says Kumu Kahua’s first two Zoom productions reached more than 5,000 people from 32 states and eight countries. The downtown Honolulu theater seats 100 people.
But larger audiences do not mean increased revenue. Digital streaming doesn’t generate the same amount of money as ticket sales for in-person shows, so performing arts organizations are relying more on donations. And there is another potential downside.
“I’m concerned when we now have to convince people to pay three times as much money to sit in the back of a concert hall and to have an experience that’s nothing like experiencing a camera being 2 feet away in the comfort of your own home, with your own glass of wine, perhaps in your pajamas,” Moss says. “I think we’re going to have a large task at hand to bring people back into the performance hall.”
Still, “I think that digital theater isn’t going to go away,” Blanchard says. “I think that eventually digital theater will emerge as its own art form and live in-person theater is going to come back in the good old-fashioned way that a lot of people are really hungry for, and my guess is … a hybrid is going to exist.”
Regardless of the medium, the purpose remains the same: to engage an audience and fulfill the artists.
After all, performing is what it’s all about, HOT’s Morgan says. “It’s our mission and it’s our drive, our passion.”
How to Watch
Honolulu Theatre for Youth
- A new recorded show premieres monthly, December 2020 through April 2021.
- Members can stream videos and extra content anytime and will receive tickets when on-stage performances return.
- $10–$25 a month
Hawai‘i Opera Theatre
- Five recorded shows through spring.
- Members can stream videos and extras anytime.
- $60 for the full season.
Kumu Kahua Theatre
- Five Zoom productions, September 2020 through June 2021.
- Purchase tickets for the show and date you want to see.
- Pay what you can for a ticket.
Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra
- Five fall and winter virtual “Sounds of Resilience” concerts, more coming this spring.
- Viewers can stream concerts anytime.
- $20 for live concerts, $25 for past concerts on-demand.
Diamond Head Theatre
- Six in-person shows planned for 2021.
- Shows have limited seating and are being offered one at a time.
Diamond Head Theatre
- The theater was founded in 1915 and has survived two world wars, a Great Depression, a Great Recession, tsunami warnings and hurricanes.
- DHT is the third-oldest continually operating theater in the country.
- Famous alumni include Dean Pitchford, who wrote the song “Footloose,” and
Honolulu Theatre for Youth
- Famous alumni include Bette Midler, Rap Reiplinger and Randall Duk Kim.
- Since its founding in 1955, one-third of HTY’s 490 productions have been world premieres.
Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra
- HSO comprises 64 core musicians,
though 20 additional musicians are called in for some larger performances.
- In 2018, HSO premiered an educational concert called the “Symphony of the Hawaiian Birds,” in partnership with the University of Hawai‘i to educate O‘ahu elementary and secondary
students about native birds.
Hawai‘i Opera Theatre
- HOT was established in 1960, though opera in the Islands dates back to the 1850s.
Kumu Kahua Theatre
- Kumu Kahua is one of the only theaters
in the country solely devoted to telling
stories of the people within its geographical footprint.
- Kumu Kahua has developed more than 250 original works.