Leading Kumu Kahua Into the Future — The Donna Blanchard Interview
|February 5, 2013||Posted by Scott Robertson under Interviews|
Scott Robertson is a staff writer for Hitting the Stage. He has appeared as an actor on many of Hawai‘i’s stages.
Donna Blanchard recently marked her one year anniversary as Managing Director of Kumu Kahua Theatre, which hired her at a very troubled time. I had coffee with her to discuss how she got here and how it’s going.
HTS: What brought you to Hawai`i?
DB: Because of my passion for Theatre of Place: telling the story of a place, its history, its people – what that can do for the people themselves as well as the commerce of the area. There are several places that I found throughout the continental US that do that kind of work and I was in cooperation with some people who travel around and help put together those shows. They gather stories, current and historical, and work with communities to stage them, which is a really neat thing.
HTS: They go to different communities to do this?
DB: Communities bring them in. Professional writers, directors, and fundraisers work with community members. They work with actors within the community, but it’s also very important to them that they use non-actors, like a librarian. They’ve had political figures be a part of productions, making the story that much more meaningful.
HTS: Kind of like a Laramie Project idea where you go to the community and you talk to everyone involved?
DB: Yeah, they bring out the stories and put them together, usually as musicals. They’re very tourist/family oriented, and yet they’re very healing for the community members. They do bring out the difficult stories but they’re always couched in a little bit of fluff and “happy, happy, joy, joy.” That sort of production has a long history of working and really helping to turn communities around, not only through the commerce they bring in but through the feeling of community that they engender.
I started looking for a brick and mortar theatre that only focused on community story and I was really surprised that I couldn’t find one. I started talking with Honolulu Theatre for Youth (HTY) as they were preparing a season of pieces written by children who had been involved at the theatre. They were looking for a managing director at the time, and it got down to me and Becky [Dunning]. I’m glad that they hired Becky and I’m glad that I’ve gotten to know her; she’s the perfect person for that job. During that process I got to be friends with [HTY board member] Jane Campbell, and when it was all said and done she asked if I was still willing to come out to Hawai`i, potentially for another theatre. I said to her, “this is my passion; it doesn’t matter where I move.” I had never been to Hawai`i before. People like to vacation there so I thought it must be pretty nice (laughs).
HTS: You weren’t looking to come to Hawai`i, but you were looking for a situation that would match your passion.
DB: Correct. I wanted to be a part of nurturing and supporting that work. I started working with my life strategist to define exactly what I was looking for. Seven days later Jane contacted me, “I want you to look at this website and let me know if I can give them your resume.”
HTS: That was KumuKahua.org?
DB: Yes. I looked at the website and said, “Yes Jane, send my resume,” and within 12 hours [former KKT Board president] Jason Kanda called me! I had literally laid out this job. This is exactly what I want. This is where I want to be and it had nothing to do with possessions or location. This is what I want my legacy to be.
HTS: Say something about what you think your legacy is. What was it even before you came here?
DB: I want to further this work of Theatre of Place. To help make it successful so that it can grow, not only with Kumu. I would like for Kumu Kahua to become the best practice model not only for the Theatre of Place work that they do but also other community-based things. We’re going through some internal architecture changes now to move the theatre from a working board of artists to an organization that also has a fundraising board that supports that work — so that the artists can be artists. That’s hard to do, but we’re going to do it. That was part of my conversation with them when I learned where they were. They said they were ready to make that move.
HTS: Well, the theatre already has a good reputation with the State and gets some funding from them.
DB: Kumu Kahua is supported by the State Foundation for Culture and the Arts. At one time it was much, much more, but funding has decreased across the board for arts organizations. The NEA funds just aren’t there. The people in the office here have worked very hard to see that that funding continues. We also receive support from the Mayor’s office for services. They help us with printing our programs and posters. It is a really good thing to know that our political figures recognize the importance of the work that Kumu Kahua is doing within the community. That was also something that I looked at when I started my conversation with Jason Kanda. I Googled the theatre and I saw that they were in some pretty dire circumstance financially. There was a story in the Star Advertiser quoting [Artistic Director] Harry [Wong] saying basically that they were going to close the doors if the community didn’t help.
HTS: I remember them saying that they needed help to stay open.
DB: And they got it! They also cut expenses to match income. The community wanting to support this organization was really an important part of my decision in coming; that the community believes in Kumu enough to reach into their personal wallets. That’s a good feeling.
HTS: It is neat watching a show or performing at Kumu, to find that the audience are mostly regulars. There are a lot of people who are very committed to Kumu.
DB: We have a lot of subscribers, I think close to 400. That’s a big deal. We survey our audiences, so we know. I think only about 8% of our audiences are visitors. I’d like to grow that number.
HTS: That seems like an opportunity to tell Hawai`i’s stories to people who are here on vacation. They’re interested in what has happened here and most people don’t have any idea.
DB: They don’t see it. What they’re seeing is luaus in Waikiki, which is a side of Hawai`i. But to bring the tourists in has a few stumbling blocks. One is that you don’t come to Hawai`i to sit inside, so that’s difficult right there. But there are people who have vacation homes or co-ops here, returning visitors, who will be interested. It’s a matter of reaching them and that can be very expensive. There are a lot of industries trying to get those tourist dollars! Unfortunately, when Kumu cut their expenses to meet their income, they cut marketing. Everybody does that. When any organization goes through financial difficulties, the marketing budget is one of the first to go.
HTS: Which is what brings in the money. It’s a vicious cycle.
DB: It’s hard for organizations to make that choice, but Kumu did what they needed to. They never cut any of the budgets for the shows themselves. They didn’t cut the art at all. So a big part of my job has been getting the word out about the shows and bringing a consistent brand that is Kumu, making the brochure match the website match the posters match the show programs. We have a lot of talented, wonderful people who are helping out on that but I think we had a very tired staff and Board.
HTS: They had gone through serious financial difficulty and they were exhausted.
DB: The Board didn’t have a Managing Director for a year so they were doing everything. It’s disheartening to do all of that and still see that the funds just aren’t there.
HTS: Did you find that challenge to be exciting? Because, it could be frightening too. “This is a theatre that is in danger of collapsing. Do I really want to uproot myself and go that far?” It was a risk.
DB: Well, I’d been in that situation before. The last theatre that I’d been with was in much the same place and I knew that the components were there. We had a community supporting the organization. We had public officials supporting the organization. I spent over an hour on the phone with [Artistic Director] Harry so I knew that his education, background, and heart were in the right place. I knew that the mission itself was something that I wanted to be aligned with. And I knew that they were only selling about 50% of their seats. So right from the beginning we could double that income, and we’re getting there. All we had to do was tell more people about Kumu. I also knew that I found very little when I Googled the theatre. There wasn’t a lot of publicity out there.
HTS: I did the same thing when I came to Hawai`i. I wanted to join the acting community and Kumu was one of the first results that came up when I Googled “acting Hawaii,” and “theatres in Hawai`i.”
DB: Oh, good.
HTS: But you’re right, there wasn’t much more about it. It clearly wasn’t the biggest theatre, but what they do is very unique.
DB: Very! It’s the only one like it that I’ve found in the United States. It’s certainly the only one devoted to Hawai`i. There are other theatres that do Theatre of Place shows, but they’ll also do Fiddler on the Roof.
People are starting to learn that this theatre is here. I’ve started going out to the businesses in the area and giving them free tickets to the shows so that they will hopefully tell people that Kumu is here.
HTS: I noticed that there are several corporate sponsors in the program. Has it always been like that?
DB: We have a partnership with The Star Advertiser right now, which is really wonderful. We are committed to a certain amount of advertising with them and they basically give us a lot more advertising than we’re paying for. Some of the other organizations that are named in the program are partners in that we do in-kind advertising, or they post the scene for us or have donated food. I believe very strongly in getting people across the threshold of the theatre. I believe that once you come in, you’re going to see what we do and you’re going to want to come back and you’re naturally going to want to support us. It’s getting people across the threshold… and then also recognizing very publicly and loudly anyone who is supporting us. Hopefully we support them, and particularly anyone in the neighborhood. We’ve done a lot of work with the Chinatown newspaper. That little newspaper is doing a lot of amazing things. They in turn have done some really nice things for us. They put part of the script from One Comedy of Erras, which took place in Chinatown, in their paper.
HTS: Not a sales job exactly, but the theatre will sell itself if people just get there.
DB: The mission statement for Kumu Kahua Theatre is that we produce these shows–this Theatre of Place, we work with playwrights to develop these works, we work with artists to develop their talents to participate in these works, and the fourth piece is that we educate our audiences–developing an audience that appreciates what we do. We’re an organization that is doing everything just to keep the electricity on – back in Indiana we would say ‘to keep the heat on.’
HTS: You don’t have that problem here, but you do have to keep the air conditioning on.
DB: Yes, to keep the air conditioning on. You don’t have a lot of time to devote to: “we need more classes,” “we need to offer our audiences more learning opportunities.” We are putting more focus into those areas now. On the second Friday of every production after the show we have a talk story with the playwright if possible, and the director, and Harry is there whenever possible. I facilitate the conversation. We focus on the artistic process so it’s a step above “How did you memorize all those lines?” We are really interested in discussing “What led you to this work? How did you develop this work? What did you bring to it as a playwright?” and “What does the director do when they come in? What is the conversation between the director and playwright?”
HTS: It’s a discussion about the vision and origin of the piece more than the actual production of the piece?
DB: Yes, it really enriches the experience. If you’ve read a piece or seen it somewhere else you feel differently when you go to see it. This is true with Shakespearean pieces. We’ve all seen Shakespeare, but we haven’t seen what [One Comedy of Erras playwright] Taurie Kinoshita can do with Shakespeare. So hopefully we are bringing that level of conversation to our audiences. People are coming to those performances and they’re staying for the conversation.
HTS: You’ve had a good response to the discussions?
DB: Yes, and that’s telling us that it’s working. But we also need to get more scripts developed! They have to be good and they have to be about this place and these people, so there’s one of the arms of our mission statement and we’re working on that, on educating writers.
Kumu always has a summer writing class and this year it was taught by Tammy [Haili'opua] Baker who is now in the UH Theatre department. She has written some Hawaiian language pieces that we’ll be doing as part of our Dark Night series. She is very committed to making sure we get pieces developed. I believe there are pieces out there that already exist that just need some development to be brought to the stage; that there are stories out there waiting to be told, and maybe collaborative work can bring those to life. We’re trying to put together at least one class a quarter, not only in writing but in acting. I came here and immediately asked, “where are the adult acting classes?” Because not only am I an acting instructor myself, but I’d like to take classes, and they aren’t happening here. We should have them, and I think Kumu is just the place to do them.
HTS: So that’s expanding Kumu’s mission to developing the acting community. It’s already in the mission statement to develop community; it’s fulfilling that part of the mission.
DB: There is an educational aspect to working at Kumu. There’s a feeling of constant improvement that goes on there. I want to make that more formal and thereby strengthen our commitment to it.
HTS: I’ve heard from some actors that they get something special from working at Kumu. I’ve heard inspiring stories where they were able to express something, or develop personally.
DB: Part of that may come from the fact that we are allowing people to be themselves. Literally there are people who are born and raised on this island who maybe for the first time in their lives are playing their own race.
HTS: And telling their own stories.
DB: Yes, telling stories that resonate with them, that they heard from their parents. Like the picture bride story. It touches a lot of people’s lives.
We’re working more on having classes for actors and writers. We do a playwriting contest every year. Hopefully more people are hearing about it and getting interested. We’re reaching into the schools more.
I think if you want to see a show, whether you recognize it or not, some part of you has that artistic soul. Otherwise you’d just go to a movie or read. My hope is that some of our patrons who have only considered themselves audience members will say, “I have a story to tell. I want to get involved in a class.”
HTS: Your classes can be more than just acting classes, they can be opportunities for community members to offer material about life in Hawai`i and tell their own stories.
DB: In our Masterclass we had people who paid to observe the class as a silent participant, and they really were participants, all of them. They learned a lot and they also offered us a lot. Imagine being at a rehearsal and knowing there is someone right there. If the director gets stymied on something he can turn to someone who has been watching from day one and say, “What do you think?” They’re another brain in the room. An idea we’ve been batting around recently is offering our patrons a theatre package that includes a first read-through and a rehearsal along with an opening night seat.
HTS: I think people would be interested in that. Like you said, if they have some kind of an acting soul they must be curious about where these things come from.
DB: The Theatre Communications Group regularly surveys theatres and audiences, and they found out that in the last five years the largest growth has been in the area of participatory, more engaged activity such as staged readings and talk-backs. 80% growth in that area; that’s huge! Nobody’s keeping their doors open because of that, but it’s the biggest growth sector in theatre right now.
HTS: I would think it would make for patrons who are more engaged and committed to the theatre.
DB: And they want to support it. They want to be there. They want to keep it open. They believe in it. They want to bring their friends.
HTS: It also fits in with Hawai`i’s tradition of talking story.
DB: Well, talking story is a Hawaiian tradition, call and answer is a Hawaiian tradition, but not a rehearsed play. We need that also.
I don’t think we’ll have a huge number of people jumping on that ticket of the first read-through and a rehearsal, but I think we’ll have a few. I think it will do amazing things for us internally as well, because directors and actors will have an audience who is committed to maintaining our integrity and supporting our process. Now we stand naked in front of them and we have to commit to doing that. It can’t be a show; if it’s a show, throw it away. If you’re really going to invite people into your process, that’s going to require that you go somewhere deeper, deeper than I think we generally go. During the rehearsal process there are always those moments where you feel “Oh man, I was vulnerable.” This will insist on it.
HTS: Actors don’t have an audience until the first preview and then it always feels so different. You’re thinking of bringing that in earlier, that feeling that people are not just watching but caring.
DB: Yeah, and you have a job to do; you have a story to tell. I’m a director also and I always tell actors “Just tell your story. Get out of your way.” This will insist on that.
HTS: How do you feel about your first year as Managing Director of Kumu Kahua?
DB: I feel very positive about it. I said I previously worked with a theatre that was in much the same place as this one, and within three years we were able to start filling the seats, bring money in, and bring more volunteers to the organization. I learned a lot during that process and I think Kumu is on a fast track.
HTS: So faster than three years this time?
DB: That would be nice. Opening Fishing for Wives to a full house was a big deal. The fact that we are going through internal changes is a huge deal. I feel really good about that. It’s hard, but the fact that this Board is willing to look at it is good. We had a really excellent [ad hoc committee] meeting where I presented about 30 PowerPoint pages of my vision to them– it represented a lot of change and it was very warmly received.
I’m feeling very exceptional about it. There are times when I feel very far away from family, and my best friend since we were ten years old is back in South Bend, Indiana. The reason I came here was for this theatre and for this work, so as long as I keep that perspective I’m good. And there are also some very wonderful people on this island.
HTS: You used the words “spirit,” “soul,” and “heart” several times. It seems like that’s a uniting principle for you.
DB: I think it’s a Hawaiian principle too. That’s really the point that I got to in my life that allowed me to come here in the first place: the recognition that if the spirit isn’t there, don’t bother. That is what enabled me to say “Yes.” When I put it all out there and I was facing quitting a very well paid job, selling almost everything I own, and saying goodbye to everyone I knew, I was able to do it because I knew that my spirit was in the right place. I believe that this is where I belong.