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DHT Turns 100!

Diamond Head Theatre has entertained and edified Honolulu audiences for a century, and with a nod to the future this anniversary season is aimed at families and young theater-goers

It’s 1914, and Charlie Chaplin is being introduced to the world in his film debut. The world’s first commercial flight, covering 17 miles, is starting service between St. Petersburg and Tampa. And the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is launching World War I. Meanwhile, over on Oahu, far removed from war and planes, but momentous in the entertainment arena, a group has convened, the Society Ladies. They meet to read each other’s play scripts, and in 1915 they formally become an acting troupe, The Footlights. Little did those few forward-thinking women realize that their humble undertaking would prosper over the next 100 years (and change buildings eight times, from the original post on the corner of Merchant and Richards streets) into the vibrant thespian mecca we know today as Diamond Head Theatre.

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Shooting Stars Kira Stone, Luke Ellis, Ryder Goto, Camille Perry and Rylie Goto costumed to represent shows from DHT's 100th season, including 'Mary Poppins,' 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and 'South Pacific.' Also coming, 'Shrek'. NATHALIE WALKER PHOTO

“Culturally, theater was considered rather naughty and risque at that time,” says artistic director John Rampage. “The fact those ladies had the courage to form a theater group was quite astounding.”

And the theater proudly remains cutting edge to this day, often being the first community theater to produce or secure rights to a production, sometimes while it’s still playing on Broadway. Touring companies rarely come through Hawaii, so Rampage and his partner in glorious mischief, executive director Deena Dray, have filled the gap with huge-scale shows involving complex sets and demanding a large and talented cast. Take recent musicals The Titanic, Show Boat and Spamalot. And coming up this season is Shrek.

If ever there were a duo in history meant to work together, that prize couple of nearly 20 years is Dray and Rampage. You see them on stage at the premiere of every show, trading banter and rousing the audience to laughter as they thank season sponsors and deftly make a pitch for continued community support. They’re the yin and yang, the right and left brain, the creative side and the business side.

One of their most successful endeavors is investing in Hawaii’s children. Also going on 20 years is Shooting Stars, which Rampage directs. While DHT offers various theatrical classes, Shooting Stars is a step beyond most theater programs.

“With Shooting Stars, they have to audition,” says Rampage. “It is not uncommon to have 35 to 50 children audition for only five available slots.”

The performance arts program is geared toward children 8 to 16, preparing them for stage and the audition process, and also for the less glamorous side of showbiz, rejection.

“A group of about eight young (Hawaii) men pushed right into main stage productions a few years ago, when they were 14 and 15,” recalls Rampage. “They all moved to New York and they had a miserable time at first because they had never gone through rejection. Rejection does not mean you didn’t do well. In fact you may have done the best you’ve ever done and you still didn’t make it. But you didn’t make it because you were too tall or too short or too young.”

DHT takes passionate youngsters and not only readies them for the stage, but also molds them into contributing community members, many of whom do move on to bright careers in New York and Hollywood. They also tend to come and give back to their Hawaii family.

Here’s a sample of some of the luminaries born at Diamond Head Theatre:

Rebecca Hirota

Hirota’s first production was Sunday in the Park with George in 1994, at age 12. As the little girl, Louise, she was the only child in the cast. A Shooting Star, she also went on to perform in Scrooge and Will Rogers Follies.

After graduating from Punahou, where she also occupied herself with theater, Hirota earned a master’s in acting from Columbia University. She lives in New York and has secured parts on TV shows including Law & Order, as well as appearing in numerous commercials. Look for her in a Verizon commercial airing any day now.

“Working at DHT doing Sunday was the first time I got a taste of what it felt like to do professional theater,” says Hirota, who visits family in Hawaii as much as she can. “I’d worked with Ballet Hawaii before, in the chorus of Honolulu Opera Theatre and with Pacific Northwest Ballet’s traveling company. But in terms of musical theater, the quality of people DHT brought in gave me a taste for something more and made me feel like a real grown up. The people I worked with became my family, and I still see and thank them today for guiding me through my introduction to a different level and experience of theater.”