‘Anime Alice’ Opens At Tenney Theatre

(left to right) Patrick Oiye, Alvin Chan,Becky Dunning, Jr Tesoro, Eric Johnson, Maile Holck and Christina Uyeno. ANTHONY CONSILLIO PHOTOS

(left to right) Patrick Oiye, Alvin Chan,Becky Dunning, Jr Tesoro, Eric Johnson, Maile Holck and Christina Uyeno. ANTHONY CONSILLIO PHOTOS

Think ‘Honolulu Theatre for Youth’ and school fieldtrips may come to mind. But it’s much more, attracting multiple generations to its interactive approach to staging plays, such as ‘Anime Alice’ that opens Friday at Tenney Theatre

Bridging the generation gap is a struggle as old as families themselves. Your father hates your music, as his father did his, your grandmother wants you to get a haircut, and your mom wonders why you would wear that outfit in public. Surely there was a cave-dad who could not understand his child’s obsession with that new-fangled fire stuff.

Finding a way to bring together different generations has become a mission for Honolulu Theatre for Youth in it 61st season.

“We want to start that conversation,” says Becky Dunning, HTY managing director. “This is the way it used to be and this is the way it is now, but there is a place in the middle where we can communicate.”

HTY’s six original productions for this season will try to teach lessons going in both directions on the generational scale — for example, the story of Duke Kahanamoku and his ability to act with grace and aloha during one of the most difficult and contentious times in Hawaii’s history and how that can help young Americans act with that same grace when facing obstacles today.

Lee Cataluna wrote two plays for HTY: Mud Pies, in which a great-grandmother teaches her granddaughter the joy of putting aside her iPad and germaphobia to play in the dirt; and Magic, where lessons flow in the other direction, as a young man teaches a lazy uncle the joy of video games.

Eric Johnson, HTY artistic director

Eric Johnson, HTY artistic director

“That is always how different generations have come together — through sharing stories, whether on porch swings, around campfires or in the theater, and it is an honor to keep doing it,” says Eric Johnson, HTY artistic director.

The most unique of these productions is its season opener, Anime Alice, which hits the stage Friday (Aug. 14) at 7 p.m. in Tenney Theatre. Actor/writer/director Alvin Chan turned the venerable Lewis Carroll novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into a mash-up between traditional Japanese theatre and Saturday-morning cartoons. He first tried this concept last year with Anime Momotaro in Washington, D.C., and received a prestigious Helen Hayes Award for outstanding production for a theatre for young audiences.

“In D.C., the older crowd was like, ‘I don’t know if the kids are going to get this; we are taking a chance with this ’cause it’s this weird Japanese title,'” says Chan. “But the kids saw and were, ‘Oh my gosh! This is Saturday morning cartoons, this is great!’ For us, it is not just that, because we also are adding in Kabuki elements and Japanese puppetry elements with a translation of what a cartoon may look like on stage.”

By combining the old and the new, they believe they have found a vehicle in which different generations can teach each other about their lives while both are enjoying a performance.

“Think about a 7-year-old and the grandparents,” says Johnson. “Grandma from Japan is going to come to see traditional Japanese shamisen being played, and things they recognize as important Japanese culture they want to pass on to their grandkids. The grandkid is going to have to explain why the head bubble blows up here, and the kids own a piece of Japanese culture that they can give to the grandparent. Somewhere in the middle is this really exciting place, and that is where Alice is. It is the perfect form to honor the old and the new, and bring back a story that you should know.”

While some may look at live theatre as an anachronism, the team at HTY thinks of it as the first of the interactive medias.

Becky Dunning, HTY managing director

Becky Dunning, HTY managing director

“We are doing a lot more interactive work because young people are consuming media that is two-way, interacting with their iPads,” says Johnson. “But what is more interactive than live?

“We can talk to you directly or you can participate in a scene. We have had performances where 80 kids have roles in a play. People look at theater as a Luddite solution to technology, but I look at what is that live interaction and how are young people who are used to that interaction going to enjoy a live performance?”

In fact, Johnson believes that, through the theatre, we are returning kids to being interactive with their fellow humans rather than just with their screens.

“There is no substitute for attention in a theater, where you are sitting down for an hour and sharing an experience together,” says Johnson. “It is the opposite of a cell phone, where you are solo.”

According to HTY, it reaches 100,000 people each year, either through audiences or students involved in its drama-education program. HTY teaches summer and

Saturday classes in drama for families, and even offers an introduction to theatre called On Stage, in which families can experience as a group what it is like to work in the dramatic arts.

One of its proudest features, according to Dunning, is that it is the only professional theatre group in the state. HTY actors and designers get regular paychecks and benefits, allowing homegrown talents like Chan to stay here to ply their trade.

“There was a movement nationally to have a professional artist who would be local to a community, who would work in that community, and in many places that didn’t happen because it was so easy to pull people out of New York and fly them in,” says Johnson, who worked in New York and Barcelona before taking over at HTY a decade ago. “Here, it is so difficult to get people, and it is such a different culture that it is important that we have local people doing this work because it is important work.”

In order to grow more local talent, and to keep the arts alive as they are increasingly being pushed out of the public schools, HTY offers professional development for teachers on how they can use acting to reinforce their lessons.

“You can do this by incorporating drama strategies into regular classroom work,” says Dunning, who worked with Manoa Valley Theatre and PBS before joining HTY. “If you were teaching social studies or history, rather than have kids just read about something that happened in the past, it has been shown that, if you get the kids up and on their feet acting out a scene, like Washington crossing the Delaware or the Polynesians migrating to Hawaii, the information gets retained at a much higher level than just reading it on the page.”

On the other side of the generational ledger, HTY is actively bringing in more senior groups for shows, preaching not just its local connections, but the value of the entertainment. A season ticket is not just a pass to six shows. Patrons can return again and again for free, if a particular show spoke to them.

So kids and adults alike who love rereading the same book or re-watching the same television show can relive the same theatre performance, although with every live performance there are new things to pick up on.

“We have always been a theater that lots of different kinds of people come to,” says Johnson. “But if there is a misnomer, it is that it is just a place where their kids go on field trips, not a place we could go as a family. But for the price of one show at the Blaisdell, you can get a whole season of theater experiences for your family.”

For more information about HTY programs, season tickets or acting classes call 839-9885 ex. 720 or go to