Behind The Scenes At MVT
It’s showtime for the 50-year-old Manoa Valley Theatre, which plans on entertaining the masses this season with its usual lineup of well-conceived and highly diverse plays.
Having appeared in 29 shows at Mānoa Valley Theatre throughout the years, local actor Jo Pruden has more than a few memories to share.
Back then, for instance, in the 1970s (Pruden did her first show there in ’74), its current facility had not yet been built. Performances took place in an old wooden church instead — the original structure that came with leased land from Kawaiaha‘o Church. So it wasn’t uncommon for the circuit breakers to sometimes shut off in the middle of a performance, leaving audiences momentarily in the dark. The roof was prone to leaking, too.
In fact, during one particularly rainy evening, Pruden remembers someone holding an umbrella over pianist Donald Yap as he continued to play.
“When it got windy out in Mānoa Valley, which it does quite frequently, and rainy, the rain and wind would make large noises on the roof, and you’d have to adjust your projection,” she adds.
Fortunately, for all involved, those days are long gone. In the years that followed, MVT evolved quite a bit, and has since erected its own building, for instance.
But while much has changed, one thing hasn’t. It still remains as committed as ever to serve as “Honolulu’s Off-Broadway Playhouse.” And as MVT celebrates its 50th anniversary this season, don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
“We’re going to continue doing what we do, I think, and continue to evolve in our ability to deliver a higher and higher standard with that each year,” says Dwight Martin, MVT producing director.
“There always will be diverse plays being written … I think we always will be the ones trying to bring a diverse bill of fare to the community.”
It all began in 1969 with a group of University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa graduate students who formed what they called Hawai‘i Performing Arts Company. When the group acquired land from Kawaiaha‘o Church for a theater — where it continues to reside to this day — all that remained was a graveyard (its most defining feature), bell tower and that old broken-down church.
That, of course, never got in the way of the performing arts group, which eventually sought to raise money for a new facility.
“Everybody said it couldn’t be done — ‘There’s no way this little thing up in the graveyard is going to raise enough money,'” recalls Jeffrey Portnoy, president of MVT’s board of directors.
Proving its critics wrong, MVT did collect enough funds through a capital campaign (with additional help from the city and state) to open the doors of its current playhouse in 1987.
Today, MVT puts on six shows each year, selected by Martin and a committee that reads through anywhere between 30 and 50 scripts every season. Like its audience, the group is comprised of individuals with varied theatrical backgrounds. Martin, for example, admittedly doesn’t know much about musical theater. The result is a carefully cultivated handful of productions that experiment with everything from popular musical comedies to lesser-known topical and political dramas — a fine balancing act that fulfills MVT’s wants and needs.
“I really believe that the theater has a responsibility to its community artistically,” says Martin. “If we just want to do Mary Poppins 5,900 times, well, fine. But when a Pulitzer Prize-winning play comes up — whether it’s about AIDS or the Iraq War or whatever — we’re not drawn to it because it’s sensational subject matter. We’re drawn to it because it’s strong theater.
“We really have a responsibility to bring Hawai‘i’s audiences plays they have not seen before, and plays we think should be produced here.”
That isn’t all that makes MVT quite unlike any other, though.
Its auditorium, which seats roughly 165, also adds to an intimate experience that certainly isn’t hard to come by in lush Mānoa Valley. Then there’s the added allure of never quite knowing what to expect.
It’s not unusual, after all, to arrive at MVT only to find that the space has been reconfigured into any number of different seating styles — proscenium, cabaret and a wedding chapel among them. Shows are sometimes interactive, too. Its current production of Pageant, for example — a female beauty pageant that features an all-male cast — lets four “judges” from the audience vote for a winner each show.
“This theater is an experience,” says Portnoy.
Looking to the theater’s future, Martin and Portnoy are quick to admit that moving MVT forward into its next 50 years will be no easy feat — that is, after they joke about how neither will be here.
They candidly reveal that even now, the theater sometimes struggles not only with maintaining its own identity but also with ever-changing demographics. As the world continues to rapidly change, MVT has found itself competing with other mediums of entertainment (think Netflix) and for the already shortened attention span of younger audiences in particular.
But it’s already doing a couple of things to keep up.
MVT has opened a cabaret bar area outside the theater, for example, a move that has proven particularly popular and an added amenity Portnoy believes crowds these days
expect. It has made social media more of a priority as well, and has connected with new followers along the way.
MVT also has taken a closer look at the selection of shows it offers. This season, for example, promises many of its most popular productions from the past — big-name shows like Avenue Q and The Rocky Horror Show — along with new ones like Allegiance (see accompanying sidebar) for what Martin and Portnoy hope will be an eye-opener.
“Here we are trying to do a diverse play season,” says Martin. “We’re trying to sell people on sampling some shows they haven’t seen before that in our opinions, good or bad, we think are potentially good theater and ought to be shared with them.”
Beyond that, Martin and Portnoy seem to be taking things as they come. As Martin points out, there’s no finite answer to what the next 50 years hold.
In the meantime, MVT remains a committed member of Hawai‘i State Theatre Council. As one of 18 other local theater companies that comprise the group, Martin admits that while there exists a level of friendly competition in the industry, that doesn’t stop other theaters from lending a hand when MVT needs it, and MVT from returning the favor in kind.
MVT often partners with local schools, too, and makes it a point to hire local — a sentiment that hasn’t gone unnoticed by some of its longest supporters. In fact, Richard and Myrna Cundy (who, along with their son, were among the “Bell Ringers” that supported building MVT’s current playhouse) have found that the talent in Hawai‘i more than stands up to its mainland counterparts.
“We travel to New York every couple of years to see five or six plays, and it never ceases to amaze us that when we compare the Broadway play with the same MVT production, MVT often wins,” they share via email.
Perhaps its biggest goal for the future, though, lies in a desire to continue to serve as an example of the profound ways a theater can positively affect individuals and the community at large.
“At the end of the day, we’re telling our own stories,” says Martin. “There are always going to be fascinating stories to tell, and telling them through the medium of theater arts is such an exciting way to do it.”
And, as Portnoy is quick to mention, one point remains salient: “Theater’s been around since … the Greeks. It’s not going anywhere.”
MVT’s Greatest Hits
To celebrate its 50th season, Manoa Valley Theatre is bringing back some of its greatest hits. On stage now, for example, is Pageant, which runs till Sept. 23. Other recognizable titles include Avenue Q (Jan. 10-27, 2019), Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding (May 16-June 2) and The Rocky Horror Show (July 18-Aug. 4).
Two new productions are joining the lineup, too. The first is the world premiere of Loren-zo DeStefano’s Shipment Day. Running Nov. 8-25, Shipment Day tells the story of leprosy activist Olivia Robello Breitha, who was diagnosed with the condition at age 18. The play covers the two years she spent at Kalihi Hospital to the day before she was sent to Kalau-papa on Moloka‘i, where she spent the next 70 years of her life, until her death at age 90 in 2006.
The second is the Hawai‘i premiere of musical drama Allegiance, which tells the tale of a Japanese-American family’s imprisonment during World War II. The play follows Sam Kimura, who joins the army as a way to prove his family’s loyalty, and his sister Kei, who takes up with draft resisters. Allegiance, which originally starred George Takei, was inspired by his own family’s experience in an internment camp.
Unlike its other productions, Allegiance will play at Hawai‘i Theatre March 28-April 7 to accommodate what MVT is expecting will be quite the crowd.
For a full schedule of MVT’s 50th anniversary season and tickets, visit manoavalleytheatre.com.
One For The Ages
Jeffrey Portnoy will tell you that he’s been president of Manoa Valley Theatre’s board of directors “on and off” for 30 years. He thinks. Which is when MVT producing director Dwight Martin will step in and remind him that he was vice president in 1979 before becoming president (for the first time) the year after.
“We kicked him off for about six to eight years,” Martin jokes.
“But I keep cofillback,” Portnoy interjects.
Martin, meanwhile, came to MVT in 1980 to fill his current position after running a small theater in North Carolina.
Both were drawn to MVT because of their own passions for theater. Portnoy had been intent on acting before a rejection from Northwestern University led him to a degree in political science instead (he’s a lawyer today). Martin, on the other hand, studied acting and directing, but “decided I wanted to have a job, you know — actually have food and a place to live.” (Martin continues to selectively act and has appeared in seven MVT productions so far.)
Neither thought they’d be around for nearly this long, though.
“Jeff joined in the 11th season; I joined in the 12th season,” Martin recalls. “We’re like, oh, year 25 — that’ll be someone else’s problem. And here we are sitting here year 50.”
It’s a milestone MVT would never have reached if not for the community that continues to support it.
“I’m thrilled to celebrate the hundreds of community talents who’ve worked here on play productions, and been integral to our success,” says Martin. “To celebrate the theater’s longevity is to celebrate what each and every person has contributed to it … Gratitude can’t begin to express how I feel about it. Without the talents, we’d be just an empty building.
“It has been an honor and a privilege to have been a key member of this organization’s team for the past 38 years,” he adds. “It fills me with joy to think about how we, as an organization, have impacted our community on so many levels. We affect lives. We entertain and we stimulate.”