Taking Center Stage
Karen Meyer learned a long time ago that she was good at making people laugh. It’s a good talent to have for the Castle Performing Arts Center director, whose latest production, “Seussical Jr.” — which promises lots of good fun that is funny — opens this week in Kaneohe.
Oh, the thinks you can think when you think about Seuss.
Karen Meyer, director of Castle Performing Arts Center, thinks a lot about Seuss lately. That’s because she is directing Seussical Jr., one of the most performed shows in America, for local audiences playing Feb. 23-25 at the Ronald E. Bright Theater in Kāne‘ohe.
Meyer’s previous production was Les Miserables that played last November to sellout audiences. While busy rehearsing Seussical Jr., she’s also preparing CPAC’s next show of the children’s classic The Velveteen Rabbit, set for March 23-31.
She has her hands full, that’s for sure. More accurately, she has her heart full. Theater life is second nature to Meyer, an educator who heralds the importance of arts to the intellectual and cultural development of youth and adults.
For many years, she worked in the shadow and under the mentorship of the late Ronald E. Bright, who founded CPAC in 1984 as a learning and entertainment center. The center annually serves hundreds of students in grades 5-12 in Windward O‘ahu.
The 670-seat theater located at Castle High School in Kāne‘ohe is a living monument to its founder’s inspiring artistic endeavors and talent tailoring.
“Mr. Bright” took awkward elementary to high school students and turned them into polished Broadway-caliber performers. His name was his promise — a bright future.
When Bright retired, Meyers took full rein of CPAC in a seamless transition thanks to decades of their close collaboration and co-stewarding of the performing arts center.
The recent staging of Les Miz was a tribute to Bright, who claimed it was his favorite show because “it transcends humanity.” It is Meyer’s favorite, too.
But it also marks the start of a new era at CPAC under Meyer, who carries on a theatrical tradition and legacy.
Since she is cast in this prized community role, Mid-Week decided to spotlight her background and beliefs to reintroduce her. To aspiring stage performers, she is the mystical Cat in the Hat who makes things happen now.
Meyer was born in Buffalo, New York, in the year of the rooster (same as Bright). She graduated from North Tonawanda High School in Niagara County. She became a military wife at age 20 and moved to Hawai‘i, where her husband was stationed. “When the plane landed, I was home,” Meyer says of her first impression of the islands. As an artistic person, the vivid colors of Hawai‘i appealed to her sense of beauty and wonder.
“It’s more than just falling in love with a place,” she says. “I do believe that you are led to a place where you want to be. Fate led me here.”
“The first play I saw in Honolulu was Something’s Afoot at Army Community Theater (Fort Shafter). I was fascinated by the wonderful actors and went backstage to offer my help.”
“They found out I could sew, so a costumer was born,” she recalls.
Her costuming skills extended to other community theaters, including Mānoa Valley.
But soon she was encouraged to try acting and the shy young lady with thick glasses aced her early auditions.
“I auditioned for a (Neil Simon) play called The Good Doctor,” she says. “I got the part of the understudy. Two weeks before opening, the leading lady was hospitalized, and I took over the role.
“It was unlike anything I had felt before,” Meyers adds. “I could make people laugh, and I was good at it. It changed my life.”
More than being bitten by the theater bug, an innate passion was stirred that allows Meyer to use her creative, artistic and educational skills.
Today she is a certified elementary teacher in a subject she loves. Teaching fifthto eighth-graders is dealing with youth at a formative stage of life.
“Actors at that age have the same inhibitions … they’re not sure of themselves,” she says. “Theatre gives them a place to be and belong, where they can express themselves.
“Whether they’re over-achievers who feel weird because they’re the nerds of the class, or underachievers who never find anything that they’re good at, and everyone in between can find a place in the theatre,” she states.
Yet the arts and academia are often at odds, particularly in the face of tight education budgets.
“It’s difficult,” Meyer admits, “but I do see the pendulum going the other way now. People who have done arts know how important they are.”
Castle High is a forerunner in embracing arts education for a well-rounded curriculum. It is not treated as a frill, and Bright had a lot to do with establishing its quality standards.
“Mr. Bright came up with the model called a Learning Center in 1982, and Castle was the first to do a Department of Education pilot program with state funding and endorsement from public-private partnerships,” Meyer says. “Today, there are 29 Learning Centers in the state —best-kept secrets — that get categorical funds.”
Castle’s reputation for performing arts training is so well known that in any given year, over 40 geographical exceptions are made to students wanting to enroll at the Kāne‘ohe campus.
What happens backstage is as much a part of Meyer’s passion and profession as taking a bow at curtain call.
“Once plays are selected, we apply for rights from royalty companies and pay a rights fee based on the theatre size, ticket prices and size of the company,” she states in describing the process.
“Then, we establish a budget and timeline for putting on the show. We assemble a team including costumer, choreographer, musical conductor (if needed) and technical crew,” she says. “I have to be producer (financial/managerial/ logistical), director (creative and performance execution) as well as stage manager in my job.”
“Oh, yes, and promoter-publicist, too,” she adds.
Casting is one of the most rigorous parts of the process.
Meyer’s production of Seussical Jr. will have a cast of 46 from nine public schools.
McKenzee Espiritu, 10, who plays Cat in the Hat, and Drew Bright (founder’s grandson), 10, as JoJo, are from Kāne‘ohe Elementary School. Eleven-year-old Moheni Matavale, who plays Horton the Elephant, hails from Parker Elementary School. Sixth-grader K’syn Parubrub-Kewalo, who vamps on stage as Gertrude McFuzz, comes from Pū‘ōhala Elementary.
Once cast, students devote hours to learning music, lyrics, scripts and choreography. Four weeks from opening, they are on stage in what is known as blocking when the director works out actors’
moves on stage for best position and visibility, lighting effects and dramatic presentation.
“All the elements on stage — actors, sets, props, crew — should move in perfect harmony with each other,” according to the director.
“It’s all about people telling their stories, sharing their emotions, and appealing to people’s hearts,” heralds Meyer. “I’m not here to prepare people for Broadway — although some have attained that goal. I’m here preparing them to be genuinely good citizens in whatever path life leads them. That’s as rewarding as it gets.”
To paraphrase Seuss, “A director’s faithful 100 percent.”
Seussical Jr. opens to the public this weekend (Feb. 23-25). Shows start at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. on Sunday at CPAC’s Ronald E. Bright Theater, 45-386 Kaneohe Bay Drive. Tickets at $12 (senior and military discounts available) are sold online at showtix4u.com.