Theater Royalty

When Broadway entertainers are fondly dropping the name Ronald Bright as their mentor, the man has earned the title Living Legend. As a tribute to Bright’s several decades inspiring young talent at Castle High School, the class of ’64 is including an 80th birthday bash for Bright at its 50th reunion banquet Aug. 23 at Mid-Pacific Country Club. (Between you and me, he’s actually turning 81!) Though nearly 100 years apart, he shares his true birthday, Sept. 2, with Queen Liliuokalani.

Born and raised in Hilo, Bright went to Hilo High, where he found himself on stage a few times, “though I wasn’t very stagey,” he says. It was a play in his senior year that really lit the theater spark — a production of Huckleberry Finn:


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The author's 'Heiress' cast mates Therese Olival and Ann Brandman with Po'okelas for Leading Female in the TAG production. Photo courtesy of Catherine Sloper

“The teacher needed somebody to play Jim, the runaway negro slave,” the relatively fair-skinned Bright says nonchalantly. “I was the blackest in the class, I guess, so I played the role and enjoyed doing it.”

At UH, Bright joined what was known as the Theatre Guild. His original intent was to become an accountant, “But I really hated it,” he says. He loved theater, but didn’t see it as monetarily viable, so he went into education.

“In those days, when you came out of teacher’s college, you were assigned to a school,” recalls Bright. “Castle was my first assignment, and that was in 1957. At that time, there were no highways, no tunnels ― just curvy, curvy roads coming over the Pali.”

Castle High School and the town of Kaneohe were considered quite remote.

“People said, ‘You’re going to go there? You’re going to be really sorry. It’s a rough school and a far drive.’ You had to take what was assigned to you, so I took it and I loved it. I stayed there for 50 years.”

Former student Patti Ramirez reminisces:

“Our class of ’64 had a lot of earlier success at Castle with Mr. Bright, as he was also our English and Hawaiian language teacher. One thing everyone knew was never get caught chewing gum. Mr. Bright would come up with the most creative ways to teach you never to chew gum in his class, from balancing your gum on your nose while singing, to putting your gum to rest in the lawn by digging a hole, placing a cross and singing Amazing Grace.”

Ramirez remembers when performances took place in “the old gym” as fundraisers to build Castle’s Ronald E. Bright Theatre.

“(When it came to being on stage), Mr. Bright could get you to do anything. No matter how embarrassed you felt, you did it because you wanted to please him and because he made you feel like you could do anything and succeed.”

Bright may have retired from Castle in 2008, but the consummate director is still presiding over shows at Paliku Theatre, including the upcoming Hairspray (Sept. 19-Oct. 12), which he raves about (I’m sure rightfully so, considering last year’s Les Miz just raked in an astounding 13 Po’okela awards, more than any other show, including a director’s award for Bright).

Any free time these days, besides walking Ala Moana Center for exercise, is devoted to Bright’s seven grandchildren. Some are in high school and college, others in preschool and kindergarten. For the latter, Bright proudly offers his babysitting and chauffeuring services between school and home. His three children followed his footsteps by going into education. His eldest, Clarke, taught at Kamehameha Schools and is now the Royal Hawaiian bandmaster. Daughter Jodi teaches at Fort Shafter Elementary, and Michael, who toured nationally with Miss Saigon, teaches at Kamehameha Schools. Both sons help with Paliku musical productions, with Clarke as musical conductor and Michael in singing roles.

“My daughter is a great audience like my wife (Moira),” adds Bright.

Bright cares deeply for his students and prides himself on never missing a performance.

“My greatest joy is putting on productions with kids. It’s exciting to challenge them, and when they surmount the obstacle they feel really good. I tell them, ‘You have to be serious about what you do, love what you do, love each other and be a family.’ All that cliched stuff really works. We like to develop a family of performers who really care about each other.”

Thank you, Mr. B (as he is lovingly known to students), for enriching our community, and happy 81st!

Po’okela Recap

Po’okela night (Aug. 11) came and went with a whoosh of wonderful dresses, awards handed out, gleaming smiles, photos snapped and strewn across Facebook. And it concluded with a four-page list of honorees. Diamond Head scooped up the largest cache with 26 awards. The Actor’s Group, Manoa Valley Theatre, Paliku and Kumu Kahua received 17, 14, 13 and 12 respectively. Standout musicals include Les Miserables at Paliku with 13 Po’okelas, and Spamalot (8), Show Boat (7) and Elf (6) all at DHT. Stellar plays include The Heiress (6) and Resistance, both at TAG (5), and the memorable Flowers of Hawaii at Kumu Kahua (5).

On the eve of a new season, I want to pause a moment, and by way of personal flashback offer a glimmer of the work that goes into some of these productions. I earned a Po’okela in the Ensemble Performance in a Play category for Hawaii Pacific University’s Heritage (which also secured director Joyce Maltby a Po’okela). What no one sees — and no one is expected to see — are the behind-the-scenes fumbles as we rehearse our lines, placement and dance choreography. But once the show is on and we have an audience, unexpected occurrences still happen.

As with any play, when the Heritage cast hit the stage, we summoned our best, even when it meant sick actors on two separate nights — with a trash can literally ready in the wings just in case. The audience never knows about the lines someone skipped that someone else seamlessly covered, actors not hearing final call and missing their stage cue, a slideshow that got stuck or looped, wardrobe disasters including snaps coming undone and necessitating improvisational blocking, or a stubborn dress zipper that insisted on coming all the way down, with fellow actors attempting to covertly zip it back up. These types of idiosyncrasies and loads more beset any production. When they’re happening — how can I describe the consternation that grips an actor when something goes wrong? — multiply stage fright by 100. Only when the final night of the show is over do these mortifying mess-ups become hilarious and memorable, maybe even brag-worthy, battle wounds. In a nutshell, everyone on that Po’okela list, cast and crew, has given their utmost to entertain you, and for a moment create an alternate reality that invites you to laugh, cry, love us, hate us — in some way be moved. To be on that list means that, despite any flubs, we’ve done our job.