What Keeps MVT Ticking

A chat with Dwight Martin, Manoa Valley Theatre’s producing director for 32 years:

Are you strictly managerial?

I’m about 95 percent managerial, but because my actual training is in acting and directing, it’s nice to occasionally shake off the dust and see if I remember how. I spend most of my working day in the business office, and I work with the board of directors, board committees and the business staff, but to get involved at the other end of the building, where the actual nuts and bolts of play production takes place, gives me tremendous insight on what it is actually that we’re doing here.

Betty Burdick, Dwight Martin, Rebecca Wyatt, Bree Bumatai

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Betty Burdick, guest director, Dividing The Estate; Dwight Martin; Rebecca Wyatt, stage manager, Dividing The Estate, and Bree Bumatai. Photo by Erich Steinwandt

Anything else you do?

This is all I do. I have no life other than Manoa Valley Theatre.

How would you describe MVT’s niche on the island?

In our six-play annual lineup, we choose different kinds of plays so that it’s a mixed artistic bag. We have two constituents we serve. One is the audience, the second is the artistic volunteers – musical theater, dramatic and comedic talents. By doing a diversity of stage types there’s occasionally something for everybody.

We were founded 43 years ago by a handful of graduate students at UH who wanted to do theater that wasn’t then available in town, more contemporary kinds of things. We’ve tried to stay true to that.

What’s next this season?

Right now we’re in rehearsal for Honk, which opens in June. It’s a 20-year old-show, which we produced 10 years ago, but it’s a family favorite – delightful, light summer fare. It’s Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling set to music, so there we go, back to diversity.

What is your ongoing vision for the theater?

To try to shore us up financially so we’re not quite as susceptible to the annual comings and goings of cash. Artistically, I’m extremely pleased with the way this company has evolved. Having our sights on contemporary comedies, dramas and musicals that we get to showcase in front of Hawaii audiences in their Hawaii premieres is very exciting. Sometimes I’ll get a letter from a subscriber who takes exception to a play that has profanity in it or nudity, and my response to that is we’re not doing shock theater. We’re doing theater that we think are good selections drawn from the mainstay of the theater library, which includes Broadway, Off-Broadway, London’s West End and major regional theaters. We try to do things that are from the last two to four years so that there’s a newness and freshness to our bill of fare.

Any special people behind the scenes?

We have seven full-timers and three part-timers. Everyone contributes enormously in their respective areas. Our associate producer Bree Bumatai is key in shaping the play elements, working with the guest directors and getting the plays on the stage. She’s been involved in theater for four or five decades.

Jeffrey Portnoy is president of the board of directors. He joined the organization in 1979 and he’s provided great leadership. During his tenure we’ve become much more business-oriented, which you have to do when your budget has grown from $121,500, which it was when I joined in 1980, to a current $813,000. We now have 35 members on the board from all walks of life.

Given its graveyard setting, is MVT haunted?

(Laughs) Others have claimed it is. I personally have not had any sightings. I will say this: For a relatively small organization that’s relatively frail financially, as any not-for-profit organization is, we have remarkably good luck. Things that are obstacles and challenges, we always find a solution. I’m not trying to be metaphysical, but there’s some energy behind this company drawn from the volunteers, from the audiences, from the very hard-working, dedicated staff, and perhaps from our garden, as I refer to it, that seems to keep us on a healthy path, where we are continually successful. It doesn’t mean some years we don’t come up short financially, maybe even artistically, but we bounce back. We have incredible resilience, and I afford that to all of those previously mentioned forces which can include the well-wishers who are the ohana in our garden.

Any plans to retire?

I work for a small not-for-profit, and we don’t have a retirement program. I’m going to have to work until I drop.


Fortune And Family Divided

Coming on the heels of the powerful Spring Awakening (which continued to haunt long after it was over), Dividing the Estate is rather tame. Before their matriarch is in the ground, her family congregates at her large Texas home and quibbles over whether or not to divide the family estate. Playwright Horton Foote has won numerous awards for his works, including The Trip to Bountiful, also set in Texas, which TAG produced a few years back. It starred our Island treasure, the venerable Jo Pruden, and she again takes the reins here as Stella, commanding matriarch of the family as well as the stage. The spotlight also shines on Victoria Gail-White as Stella’s demanding, self-centered daughter, Mary Jo, especially in the latter half. Russell Motter as Mary Jo’s husband gives a rich performance as a financially destitute family man, with subtle but complex revelation of character over the length of the show, and Gregory Scott Harris as the family’s aged servant adds depth and family history to the story.

“Dividing the Estate was a Broadway success in the 2009 season,” says producing director Dwight Martin. “It’s very fun to see characters who are grappling with the same kinds of things that we do in real life, and they do it with comedy and drama. It’s not a knee-slapping kind of comedy. It’s one of those human comedies where you sit there and you can relate so much to what the characters are going through.”

The show runs Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinees on Saturday at 3 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. through May 27. Tickets are $15-$30. For more information, call 988-6131.