By Alan McNarie
Fifteen years ago, Suzi Bond had a career crisis. She’d been directing summer musicals for Volcano Art Center for years when that organization decided to end its theater program.
“My first impulse was to crawl under my blankies and hide, just kind of shutting down,” she admits.
Soon after, cast members of the Art Center’s last show, Man of La Mancha, told Suzi they’d like to take it on the road to other locales on Hawai‘i Island. So she decided to start her own organization to produce it.
“I ran into Peter Charlotte, Bill Chikasuye, Tom McAlexander and Karen Blue,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I’m gonna need a board,’ and they said, ‘Okay, we’ll be on that board….’ About a month later, we were opening Man of La Mancha in Kona and then we played the Palace Theater in Hilo.”
And so was born the Kīlauea Drama and Entertainment Network, or KDEN, pronounced like the pidgin version of “Okay, then.” (It was originally going to be the Kīlauea Drama and Education Network, says Suzi, but the bureaucratic hoops they’d have needed to jump through to create a declared “educational” nonprofit were not worth it.)
In the decade and a half since then, KDEN has produced a musical every summer, with casts and crews of about a hundred and attendances that average about 1,500. Those trademark musicals are only the beginning of the group’s achievements. It’s also produced non-musical dramas, especially mysteries—Suzi is fond of Agatha Christie adaptations.
In Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park every Tuesday, KDEN actor Dick Hershberger dons the clothes and identity of pioneering volcanologist Thomas Jaggar and descends into Jaggar’s historic Whitney Vault seismic laboratory at 10am, noon, and 2pm to entertain visitors with stories of Jaggar’s life and the founding of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. When the park and Kīlauea Military Camp celebrated their bicentennials last year, they called on KDEN to produce a pageant celebrating those events. Dick dug into the park’s and camp’s history to write a script, and KDEN players enacted a surprisingly powerful drama that left many members of the audience in tears.
A KDEN-sponsored amateur choral group, the Volcano Festival Chorus, puts on annual Christmas concerts. Over at the Volcano School of Arts and Sciences, Volcano Village’s charter school, Suzi has created a drama program that she jokingly calls KDEN’s “farm team.”
Not a bad record for a drama company based in the tiny village of Volcano. But then, Volcano isn’t your typical village. It’s chock full of resident artists and scientists, a surprising number of whom have turned out to have backgrounds as amateur thespians and musicians. The group’s reputation for quality productions attracts talent from all over East Hawai‘i.
“I would say maybe a quarter to a third of the folks participating come from the Volcano area, but we draw on a talent pool probably from the entire Puna-Hilo area,” said Bill Chikasuye, a Mountain View-based attorney who has been involved with KDEN from the start.
Volcano offers the company another asset: at the back of Kīlauea Military Camp is the Kīlauea Theater, a little 1927 building with a reputation for some of the best acoustics in the US. It’s been the home of most of the company’s productions. Those wonderful acoustics make it the perfect place for young actors to gain confidence that their voices will be heard, though it does create other challenges. Frequent KDEN musical director Walter Greenwood remembers one show when, to accommodate the action, the theater’s little stage had to be extended out over the orchestra pit, and the orchestra ended up sitting on the stage behind the actors. Still, he says, “The theater’s a very nice place to put on a show. It’s not new and shiny, but it holds a good crowd, and it’s easy to see and hear in every seat in the house. I love working there.”
As with many community theater companies, KDEN faces another challenge: a tight budget. Chikasuye and the other board members scramble annually to get grants that keep ticket prices affordable and offer at least some small stipends to the director, the music director and the set designer.
The group is “infamous” for recycling sets and props, says Suzi, and for innovating with what they have. A recent production of Beauty and the Beast, for instance, featured oversized teacups made from “cone of shame” dog collars. Local businesses also donate materials and services. “People like Discount Fabric Warehouse and Argus Building Supply and Petroglyph Press have always, always had our backs,” notes Suzi.
“Our goal is to do quality community theater. Just because you don’t have a big budget doesn’t mean that you can’t do a great show,” she says. “You just have to be more imaginative about how you make the show.”
Then there’s the challenge of putting together a rehearsal schedule that includes scores of amateurs with different jobs and/or school schedules. That’s one reason, perhaps, why the big musicals always take place in the summer, when it’s easier to get actors of all ages to participate.
“The whole point around the summer musical is to involve kids, and especially families,” notes Suzi, who revels in the transformation that occurs in some young actors, who often start out so shy that they deliver their lines to the floor, but bloom as they gain confidence: “By opening night they’ve got their faces up and their hands out. They may not be the loudest actors on the stage, but their confidence and self esteem has improved greatly. Those are what I call my wins.”
In addition to the Volcano School of Arts and Sciences students, students from other public schools around the island and college students from UH Hilo also come to practice their acting chops in the shows.
For some, it’s the start of something bigger. Suzi recalls Pedro Ka‘awaloa, for instance: one of those “shy kids” who taught himself how to play piano and earned his musical and acting chops within local productions. He served as musical director and orchestra conductor for KDEN productions before going to study at Harvard, coming back to do KDEN musicals in the summer. Suzi says KDEN’s tradition of doing Gilbert and Sullivan came after Pedro “did Gilbert and Sullivan at Harvard and enjoyed it so much that he came back and said, ‘Hey, let’s do it here.’”
Pedro has gone on to a professional career, but still keeps in touch. Suzi says he spent last summer as a musical director at a theater company in Colorado, and toured in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Dick Hershberger also has fond memories of Pedro: “He’s been my son in a number of different shows. So our relationship is, he calls me ‘dad’ and I call him ‘son.’”
“The young people who are involved have gone on to academic institutions on the mainland where they can advance their acting or vocal careers,” Dick notes. “My hope is that at some point I can fly to New York and see some of the young people here on stage at a Broadway show. I can say, ‘Hey! I worked with them when they were kids.’” ❖
Learn more about the Kīlauea Drama & Entertainment Network at KDEN.org.