My Turn: Aloha Threatre will survive COVID-19

  • Aloha Theatre glows at night in Kainaliu. Built in 1932, the theater was known as Tanimoto Theater until after World War II when it became Aloha Theatre. (LAURA Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file)

A recent story by Charles McNulty addressed the new digital landscape theaters around the world are exploring during the COVID-19 pandemic. He accurately reflected the difficulties we have encountered, and the many questions that plague us as we consider our future. While his concern over potential damage to the theater world is appropriate, all of us at the Aloha Theatre are confident that we will not only survive our current state, but we will thrive as we pass through it.

McNulty’s article focuses on the world he knows, which is professional, big city theater. Things are a little different here on Hawaii Island, where we value our close ties to one another. The Aloha Theatre’s mission is to serve the West Hawaii community, and we deeply feel the responsibility we have to empower the cultural life of participants and patrons alike. Our in-house MainStage theatrical productions are the backbone of our live programming, but we are committed to presenting all performing arts from music to dance and beyond. More than 15,000 patrons pass through the doors of the theater each year, a number that reflects how many of our neighbors enjoy our own programming, as well as the work presented by our community partners and individual artists. None of this would be possible without the commitment of the volunteers who serve as actors, designers, crew, ushers, and all-around helpers; they keep us connected to our mission and are the heart of the Aloha Theatre.

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We began our foray into the digital world with educational offerings from our CREATE program. Education Director Jaquelynn Collier has worked with our instructor team to plan and present a number of classes and workshops, as well as leading ongoing meetings of Aloha Teen Theatre. She is working with Board Treasurer Nicole Gour to present “Wednesday Wonders” each week, a story and craft time for keiki. Since late March, CREATE programming has reach more than 3,000 viewers, proving that virtual programming has a broad reach. We are exploring ways to continue offering online programs when we return to normal as a way to increase our reach to all of you.

While online activities don’t adequately replicate the thrill of live theater, it has become a joyful space for our actors, students, and fans to gather. We are working on our skills, exploring scripts, and sharing time with our theater ohana, who we greatly miss. Our first attempt at a digital production will come later this month; staff member Stefani Pelletier will be leading a table read featuring familiar faces that we will welcome the community to join on a “pay what you can” basis. The cast members of our upcoming MainStage production of “The Laramie Project” are rehearsing with Artistic Director Jerry Tracy on the now ubiquitous Zoom platform, and are delving deeply into the text as they develop their performance. It has been inspiring to watch what can be accomplished when necessity forces us into new approaches to our craft.

The loss of live performances and classes certainly will continue to be very difficult for the Aloha Theatre from a financial standpoint. Ticket and tuition revenue accounts for 55% of our income, and other resources we normally can access have been redirected to frontline COVID-19 efforts. We have made painful cuts to ensure we can remain open, and recognize that more may be necessary. We received a PPP loan and have applied for similar assistance from a number of national, state, and local agencies. Those funds and the generosity of our donors will enable us to continue operating and offering virtual programming at no or nominal cost to all participants until we can return live and in person.

At this time it is impossible to know precisely when we will reopen the Aloha Theatre to the public. The safety of staff, volunteers, participants, and patrons will be of the utmost importance as we evaluate our options. We are working closely with peer theaters to develop safe conditions for rehearsal, performance and the classroom. We are monitoring advisories from the CDC as well as state and local authorities, and are working diligently on cleaning and disinfection protocols. We plan to survey potential participants, families and patrons in June regarding their concerns about reopening, and welcome input from all.

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We hope we will all be able to gather at the Aloha Theatre soon, but in the meantime, we encourage you to join us in the virtual world, where we will keep the theatre alive until we can join together in person.

Melissa Geiger is managing director of the Aloha Theatre.