A Word With Deborah Goodwin About The Kahilu Theatre’s Status

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Deborah Goodwin is the Executive Director of the Kahilu Theatre and has been in that position for nearly five years now. As a photojournalist, I’ve had the pleasure of working with her and the theatre’s staff since 2016 and was saddened to hear that the venue would be temporarily going dark due to the pandemic. Through my photos and concert review, I documented the Kahilu’s final show, an after matinee with Makana, on Sunday, March 8. The featured image in this article is Goodwin giving her pre-show stage announcement.

I reached out to Ms. Goodwin and offered her the opportunity to update our readers with the current status of the theatre, and she kindly responded with answers to my questions.

Can you describe the chaotic time in early March when the decision was made to close the theatre and postpone events?
The time could be described as crisis management. In the middle of an exceptional season and preparing to launch a tribute year to our 40th Anniversary, we began to hear daily from public health and government officials that rapid change was upon us. As a prior educated and trained biologist from many years ago (microbiology was one of my favorite labs), I was no stranger to “pandemic” and knew it would be added to the public reporting soon after hand washing, sanitizers and other precautions were advised. Our staff and Board leadership began to meet daily to consider the risk/rewards of scheduled events in early March and announced the inevitable halt in public operations on March 14. A week earlier we had rejoiced in the Hawaiian artistry of two concerts presented by Makana on our main stage, aware that our mission to be a place where community, creativity, and inspiration thrive was soon going to be stopped.

Makana’s March 8 afternoon concert at the Kahilu Theatre

How are your staff and crew holding up?
We made the difficult decision in mid-March to cut back our already lean Theatre staff and reduce hours for a “bare-bones” team to conserve resources and prepare for the worst and following official guidelines as a “non-essential” business. It has not been easy to adapt from an interactive audience, artist, student-centered seven-day-a-week enterprise to working from home with extreme levels of uncertainty in all expressions of our lives.

Some local theaters like the Palace and the Aloha have embraced live-streaming classes and recorded performances broadcast on YouTube. Are there any plans for the Kahilu to do so as well?
Kahilu Theatre has been a champion of Live Arts for nearly four decades and our business is all about the experience of human connection. Our Kahilu logo, Voices, was designed to reflect the relationship between the Theatre and our community, “how audience and artist, keiki and kupuna, come together and create a greater expression of themselves and each other both on and off our stage.” 

We are developing opportunities to expand our use of digital technology, mindful of it being an add-on to producing public health-appropriate live events. We were grateful for the inspired initiative of our Kahilu Youth Troupe alumni, who gifted us with an online performance of the song, “Happiness,” which we sent out to our 11,000-member e-community in May. We also are looking at creative ways to present work to the public in our two galleries.

In the theater’s last public announcement, it mentioned it would remain closed through August, and possibly would offer a concert in October. Has any of that changed?
We are developing three scenarios to cautiously open and operate based upon world conditions. TBD.

Are you working with any peer theaters (locally or nationally) to develop guidelines for re-opening?
The Kahilu Theatre’s leadership remains in frequent discussions about plans to re-open and continues to utilize resources from both local and national peers, from the Performing Arts Presenters of Hawaii consortium to good friends in the Los Angeles and New York arts scene. 

CIP health and safety upgrades to the Kahilu Theatre funded by the State. (Chuck Gessert)

Has the theater received any assistance from the government or local donors? Are you accepting donations, and any plans for a fundraiser?
We have used our unexpected and extended public shut-down time to implement health and safety, energy savings, and artist/audience experience upgrades to our Theatre funded by the State legislature’s Grant-in-Aid program. The grant funds for these stage and facility improvements were released in March. We also received assistance from the SBA PPP (Small Business Association Paycheck Protection Program) CARES Act to help us with the work and sustain essential theatre operations. We have received several, much appreciated philanthropic donations that have sustained our intent to open our doors as soon as conditions allow.

Is there anything you’d like to add that wasn’t covered?
We are just beginning to imagine the practical foundations of both the production and diffusion of the Live Arts in a structurally changed world. Gathering people to safely experience art together is a new frontier. During this pause, however, is a window of time we must take advantage of to ponder and dream of yet undiscovered and relevant futures, as blurry as they seem for now. We’re going to have to be creative.


Steve Roby is a music photojournalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

Photos: Steve Roby unless otherwise noted.

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