Catchin' up with Lee Cataluna
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
To be sure, there were other things playwright and Advertiser columnist Lee Cataluna could have would rather have been doing that afternoon other than subjecting herself to an interview by a newspaper co-worker. But with one play on tour, another in rehearsal and one more about to be cast, the attention was hard to sidestep.
Ever since her first play, "Da Mayah," broke box office records for Kumu Kahua Theater in 1998, Cataluna and her hilarious Hawai'i-based plays have been in high demand with local theaters. All three of her current projects were written on commission a theatrical hat trick possible for just a select few.
"It's better than writing something and having it sit in a drawer," Cataluna said, shrugging. That's a typically recognition-shy reaction to any indication of praise for her accomplishments.
It's a fact, however, that Cataluna is at the center of a theatrical whirlwind right now.
"The Musubi Man," a Honolulu Theatre for Youth production based on the children's book by Sandi Takayama, debuted last week and is making its way to preschools across the island. It will open to the public with a pair of performances at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Saturday at McCoy Pavilion.
"Super Secret Squad," Cataluna's fourth play for Kumu Kahua, is on schedule for its May 16 opening. The play is expected to run for a month, but with five shows already sold out, it could stay longer.
Finally, "You Somebody," featuring music by Keola Beamer, is scheduled to open July 19 at Diamond Head Theatre.
"The fun is now," Cataluna said. "It's in the collaboration with other people the director, the actors. The writing itself, for me, is pretty lonely and tedious."
Yet the writing has always been there in some form or another from Cataluna's early days in radio and TV, through her brief work as a screenwriter, and into her current stage projects and employment.
Somehow she has managed to keep her wires from crossing.
"When ideas come, they come with a label attached," she said. "Column, play or trash can."
Cataluna calls the writing process "nebulous" but she knows what works for her. Drawing inspiration from Rap Reiplinger and his Booga Booga brethren, Cataluna's creative work is theatrically based and character driven.
First drafts come quickly, revisions slightly slower. Still, she finds ways to keep the words coming.
"I love deadlines, so I set them up for myself," she said. "If I have something due Friday, I'll sweat all day Thursday.
"It's like finals week," she said. "I always liked finals week. I know that's sick and wrong, but that's when I rocked."
In addition to "Da Mayah," Cataluna also wrote the scripts for Kumu Kahua productions, "Ulua: The Musical" and "Aloha Friday."
"She's a born playwright," said Dennis Carroll, chairman of the University of Hawai'i Theatre and Dance department and one of the founders of Kumu Kahua. "She has a gift for satirical writing and she's very intelligent. She seizes on the hypocritical and the venal nature of bureaucratic institutions and exposes them in a comedic way."
"The Musubi Man" was Cataluna's first attempt at writing to a child audience and her first experience working off someone else's idea.
"My role was more as a craftsman than an artist," she said. "The story already existed. My job was to figure out how to turn storybook into theater."
The story itself is a localized version of "The Gingerbread Man," with a cast of hungry characters pursuing the starchy lead character. HTY actors BullDog and Cynthia See play all of the roles.
"Kids care about immediate motivation," Cataluna said. "All they need to know is 'I want.' They can relate to that."
"Super Secret Squad," which Cataluna has been developing for more than a year, offers something decidedly more complex.
"It's all about misguided ambition," Cataluna said. "It's about a time in life when you're really idealistic and you have all this energy, but you don't know where you should turn."
The story revolves around five University of Hawai'i students "in their eighth-year of their four-year degree" and their designs to right Hawai'i's wrongs.
Working off the adage that good writers borrow and great writers steal, Cataluna lifted the idea of the Wendell Conspiracy from friend Shawn Hiatt. The theory posits that all those bureaucratic inanities that frustrate our lives can be traced to a single source: Wendell.
"When you go to the desk of a hotel and you want to make a reservation but they tell you that you have to call the reservations desk, that's Wendell," Cataluna explained. "Wendell is inactivity, inertia."
Thus, Wendell is the sworn enemy of the Super Secret Squad. Hilarity, of course, ensues. As director Keith Kashiwada notes, however, the play "tackles more serious issues. It's not just a comedy, it's challenging."
And challenge is what drives Cataluna's third 2002 offering, "You Somebody."
The play follows the comically doomed attempts of the Lusa family to make a name for themselves. Driven by "Ma" whose ultimate goal is to appear, with picture, in a Wayne Harada column the haplessly untalented family finds itself trumped at every pageant, keiki hula show and karaoke competition by a more gifted, gallingly more cohesive family.
Auditions for the play will be next month. The script, said Cataluna, is in constant development.