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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 21, 2002

Mounting expenses troubling Kumu Kahua

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Faced with a mounting deficit and a shrinking pool of grants, Kumu Kahua is looking to beef up fund-raising and seek corporate sponsorships to stay afloat during its 32nd season, which starts next month.

"We need to generate income with grants and fund-raising, but we also need to work on corporate sponsorships next season," said Harry Wong III, Kumu Kahua's artistic director.

"We don't want to increase ticket prices because we want to stay affordable as possible," said Alissa Alcosiba, Kumu Kahua's managing director.

Kumu Kahua, a small but active nonprofit theater group, specializes in productions about living in Hawai'i, with most of the scripts written by or about Hawai'i residents.

Its annual budget is $188,500, Alcosiba said, but operating expenses this season have amounted to $207,420.

Alcosiba said $30,000 needs to be raised this fiscal year, which already has begun, to balance the financial ledger. "Otherwise, the deficit compounds each year," she said.

The money concerns have influenced the kind of fare Kumu will be offering this year. "We've monitored the way we schedule our season," Wong said.

The new season will include three new works and three "classics" — Edward Sakamoto's "Aloha Las Vegas," Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl's "The Conversion of Ka'ahumanu" and Darrell H.Y. Lum's "A Little Bit Like You," which have drawn sizable audiences in the past.

In years past, the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts grants subsidized operation costs, but the subsidy has dwindled to the point where Kumu Kahua has had to stop taking selected shows to the Neighbor Islands.

"The last time we toured was 1995," Wong said. "We always lost money, but it was an effort to bring our theater out to the (Neighbor Island) people."

Health insurance rates and taxes also are up, Alcosiba said, who joined Kumu Kahua about eight months ago to tend to the group's business needs. Her mission is to develop a broader audience, build subscriptions and land corporate partnerships.

"What we need to become is aggressive in obtaining corporate sponsorships," she said. "These funders would co-underwrite some production costs. It's a regular thing with other theater groups, but we've been very conservative compared to our sister theaters. Kinda shame to ask, but we need to partner to stay afloat."

The theater is ensconced in a tiny downtown performing space that seats up to 300, depending on staging configuration. Even with a sellout, there is a cap on how much can be raised through ticket sales. The company generated $85,000 in 2001-2002.

"The answer is sponsorships and extensions," Alcosiba said. "That helped us with the bottom line for 'Super Secret Squad,'" — the recent run of the Lee Cataluna comedy.

Kumu Kahua has three paid officers, Wong and Alcosiba, plus Sharlyn Paet, box office manager. Keith Kashiwada serves as board president in a voluntary capacity. Actors hired for each show receive a small stipend.

The company sent a mailer to 6,000 recently, announcing details of the coming season and asking for financial support. Last year, a similar mailing generated $15,000 worth of season ticket sales.

"We need to break the idea that we only serve a niche market of doing local plays for local people," Wong said. "Our plays, by our island writers, can speak to everyone. Neil Simon writes about New York, and when he mentions an obscure restaurant in the Bronx, some people may snort, thinking it's written only for people of New York. But it's universal. I think like all good writers, ours speak of things universal, too. You fall in love, you fall out of love, you fight with each other. Some things are written in pidgin, but if you don't know it, you get acclimated."

To build better audience recognition, Kumu Kahua has teamed up with Diamond Head Theatre, advertising Kumu Kahua's first play of the season on DHT's playbill for "You Somebody," now showing.

"You Somebody" is "a pidgin musical," Wong said. "Maybe (DHT's) people will come to see our first play in pidgin."

Wong also noted that Kumu Kahua is partnering with the Honolulu Theatre for Youth this year for a joint presentation of "Christmas Talk Story."

"To survive, we have to reach out," he said.