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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 8, 2003

Leadership Corner: Louise King Lanzilotti

Interviewed by David Butts
Advertiser Staff Writer

Louise King Lanzilotti

Age: 55

Title: Managing director

Organization: Honolulu Theatre for Youth, a non-profit with a staff of 25 professionals who teach and perform shows for 100,000 children statewide

High school: Punahou

College: Goddard College

Breakthrough job: Music teacher at Summerhill School in upstate New York

Little-known fact: Plays fretless banjo

Major challenge: "Keeping this wonderful institution — that's almost 50 years old — alive. It is really financially a big challenge. The quality of programming is excellent, but the financial challenge is really huge right now."

• • •

Q. The theater ran a $150,000 deficit last season, the staff took a 5 percent pay cut and the three managers took a 10 percent pay cut. Why did you have to do that and how did you decide on that as the solution?

A. Because of Sept. 11 and the economy and the loss of the huge state funding that HTY got for many, many years, the financial challenges have been growing. As it gets tighter and tighter and you have to tighten your belt more and more, the only place to cut now is into bone, which is the staff. The staff agreed to try to turn around the business by taking a pay cut, going leaner and then trying to pay back our loans, build a cash reserve, build an endowment, work on all those standard things that nonprofits will need in the future to survive.

Q. The State Foundation on Culture and the Arts has cut your funding. Why was that?

A. We have been funded for many, many years by the state foundation, but about eight years ago it went down from about $300,000 a year to now it's more like $50,000 or $60,000. Their budget went down. They are still very generous with us. Everything in Hawai'i has been about a shrinking economy.

Q. Yet the economists say Hawai'i's economy has turned around. Are you seeing that?

A. I think Hawai'i is turning around. Our grants are growing. We are working on building higher-end support from donors. That's not a traditional donor base for us. We get a lot of donations of $5, $10, $100 for many years from people, which is really great. But we are trying to grow the upper-end donors because that will help us have more stability.

We had to raise prices this year — as I said, the staff took a pay cut. We've lowered the budget. We are trying to just deal with making sure we keep our doors open while we turn the institution, while we try to build this cash reserve and endowments.

Q. Why is it so hard to raise money now?

A. There are more nonprofits than ever before. There are more theater groups and arts groups and the needs for service and feeding people as well as feeding their souls. There are just so many things that people need to donate to.

Q. How are you going to attract the high-end donors that you are looking for?

A. The challenge for me is to show people why a children's theater group is really important to the cultural life of the community. The Seuss production, which we did with the opera and the symphony,

I think woke a few people up to "Oh, this is good. This is not just little kids. It's real. It's art."

Q. What's your view of the arts in public and private education in Hawai'i?

A. When I was growing up, the arts were more pervasive in the schools. There came a time when the arts were cut out of the budget when times got lean. When I was in youth symphony, the kids were from public and private schools. Now they are mostly from private schools because there aren't orchestras in most of the public schools.

It's starting to come back. I think the current superintendent, Pat Hamamoto, is making a really heroic effort to bring the arts back. She really understands how important they are.

Q. Some people would say kids are not performing well enough on the basics, and we need to spend all our resources on teaching the three Rs.

A. The recent research they have done on the growth of the brain shows that one of the most important things you can do for children is involve them in, especially, theater and music when they are young because theater is totally connected to literacy and story telling. All of those things develop the kinds of processes in your mind that help you to be a good thinker. It's not fluff. It's central to the development of the whole person.

Q. Is there a stronger need for art education in Hawai'i than might be the case in other states?

A. Many cultural groups in Hawai'i have oral traditions that are very strong, so that connects well to helping them get to literacy through theater. Hawai'i children learn well through the arts. But I think the hours spent devoted to the arts in school are very low.

Q. You are the only theater in Hawai'i, or one of the few, with full-time actors earning a salary. Why is that important to you?

A. If you want to grow an excellent set of actors, they need to be able to make a living. Artists are a cultural treasure in any society, so if we don't support our artists — whether it is the symphony or us or opera or kumu (teachers) — if we don't support them somehow, they leave and you lose that source of artistic treasure.

Q. You have been the managing director at the theater for a year and half now. What have you learned about running a nonprofit?

A. Nonprofits are very like for-profit businesses. We do need to think about the bottom line in terms of money, but it's not our bottom line. Our bottom line is our mission. Are we reaching the people that we are suppose to?

We could just cut out the high school play. That would save us a lot of money, but it wouldn't be serving all those kids.

One of the things I've learned is the delicate balance between serving your mission which is the bottom line of a non-profit and developing those financial skills to make sure that we remain viable.

Most the people in non-profits are always chasing windmills. It's about the passion not about money. So you have to learn to manage money, so that you can do what you are passionate about.