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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 9, 2010

It's fringe to Fringe for kids in Nānākuli

By Lee Cataluna


Contact Robin Kitsu at 668-5823, ext. 256, or go to www.nhispac.com and click on the "donation" link.

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The Nānākuli High and Intermediate School Performing Arts Center is at 89-908 Nānākuli Ave., Wai'anae, HI 96792.

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The Nānākuli Performing Arts Center doesn't have a theater.

It puts on shows in the school cafeteria.

When the students travel to perform in Pearl City, they're thrilled to be on a real stage.

Imagine what it will be like for them to perform in Europe.

The call came last week. They had kind of given up already, thinking that invitations went out in April. But the phone rang Wednesday morning with the news that the students from Nānākuli High and Intermediate were invited to perform at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland next summer.

"The kids screamed and cheered," said Robin Kitsu, Nānākuli's performing arts director.

Now they have to figure out how to pay for the trip.

The Fringe Festival is the world's largest performing arts event. It runs three weeks and includes 1,800 different performances. NPAC was selected as part of the American High School Theatre Festival to be held in August 2011. More than 2,000 schools were nominated and only 100 were selected.

"When I think about the challenges our school faces, being restructured and all the other social issues the kids face, being given this opportunity makes me even more proud," Kitsu said.

Off-stage, Nānākuli has its own real-life drama and tragedy.

This year, Honolulu Magazine again rated Nānākuli the worst among all Hawai'i public schools.

NPAC transcends those circumstances. The performing arts program is like all those inspiring movies about plucky kids singing and dancing their hearts out despite the traumas of their hard-luck neighborhoods.

For some, NPAC has been their salvation.

"The most positive outcome of working with this program is that I'm still here," one Nānākuli student wrote for the Edinburgh application. "I was actually on the verge of ... I almost died. I was really depressed. I had some issues at home. But when I came here, it was a totally different realm from my house. I'm still here today and I'm going to college and I'm doing all this stuff that I never thought I'd do."

Over the years, NPAC has fearlessly staged big productions such as Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," "High School Musical 2" and "Rent," which requires a good deal of talent, but even more so, a great deal of heart.

There are no auditions, and every student who commits to rehearsals is cast in the show regardless of ability or experience.

So much of what makes the program successful has to do with faith.

Joe Patti from Leeward Community College Theatre nominated the Nānākuli group for the Fringe Festival, and Kitsu filled out the detailed application. Kitsu told himself the money part of the trip shouldn't scare them away from trying.

"I had no doubt that our students would make our school and community proud with their performances, but the cost was a concern," Kitsu said. "But I thought, hey, even if we can't afford it, the fact that we could get selected would tell us that our program is worthy."

Kitsu hopes to take 15 students to Edinburgh next summer.

"We were told the trip will cost approximately $6,000 per person ... and we know that is a lot of fundraising, not to mention with DOE budget cuts, we need to raise monies just to keep the program going," he said.

NPAC does have an impressive little booster club that managed to raise $15,000 in mostly $5 to $200 donations. It also has gotten support from HECO, HawaiiUSA FCU, Makaha Studios and Hawaii Arts Alliance. The NPAC students will even sing at your party for a small donation. They book gigs on their website.

They have some time to work on raising the money, so they're going to try. But for now, they're thrilled just to be invited.

"What we are most proud of is when people remark how the students carry themselves on and off stage with such maturity, how we use our limited resources (yes, our productions are in a cafeteria that we "magically" transform to a theater) to put on quality shows," Kitsu said. "And we appreciate that audience members come all the way out to Nānākuli to support us."