The Shows Must Go On

Debra Blachowiak and Dolly Kanekuni, past and present board chairwomen of Hawaii Children’s Theatre, offer a labor of love to provide education for Kaua’i children through the entertainment of live theatre

Hawaii Children’s Theatre board president Dolly Kanekuni is committed to immersing Kaua’i’s children in the art of live theatre through annual musical productions Hawaii Children’s Theatre is a labor of love.

The nonprofit organization’s recent production of the musical Scrooge is proof of the commitment and voluntary dedication of community members such as HCT board president Dolly Kanekuni and former board president Debra Blachowiak working together to provide education for children through the art of theatre. Each annual musical production requires months of preparation and dozens of volunteers including actors, backstage crew and musicians.

“The experience of live theatre is extremely important,” says Blachowiak, explaining why she continues to be such a large part of the process. To her, nothing quite compares to the theatrical experience or the camaraderie shared among those who participate in its presentation.

“The level of connection, the level of experience is completely different and unique and everybody should have it,” says Blachowiak. “They shouldn’t ever not have this experience and know what it feels like – it’s different and really fun.”

Friendships also are forged and bonds between family members are strengthened.

“It’s so much family, it’s all about family,” says HCT set designer Ron Horoshko.

Parents and children collaborating to create a live piece of art is an exhilarating experience for Horoshko. He particularly enjoys seeing Kanekuni and her son Blake participating in shows together.

“She has a beautiful voice and she has a beautiful son,” he says.

Kanekuni began her involvement with HCT four years ago during a production of Cinderella, where she was cast as the Fairy Godmother while her multi-talented son Blake portrayed a mouse.

“I love performing myself and it just so happens my 12-year-old loves it too,” says the voice instructor.

Blake agrees.

“I love to be on stage, being out there and having a lot of fun,” says the actor, singer and dancer who tap-danced and played a puppeteer in Scrooge.

Blake caught the performance bug at age 6 when he saw the movie Happy Feet.

“He started tapping in kitchen and he’s been tapping ever since,” says Kanekuni, who eventually suggested he enroll in classes.

Blachowiak, part-owner and principal broker at Sotheby’s International Realty, also has a child who inspired her to become involved with HCT. Many years ago, Blachowiak took daughter Juli (who was 4 at the time) to see HCT’s production of Charlotte’s Web.

“I had to physically restrain her from trying to run up on to the stage to be in it,” says Blachowiak.

By age 5, Juli, now 21, was a regular performer for HCT and has since done 30 plays.

“We both just threw ourselves into it because our child was so enamored with it,” says Blachowiak, whose husband, Ernie, is an HCT volunteer.

Putting together the productions every year is akin to giving birth.

“There’s a lot of hard labor and pain. And then the baby is out and everyone is telling you how cute it is,” jokes Blachowiak.

Though she still enjoys being a part of the team, Blachowiak also is glad to be passing the torch along to Kanekuni.

“I could kiss her feet,” she says.

Kanekuni is happy to bring her performing arts experience to the table. The Italian-born actress and singer, whose family immigrated to Ohio when she 1, has been a vocal teacher for decades. She always has had a strong inclination to sing, and recalls delighting the ears of her family during long road trips.

“I’d sing all the way to Florida and back,” she says.

Kanekuni started performing in musicals during high school.

“It’s exciting and nerve-wracking,” she says about being on stage. “Right before you go on, you keep wondering why you keep putting yourself into this place, and then every time you’ve done it, you want to do it again.”

After graduating from high school, Kanekuni moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music, where she met world-renowned voice teacher Seth Riggs, with whom she studied. But when her older son, Anthony Conlon, was 2 years old, the L.A. riots were taking place and Kanekuni decided to move somewhere safer. She chose Kaua’i for its cleaner water and clearer skies.

“And endless summers. I’m a sun worshipper,” she says.

Now Kanekuni also worships HCT, where her husband, Steven – Blake’s dad – volunteers his time.

One of the many reasons they continue to commit their energy to HCT is because the nonprofit provides an alternative opportunity for exercise and team-work for children who may not be involved in more conventional activities like athletics.

“They have a different vent in life, they’re accepted,” says Kanekuni.

“Theatre also exercises a creative part of their brain,” adds Blachowiak.

HCT provides an outlet for children interested in theatre both on and off stage.

“It’s a great starting point,” says Horoshko, who started volunteering his creativity to the organization 11 years ago.

The nonprofit also offers an annual Summer Stars program for keiki ages 5-16. The six-week day camp offers workshops including improvisation, and culminates with a production at Kaua’i Community College.

Pono Players is another extension of the organization. The group consists of participants ages 13 to their early 20s who create a yearly drama that sends a message – such as anti-bullying – to schools around the island.

“It’s hip,” says Kanekuni, who recently watched a performance about methamphetamines the group performed at Waimea High School.

At first, the teenagers in the audience thought it was a waste of time.

“But then you could hear a pin drop once the play started,” she says.

Several of the students asked questions at the end, and many pamphlets and fliers were distributed to help spread further knowledge.

HCT also provides scholarships for first- and second-year college students majoring or minoring in performance arts including dance, piano and acting.

The largest aspect of HCT, however, is its annual musical production, which has included Peter Pan, Beauty and the Beast and The King and I. Open auditions are held each year for all ages, and the family-oriented shows always try to encompass as many roles for keiki as possible.

Ticket sales for the show are vital to the survival of the nonprofit.

“If we don’t sell tickets, we go out of business. We’re a nonprofit and we function on a shoestring, and we accept all donations from people who love us,” says Blachowiak with a smile, adding that one of the biggest slices of the budgeting pie is licensing fees for the shows they reproduce. “People just don’t have as much money to give, but it always seems to stay afloat.”

If funding were more abundant, Kanekuni would like HCT to have its own theater.

“I would love to have a full performing arts facility some day,” she says.

Though many rewarding possibilities would come from such long-term goals, there is no question that the benefits of HCT are already felt.

“The most-rewarding part is my son saying, ‘This is the greatest day of my life’ after a performance,” says Kanekuni. “You have to smile when your kid says that.”

HCT is planning a whale-watching and snorkel tour fundraiser Feb. 10. For details, visit hawaiichildrenstheatre.com.

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