Another WIMR two-fer, focused on two forces in local theatre and film.

First, one-time freelance writer, former Moloka`i resident, and La Pietra grad DONNE DAWSON is now the state’s film commissioner, working to keep prominent Hawai`i’s profile as a filming destination.

From convincing legislators to provide financial incentives for productions through tax rebates and investment credits, to attending the Sundance Film Festival, Dawson is a force for development of a local film and television industry, and an advocate of independent films.

Next, McKinley alum and Kumu Kahua Theatre Director HARRY WONG is one of the youngest artistic directors of a theatre company of this size in the country—the only company in the islands to present plays about life in Hawai`i, by Hawaiian playwrights, for Hawaiian people. The theatre often explores the nature of pidgin–as something natural, something unifying, and something worthy of respect–and the lives of the people whose cultures it represents. Kumu Kahua asks how an informed appreciation for pidgin might give additional recognition & power to those who face discrimination for speaking it.

Both interviews are now available in full, below, originally published in the Honolulu Advertiser in March and April 2007, respectively.

What I’m Reading | Donne Dawson
State Film Commissioner

Q&A with Christine Thomas
–What are you reading?

Most of my time is spent reading scripts, but I have a keen interest in nonfiction. I’m fascinated by Hawaiian history, and I’m part-Hawaiian myself so I tend to really gravitate toward things that are going to increase my knowledge about Hawai`i’s history and culture. I’ve recently bought what I think could be one of the best sources: Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen by Liliuokalani. Not that long ago I was out to grab lunch and saw a copy of the original book in the window of Hawaiian Island Stamp and Coin. It’s a first edition, published in 1898, and in great condition. It gives me chicken skin reading this book.

I’m trying to re-read it and read it cover to cover instead of in snippets. It’s just a fascinating glimpse into one of the most important figures in Hawai`i’s history and the history of Native Hawaiians. It’s a little challenging in some parts because the way she spoke and wrote then is a little different. I have to read slowly and re-read, but it’s absolutely fascinating–especially to hear Hawai`i’s story in her voice, and to really identify with people and places, historical, that are dear to us.

–Is the appeal both hearing Hawai`i’s story through her voice and holding a relic of the past?

Absolutely. It really does come to life. The paperback version does not do justice to the photographs. The photographs are in amazing condition and it may sound corny but I love holding it in my hands. I probably shouldn’t. I should probably keep it in a glass case somewhere and re-read the paperback, so I can dog-ear it, and mark it up.

But it’s an awesome thing to hold this book in my hands. It reminds me once of sitting in Puakea’s library at his home and just going absolutely crazy over his collection and feeling like I could have sat there all day. He showed me a special glass case of all of his really special 1st edition books from old Hawai`i. I’m into that. Hawaiians as a people are at a very critical juncture in our social and political evolution, and it is just amazing to have this window into our past—that’s kind of how I look at it.

She’s probably one of the most if not the most important influential personalities in my mind because of who she was, what she represented and the immense power that she had not just as an amazing leader but as an unbelieveable composer.

It was probably the most expensive lunch in my life. I went to get a sandwich and spent $200 but it was so worth it.

–As film commissioner, do you strive to find ways for more of Hawai`i’s stories, like this one, to be recorded?

Absolutely. It is important to me, and in whatever small way I can I’m always striving for authenticity in the telling of our stories and wanting to encourage those stories to be told. We’re still waiting to see our version of Dances with Wolves or Braveheart or Whale Rider, to be told in a way that is going to be meaningful to a global audience and not the stereotypical view of Hawai`i or its culture and its people. I’m a huge advocate of that, particularly because I believe that Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian history, and what we’ve been through as a people, has meaning on a global scale.

What I’m Reading | Harry Wong
Artistic Director, Kumu Kahua Theatre

Q&A with Christine Thomas

–What are you reading?

The thing that I’m looking forward to reading next is this book by David Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde about the New York School of poets. It’s a history of that poetic movement and how it’s almost impossible to have an avant-garde now. I was also always interesting in John Ashburly because I’d read The Western Cannon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom and in it he said that Ashburly is the next great poet. I tried to read it but had a hard time reading it so was looking for a way to help me.

Right now I’m reading Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Loewen. He goes through twenty high school and pre-college history books and then says everything they got wrong, according to the latest data and evidence. And then I’m reading Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I started reading that because I was reading this book of essays called The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life by Edward Mendelson, and that’s basically this guy who goes through and reinterprets interpreting books, and how if you think about books that move you emotionally and not just purely intellectually, then Woolf becomes the center of the cannon.

–What do you like about it?

When you do theatre you’re always looking for the characters’ motivation or action they’re trying to pursue—what is their inner life that’s pushing them through their outer life. Mrs. Dalloway brings that out—the inner motivation and hidden history and secrets that motivate what these people do. It’s interesting to me as a director of theatre to see the richness of a character and then see if I can bring that to a character on stage.

–Does reading help you discover the hidden part of you that helps you direct?

You know, I when I graduated from high school I couldn’t read that well. I never read for pleasure when I was young, so stuff like Virginia Woolf was the first stuff I learned when I was going to college—so that kind of reading is actually fun for me. And when I was finally a senior at UH, I got tested for dyslexia. Reading was always like a mystery to me, all the way through high school, before I went to college. Not being able to do it really put a desire in there for me to do it.

Often I tell this story about the time in college when I was reading “Leaves of Grass,” and in my mind I’m going—this is beautiful, this is really nice. And then I went to a reading where Darryl Lum was reading a poem about a Chinese family. He kept on repeated how lucky the family was and how thankful they were and when he read that I cried. Local plays have the potential to move us more and before you can be universal you have to be local.

You cannot really work as a director in the theatre or arts if you can’t be moved by the arts of one other form of art. For me, mostly it’s music, but I think I’m always looking for the way that rhythm in words and sound can affect movement or a play. It helps me in my work because on stage the words are spoken, and listening to those rhythms and how they work and how the actor can make them have the correct rhythm—so that art of how to bring that about with the actor.

Reading gives me a background—part of the histories not being told. … Harold Bloom talks about difficult pleasures, so a foreign movie or an avant-garde piece of theatre—they’re difficult pleasures. Not that it takes more refinement but what you bring to it is more—it’s not passive. I’m all for the difficult pleasures.

–Are your plays difficult pleasures?

When an audience comes to watch a play, they play a role, too. As much as they bring to it, they will get out of it. It’s possible to have an audience that’s dead at some points. Of all the arts, theatre is the one that has to be the most in touch with people. Theatre demands that the audience be there, first of all at the theatre, and be engaged somehow. Finding those moments in literature where you can’t put down the book is what I’m trying to do in theatre.

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