Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Loneliest Liberal in Region VIII

It’s Hawaii!

By James Knudsen

For people of my generation, knowledge of our 50th state is based largely on Hawaii Five-O, Magnum, P.I. and the three-part episode of The Brady Bunch with a cursed tiki idol at the center of the storyline. None of these was much help during my recent five-day stay on Oahu as part of Fresno City College’s trip to the Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival for Region Eight. (I previously covered this topic in February 2013: “A piece of theatre’s pie.”)
    Region VIII encompasses Central and Southern California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Guam, and Hawaii. California, having the most populous sections, holds most of the festivals. I’ve attended four in that part of the world, six if you count the good ol’ days when all of California was part of the region. Utah has been making a strong showing of itself in recent years, and so last year’s festival was held in St. George, Utah. The previous two years, the festival was held in downtown Los Angeles. You may have noticed a pattern by now – all of these places may be reached by car. Not so Hawaii.
    Students from Hawaii have to schlep all the way to the mainland if they want to attend a festival, so every decade or so it is decreed that instead of the Hawaiians coming to the festival, the festival will come to them. Given the costs involved in getting to Hawaii by air (it’s even more expensive by car), the prevailing belief is that a festival held in Hawaii will be one with a lower than normal turnout. Not so – it’s Hawaii!
    On our first full day, February 11, I tracked a former colleague from my days at Antelope Valley College: Mark Branner. Mark is a full-time faculty member at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, the school hosting the festival in cooperation with Chaminade University. He informed me that they had planned on 500 attendees. They got 1,100. The prediction of “no one will show up” became “uh oh, everyone showed up... and brought a friend.” It’s Hawaii!

Japanese Botanical Garden on the UH Manoa campus
    My previous non-television experience with “The Aloha State” consisted of a 12-hour layover back in 1985. I didn’t see much of the island from the inside of the nightclub where I spent most of those hours. This trip I saw more, but much of it was the same terrain viewed through the windshield of a rental car as I shuttled students from the host hotel, right in the heart of Waikiki, up the mountain to the campuses where events were taking place.
    If there is a downside to having a festival in Hawaii, it is the logisitics once you arrive. The lodgings for students and faculty were down by the water in Waikiki. The campuses, lovely places to go to school – it’s Hawaii! – are only 2.5 miles away, but it’s uphill and humid. Chaminade University, a small Catholic school of 2,700 students, is actually closer than UH Manoa, but the last quarter-mile is up a steep, humid hill. True, the organizers had arranged for shuttle service, but their effectiveness at getting students to events on time was only slightly better than throwing virgins into volcanoes. As a result, I – my Nissan Altima and I – were very popular. That was the not-so-good part of the festival.

From my hotel room, Diamond Head to the far right
The good? It’s Hawaii! You leave Fresno Air Terminal, cold and gray, and arrive in Hawaii, warm and sunny. The work uniform is shorts, flip-flops, and a Hawaiian shirt. On casual Fridays you can wear a tank-top. The people are happy, the weather is lovely, the food – I managed to avoid eating Spam. At any rate, my culinary escapades aren’t what I should be talking about, I should be talking about my students.
    We sent a dozen students, not a large contingent by any means. We are a two-year community college, in an economically disadvantaged part of the state. In past semesters at Fresno City College, I’ve had students who were dealing with homelessness. For some of our students this was their first trip on an airplane. The festival brings students from all collegiate levels – community and four-year, public and private, graduate and undergraduate – and I am very proud of what our group achieved. Of note, Megan DeWitt, who advanced to the semi-final round in the Irene Ryan Auditions and Summer Session, was named the runner-up in the directing competition. Those are the official results. Unofficially and probably more important are the things that happen during a festival that don’t appear on the scorecard.
    All of our students experienced something new. They all met new people from places they had never visited. They attended workshops and learned. They went to performances and walked out at intermission. And they saw a musical about Elvis Presley and stood and cheered. Most importantly, they made contacts with people who may prove important in their future endeavors as artists.
    Next year we’re going to Mesa, Arizona. At least it won’t be humid.

Copyright © 2016 by James Knudsen

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