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Sunday, March 9, 2014
Ron Bright, Castle High School Teacher
By Katie Young
Ron Bright gave up acting long ago long before he made teaching students his lifes work. But Bright still performs for those he directs.
Not one to ever sit down in a chair and just tell an actor how to move, Mr. B, as he is affectionately called, is immersed in the action.
Hes up on stage with the cast, his arms alive with movement he wants to charge, to energize, to get his kids to feel and do in the moment.
In the more than 40 years Bright has directed Castle High School productions, thousands of students blossomed under his care. Many of them have since gone on to pursue professional careers in the arts and all left high school with a profound love of theatre and an incomparable respect for Mr. B.
So Windward Community College considered itself lucky when Bright agreed to be a director-in-residence for its new 300-seat, state-of-the-art Paliku Theatre when it opened in 2002.
So far hes staged several acclaimed productions there, including Fiddler on the Roof, My Fair Lady, Big River and Noises Off, which won three Pookela awards.
And when the theatre began to struggle financially because of limited state funds, Brights reputation and legacy offered the perfect opportunity to stage a rare reunion of his protégés to raise funds for Paliku Theatre.
In two performances 7:30 p.m., May 7, and 2 p.m., May 8 the first Spotlight on the Arts, Mr. B: A Salute to Ron Bright and his Students, will feature a stellar cast of Brights former students some who have gone on to sing and dance professionally on Broadway, across the country and around the world. Some currently live in the islands; others will make a special trip home for the event.
The cast includes Jade Stice, Jordan Shanahan, Mahiai Kekumu, Johnson Enos, Alex Selma, Robert Orosco, Jade Anguay, Tricia Marciel, Marcelo Pacleb and Michael Bright.
KHNL news co-anchor Jodi Leong and actor/singer/dancer John Bryan also former Mr. B students will co-emcee the event as well as perform in many numbers. Several scenes from the hit musicals Bright has directed at Paliku will also be featured.
Its going to be a great show, says theatre manager Tom Holowach. It wont be just people standing up in front of a microphone with a piano. There will be a lot of production numbers too.
This means some of the older alums will be breaking out their dancing shoes as well as bringing their voices together in duets and group numbers.
Jodi Leong opens the show with a solo song, To Sir, With Love, and later, look for her, Jade Stice, Robert Orosco, John Bryan and others to be doing the Frug. Brights son Michael and his wife Jade will also serenade with Last Night of the World from Miss Saigon.
Its an incomparable, once-in-a-lifetime kind of show, says Holowach. Its one of those things where if people arent there and they hear about it afterward will kick themselves that they didnt see it.
As MidWeek went to press, Holowach said the Saturday show was a near sell-out, so the decision was made at the last minute to add a second performance date.
The great thing, even if you buy your tickets late, is that at Paliku, there are no bad seats.
It sounds like a line, but its really true, laughs Holowach. Its a state-of-the-art facility. When they designed the theatre, they brought in an acoustic engineer. Its in a stadium configuration so no one sitting in front of you can block your view, and the acoustics are perfect.
While the community has been enjoying Paliku for a few years now, Holowach continues to struggle with mounting costs of maintaining the venue.
Community theatre here in town is basically done for love, he says. The performers dont get paid. A lot of theatres here rely on corporate sponsors to be able to afford putting on the show.
Holowach estimates it can cost almost $100,000 to produce some shows.
My Fair Lady cost us $90,000 to produce, he says. It cost us $15,000 just for the rights to perform the show, another $15,000 for costumes and $10,000 for the set. Then we pay the director, scene designer and orchestra another $15,000 it all adds up.
When Holowach first came to Paliku, he managed it on a volunteer basis.
There is no real budget for the theatre, he says. There never has been.
So production after production, he relies on community volunteers, of which he has about 100. From the people who run the lights, pull the curtains and move the sets on and off the stage everyone volunteers their nights and weekends.
Whats been keeping the theatre alive so far is renting the facility for $700 a day to community groups, says Holowach.
So he and the theatres supporters decided it was time for a new plan to make sure the venue survives.
Right now were hoping to have two fundraisers a year, he says. We originally had grand plans to make this a big food thing, sit-down dinner and silent auction.
But it dawned on us that we should start out a little simpler and work our way up to it. We know we can do a show, and well work our way up to bigger things.
Holowach came up with the idea for this benefit when he was walking through the theatre and heard an incredible voice wafting through the corridors.
It was Jade Stice, who was in the original Broadway company of Miss Saigon and who worked in New York City professionally for 14 years, singing at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and Radio City Music Hall.
He floated the idea to her, and Stice, who recently moved back to Hawaii, thought it was great.
Its a blast, she says. Im working with people whose names Ive heard but never actually met in person. Its refreshing to work with people who are doing something because we love to do it, not to get paid. Thats why we all started doing theatre in the first place.
Holowach says it wasnt hard to find former Ron Bright students to participate in the fundraiser.
As soon as word got out, people started calling us, Holowach says.
One of Brights former students who is flying in from the Mainland is Kalaheo graduate and opera singer Jordan Shanahan. Based out of Colorado, Shanahans most recent trip home to Hawaii was to perform in Hawaii Opera Theatres production of The Mikado last year. Hes sung in the West Bay Opera in California and traveled as far as the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam.
Shanahan says it was Mr. B who got him up on stage.
I was a trombone player in the band and I went to audition for the orchestra in a production, says Shanahan. Mr. B tried to talk me into singing something. Id never sung anything before. He cast me in Damn Yankees in 1994, and I had such a good time I pursued it in college.
More than just a good director or voice coach, Bright has a long-standing reputation for bringing out talent his students (and even their parents) never knew they had.
Bright recalls a student he once had who thought he was too tough to participate in theatre.
He acted like he was going to leave the class, laughs Bright. I told him, Rick, I need a bush. Paint me a bush for this one scene.
He told me, I cant paint. So I said, Just paint me a bush! So he did, and today hes the best scenic artist in the state with his own company, Theatre Design and Production.
Bright always rejoices in the successes of his students.
My life has been wrapped up in other peoples lives and I guess it doesnt end, he says. My students move my life.
Bright remembers every story, too. He points to pictures on the wall of his Castle High School office though he retired from teaching there in 1993, he stays on to direct fifth- to eighth-grade students from nine Windward schools and tells MidWeeks reporter their name, their spouses name, how many children they have and what theyre doing today.
Bright started as an actor himself. His senior year at Hilo High School, his English teacher asked him to play Jim, the runaway slave, in a production of Huckleberry Finn.
He loved theatre, but knew it might not be a logical choice as a career so he took business classes, thinking he might become a CPA. But he had been bitten by the theatre bug.
He came to University of Hawaii at Manoa and got his degree in education while cultivating his talents on stage for the Honolulu Theatre for Youth and as a regular cast member on a weekly local TV show, Campus Canteen.
Once Bright became a teacher, he found new love in being a director. There was a kind of excitement in making his students feel good about their own talents.
No matter how gifted his students have been over the years, however, Bright says hes never told someone that they had what it took to make it big.
Instead, Ive always told them to believe in themselves.
That mantra, wrapped up in a song from the musical, The Wiz, has become a familiar tune to those directed by Bright, who began his teaching career at Castle High in 1957. We sing it before every performance we have, he says. In fact, its the last number well do at the Paliku fundraiser.
Bright, who retired from the National Guard as a first sergeant after 35 years of service, sings a little bit of If You Believe out loud:
Thats from me to my students, he says. They have all my encouragement always.
Bright is the difference between just cultivating talent and cultivating strong, mature adults.
Hes touched hundreds of his students and prevented so many from going down the wrong path, says Leong.
Leong has appeared in numerous local productions over the years including A Chorus Line, Flower Drum Song and the annual Gridiron show.
I registered for drama when I was a freshman in high school, and ever since then hes been my mentor and second dad. He taught me much more than just dancing, singing and acting on a stage. He taught me the value of teamwork, of setting goals, achieving them, and the value of family and friendship through his example. He still has a huge impact on my life.
You could talk to every one of Brights students and theyd likely express similar sentiments. From a professional standpoint Brights students are always prepared and respectful.
We have technicians who run our shows at Paliku who are still students at Castle High School and they walk into our doors knowing more than some professionals Ive worked with in my life, says Holowach. Theyre smarter and have a greater sense of responsibility.
Bright, a mix of Portuguese, Hawaiian and English, says he sometimes has to remind kids where the ground is. Thats how they know respect and humility.
Hes had three, going on four generations of young artists grow up and move on now. His wife, Moira, has been his biggest supporter over the years, pitching in wherever she could, and his three children, Michael, Clarke and Jodi are all musical he says. (Theyre all teachers like Bright is too.) Bright also has four grandchildren, including one grandson who plays percussion in the Castle productions orchestra.
But all the students who know Mr. B feel a part of his extended family.
I want to teach kids to be good citizens, says Bright. I want them to love themselves, their families, their venue, their art. You have to embrace kids and really care about them.
When Paliku Theatre was built, it afforded Bright not only another venue to direct in, but another link in an artistic continuum.
I love that we brought the elementary school kids to the Castle Performing Arts Center and now the high school kids have a place to do theatre after high school. Its a great transition. And if you feel good about this art and you want to continue, youve gotta go to Windward Community College.
Bright tells his students to work hard and never give up, and it seems to have paid off in more ways than one.
At 71, Bright is still as charged as ever. Some say he has the energy of 10 people put together.
In fact, he wiggles in his seat as he talks with MidWeek, looking as if at any moment he might spring off the chair and break into a production number.
Theres no handshake for this reporter; Mr. B is all about big hugs. He embraces me like were old friends. And when I thank him for the interview, he turns around and thanks me for being gracious and for laughing as we talked.
As we walk outside the Castle Performing Arts Center, Mr. B bounds down the stairs into the sunshine.
Like I said, he jokes. I dont sit, I dance. Thats just how it is.