theatre

GREAT PERFORMANCES
Much Ado About Nothing

 

Recorded live at The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park, this modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s romantic classic with an all-black cast features Danielle Brooks and Grantham Coleman. Directed by Tony Award winner Kenny Leon.

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Pam Arciero

 

Hidden beneath the antics of Sesame Street characters, you’ll find a principal puppeteer who hails from ʻĀina Haina in East Honolulu. Pam Arciero has been with the children’s series for nearly 40 years, primarily as Oscar the Grouch’s girlfriend, Grundgetta. Arciero got her start in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. There, she joined a summer program in puppetry – one that would change the course of her life.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Nov. 17, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Pam Arciero Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

How would you describe how you were in class?

 

I was kinda the loudmouth.  I mean, I spent a lot of time being told to be quiet.

 

Surprise!

 

And you built on that for your career.

 

I built on that. Yeah; that really made it … you know, it’s—it’s who you are. And really, every puppet is a part of you. You have to find that part of yourself that connects directly to the character in order to make it believable and real.

 

Meet this Honolulu native from ‘Āina Haina who is now a principal puppeteer on Sesame Street… next on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawaii’s most intriguing people. Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. The characters of Sesame Street have become iconic staples of children’s programming – but have you ever thought about the people beneath the puppets? One of them, a principal puppeteer of the longtime children’s series, was born and raised in East Honolulu, and she’s my fellow Kalani High School grad – Pam Arciero. For more than three decades, she’s played Oscar the Grouch’s better half — or shall we say, grouchier half? – Grundgetta.

 

What are some of the great moments between Oscar the Grouch and girlfriend—your character—

 

Grundgettta.

 

–Grundgetta?

 

Um, well, we were gonna get married.  That was very exciting.  And then, we thought that uh, getting married would make us happy.  And being grouches, we don’t want to be happy. And so, we decided to call off the wedding at the last minute.  And then—but little did we know that actually, most people are not happily married, and so, we would have been perfectly happy. Who’s not a grouch; right?  There are times when you just a really grouchy.  And she—uh, she—also, she says exactly what she’s thinking at any given time.  You know, so that’s kind of a … in a world where you really do need to be circumspect a lot, you know, not … to offend anybody.  She just says what she’s feeling.  You know.  [GRUNDGETTA VOICE] That’s a hideous outfit.  You know, she’ll just go there.  So …

 

I know you took over that role from someone else.

 

Yeah; Brian Muehl had done it for one year, and I’ve done her now for thirty-four years.  So …

 

Did he give you any advice?  I mean, on how to play this woman grouch?

 

No.

 

He said: You’re—you’re the perfect person for this; you—I’ve seen you be a grouch.  And he handed it to me.

 

Oh, that’s it.

 

Basically.

 

Thank you for mentoring.

 

And I worked with him, yeah, on—on different shows, so he knew, he knew me a little bit.  So, he says: Yeah, it’s totally—y—you do it your way, ‘cause you know her better.

 

And you do other puppets as well.

 

Yeah.

 

Background, and who else?

 

Right.  That’s part of the—there are two skillsets you have to have.  Besides just doing a main puppet and a character, you do have to be able to um, do backgrounds.  And backgrounds are just like every dog, frog, cat, fish, bat; you name it, you get to so that stuff.  And then, there is assisting.  And assisting is actually a pretty major thing, and I actually love assisting.  Because you watch the other performer figure out how to do all these things.  And that is because some of the characters have um, two hands, like Ernie and um, Telly Monster has two hands.  And I consistently have been Telly Monster’s right hand for about 30 years.

 

Is that the important hand?

 

No, not really.  But it’s a balance.  Because your hand is in the head of the puppet, and then, your other hand is here—the left hand, usually.  And then, the right hand comes in, and you have to match and do everything in synchron- synchron- synchronicity with the other character, the other hand.  And it has to look natural.  It can’t look like this hand is doing this.

 

Right.

 

You know, you can’t be talking with this hand so… And movement is so important in puppetry.  In order to get a believable character, you have to break down the movement and take everything you do with the whole body, and do it between your elbow and your fingertips to make it … you believe that this is alive.  And you know, Bert—Bert moves differently than Ernie; right?  Bert’s very stiff when he walks, and Ernie’s kinda lumbering, and cute, and funny.  Um, and so, having a movement background is very great for puppetry, because you are breaking down the movement all the time in your head, and putting it, again, between your wrist and your elbow, and making people believe that Ernie is walking this way, and Bert is walking this way, very stiffly.  So, that analysis, the ability to analyze movement, and then put it into the character, is huge for me.

 

To be a puppeteer at your level, you also have to have lots of physical agility and strength.

 

Yeah; yeah.  We—we keep up.  I mean, when you work—when I first started working, and I first started working with Jim Henson, we did a hundred and ten shows in six months.  So, you were working every single day.  And I remember the first week I started, I was working in New York, and it was cold, and I was gonna get a cab home, and I’d been working all day.  And now, we work eight, ten hours a day with our arm like this, right?  We were walking, try and get a cab, and going… Somebody else, could you hail the cab?  I can’t lift this arm.

 

Oh …

 

I couldn’t do it, ‘cause it literally was that- that challenging.

 

And then, the focus to have everything between your hand and your elbow …

 

Yeah; that’s—it’s directing all your—all your energy—

 

Effort there.

 

Yes, right.  And it has to be alive, and all your acting goes into that little piece.  You know, so it’s—you learn it, and it takes a long time.  Really.  Uh, I—nobody walks in off the street and becomes um, um, a television puppeteer.  You just can’t.  Between the fact that we have three cameras, and—

 

Taking close-ups. 

 

Close-ups, and wide shots, and far shots, and you have to ride those three cameras looking at the monitor.  And the focus of the pup—the reason we do that is, the eyes don’t really see.  So, I’m looking at you right now, but a puppet might not be in the shot, because the eyes are stationary.  So, you have to learn to do that with each camera.  And every camera cut, you have to adjust the focus just enough to be alive, and looking down the barrel of the camera.

 

Right; all those intricacies.

 

So, that just takes time.  It just takes exposure um, to—to the process to being … all the details of what we do, it’s very, very—

 

Well, it also doesn’t look physically comfortable when we see you— I mean, and you’re right up against other puppeteers.

 

Right.  If you’re comfortable, you’re doing it wrong, is the rule of thumb [CHUCKLE] that we have among the puppeteers.

 

And yet, you love the work.

 

Oh, I love the work.  Uh, there’s nothing I’d rather do.

 

When you work with your gang on Sesame Street, everybody knows you’re from Hawai‘i, even though you haven’t lived here for many years.

 

Yeah; yeah.

 

But you certainly visit.

 

Yeah; uh-huh.

 

But how do they know?

 

Well, I often have a flower in my hair, and I—I often dress in Hawaiian clothes.  In the middle of winter, you’ll see me in a Hawaiian print shirt with, you know, sweater underneath, and tights, and … And I kinda talk about it a lot.  And sometimes, I’ll slip into a Hawaiian accent—you know, I’ll do a Pidgin accent when they’re giving me a hard time. Eh, what; I owe you money?

 

And you also created a character who speaks Pidgin.

 

Yes, I did.  Um, we had an outreach kind of Baby Muppets series.  And um, so it was Baby Big Bird, and Baby Cookie Monster, and Baby Abby Cadabby—different ones.  So, I played Auntie Nani, Big Bird’s auntie who took care of him as a baby bird.

That was very exciting, and I was able to push that Hawaiian influence in.  ‘Cause then they said: Well, maybe we’ll go Jamaican.  And I go: Well, you gotta get a Jamaican person, because I can’t do that one, for sure.  But they liked the idea that he was from Hawai‘i.

 

Nobody around you could really relate to the dialect, right?

 

Not too much.  But they could understand it.  That’s the advantage to Pidgin; it’s quite understandable.

 

M-hm.

 

Jamaican Patois—‘cause I worked in Jamaica a fair amount, is almost—if they speak quickly, you will just not—you can’t believe it’s even English, ‘cause it is so fast.  And so, they also do much more in-words; you know, words that only they understand.  But Pidgin is pretty understandable, by most—

 

And that was the whole point, right, in the plantation days, so that everybody could understand each other.

 

Each other; right.  So, that was the basis for it.

 

 

It was here in Hawai‘i where Pam Arciero, a creative since childhood, got her first taste of puppetry, at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa… and caught the attention of a visiting lecturer, a renowned puppet and costume designer.

 

 

I was getting a drama and dance degree at University of Hawai‘i. The gals I was hanging out with at the University had a puppet troupe called Mo‘olelo Ki‘i ‘Ilima.  And it was kinda- more or less sponsored by the University of Hawai‘i drama department.  That was Tammy Hunt was there at time, and she was wonderful uh, Theater for Youth teacher, and taught puppetry as well.  And so, she encouraged us to do shows…

…and we would do—go out into the community and do these little Hawaiian story puppet shows for umm, pretty much every elementary. I mean, I played every elementary school in the State of Hawai‘i.  I’d been in every auditorium at that time. That just sort of led me to saying: Hm, this is interesting, this is good; I can make a little money.  ‘Cause we made a little money doing it.  And then, they said: Well, this man’s coming to teach this summer; maybe you want to be in it.  And I said: What?  And they said: His name’s Kermit Love, he works with the Muppets, and he’s coming to teach this summer course, so you should take it with us. So, I said: Okay, sounds great.  And um, so I did, and he was wonderful. Kermit umm, was the man who built Big Bird, and designed Snuffleupagus, and he was a famous costume designer.  At the time, he was already long white hair, long white beard; it looked like you were taking a class with Santa Claus. But he’d already worked with Agnes de Mille, and Mr. Balanchine at the ballet, he’s built costumes and puppets for them.  So, he was just world renowned, and you were just like: Oh!

 

So, he was named Kermit before any other Kermit.

 

Yes. The story is—Jim Henson and Kermit Love lived in the same apartment building, and the doorman said: You know, Jim, there’s someone who’s named Kermit in this building; I think you should meet him.  And so, they met, and they realized that they had so many similar interests, and then Jim hired Kermit into the—

 

But there was already Kermit the Frog at that point.

 

Kermit the Frog existed, and Kermit Love was way older than that. So, that’s how they connected.

 

Oh …

 

And- and just- he was a wonderful influence; wonderful mentor.

 

And didn’t he want you to get into puppetry right away?

 

Who?

 

Kermit Love.

 

Yes, he did. Probably ‘cause I was really, like, gaga about puppets. Well ‘cause once I found it, when you find what you love, you just can’t stop, you know, obsessing about it.  Just like being in love with someone, you’re in love with what you’re doing, so you just keep every- every detail.  And then, I think because I was so willing to just learn, and learn, and learn, and practice, and practice, and practice, hours, and hours, and hours standing in front of a monitor and camera to get that right.  And I still do.  I will still rehearse when I’m not working.  If I haven’t been on camera for a month, I’ll pull out my video camera or—you know, now it’s so easy ‘cause you can flip up your computer and just work in, and make sure that everything’s working properly in your body.  Because the other thing, it’s reversed; right?  The monitor is backwards.

 

Oh, that’s right.

 

So, when you have your hand up and you move this way, it goes that way on the picture.  And so, if you don’t have your—there’s a point where you brain just clicks it over, and it makes perfect sense.

 

 

Physical agility, creative interpretation, and hours of practice – these qualities were instilled in Pam Arciero long before her time at the University of Hawai‘i. Since she was a little girl, Arciero loved everything about the arts.

 

 

I always loved um … dance and ballet, and play-acting was kind of what I did a lot of.  And I loved playing with dolls and small figures, actually, as a kid.

 

And did you talk—did they talk to each other?

 

Oh, yeah.  I—

 

Did you make the voices?

 

Yeah, not so much.  But actually, I did; when I watched TV, I always imitated voices as well.  That was really fun to me, to try and copy voices.  So, of course, my parents thought that was an extremely odd thing, but they—you know: Go ahead.  Um, and so … as a kid, I never thought I would be anything—I thought I would be maybe a ballet dancer, uh, maybe an actress. I like to sing, I like to make stuff, art stuff, so I kinda just liked doing all of the arts.  That was very interesting to me.  Not so good on the math side, but—

 

What about singing?

 

Singing; I always sang.  Yeah; I always sang a little bit.  And you know, once I was in high school, I was in chorus, and all the different things.  Um, and we did uh, acting, a little bit of the plays at Kalani. But everyone said: That’s not a real job; what are you gonna do, what are you gonna do?  And I just went: Well, I don’t know, I don’t know; maybe I’ll be a ballet teacher, maybe I’ll be a schoolteacher,  maybe I’ll be …

 

I know your father was in the Army as an officer, and then he was a Matson executive.

 

Right.

 

Did he have any thoughts about what you should do?

 

His encouragement really would have just been—he was very much about being who you are.  Which was kind of unusual in those days; right? He was a very romantic and—uh, soul.  And I think—I think the war was very hard on him, which is why he would—you know, he’d often … he’d recite poetry and go off on these kind of tangents with me. But like many World War II people, they never spoke about what really happened.

 

Right, there are not a lot of details.

 

There’s no details about what it was, but you could just tell.  He’d just go: You know, life is really short, you just can’t.

 

That was that generation. They didn’t talk about it.

 

It was that generation; they did not tell you what happened to them.  They did not.  So, they would react.  And you know, like many men of his generation, they always—they would … tie one on pretty frequently.  You know, they’d get drunk, and they’d start rambling these different stories.  But not much detail of what those stories were.  But he would also do funny voices.  And part of—I think my ability to get funny voices was to make him laugh, while I made funny voices too.

 

Oh …

 

You know, and he loved humor and poetry, and dancing, and music.  So, it was a- umm, a very—he was a very interesting man.

 

And what about your mom?

 

My mom is also—was also in arts and crafts.  She loved Hawaiiana, she was always in a Hawaiian civic club or in a—um, what were they called, the U.E., United—they had ladies clubs in those days, and she was always starting one in the neighborhood so that they could learn how to make Hawaiian quilts, or they could make recipes and stuff.  So, she was very uh, involved mom, and active um—

 

And so, both artsy parents.

 

Somewhat; yeah.

 

Arts-oriented parents.

 

Yeah, yeah. I guess that’s true, in comparison to some others.  Yeah.

 

You know, our parents did lots of backyard hula, luau kinda things, you know.  Um … and … she was a very fun person.  I just loved being with her.  And she didn’t really sing, but she would try.  And like I said, she would sing with the Hawaiian Civic Club and do different things, and so, the inspiration was always, with her, the community that was happening.  And her neighborhood community, all her—all my aunties in the neighborhood, they would have coffee every day together, and it was that kind of, you know, old school style.

 

Was she a stay-at-home mom?

 

She was a stay-at-home mom until I was about thirteen.  And then, um … during the war, she um … her college education was interrupted by the war.  So—and we all know what the war in Hawai‘i ‘The War’.  Um—

 

World War II. 

 

World War II; the only war.  Um, and she always tells the famous story, I know many people have talked about this, being in boats and picking up on Pearl Harbor Day coming, picking up stuff.  Um, and in fact, my grandfather, who was half Japanese, um, was driving by Pearl Harbor.  He was a single guy, and uh, he had been at a girlfriend’s house and was coming home.

 

It was about seven in the morning when—

 

Yeah.

 

–the bombs came.

 

Right.  Um, and apparently, they spotted him and picked him up, and they arrested him.

 

Oh, for being AWOL?

 

No; for being a Japanese spy, they thought.  And so, my father had to go and bail him out two days later once everything settled.  They—they pulled him out of jail, took him home, and say: No, he’s just—he’s a dentist.  You know.  He’s a local Japanese dentist.  And he wasn’t even all, he was half Japanese.  So, um … but she’d always tell story about that—stories about that, and that, and you know, after Pearl Harbor, hel—helping to uh, recover bodies and parts, and stuff, you know, and boats.

 

And she did that?

 

She did that.  She worked for U.S.E.D.  We always sang that song when I was a kid.

 

U.S.E.D.?

 

Yes, you know.  Fifty cents an hour, four bucks a day.  Um …

 

Mm.

 

So, she had those stories.  And then, you know, my father was … I guess everybody at that time was pretty much involved with the war in some form or another.

 

And what about culturally; what would you say your culture was, growing up?

 

My father, being Italian from the East Coast, brought certain sets of ideas.  Some of it was sort of the macho Italian stuff.  And then, my mom; she’s, you know, Hawaiian, Japanese, English, kinda local stuff.  So, our culture really was a mix of that.  And uh, I would lean towards Japanese culture, was sort of where our comfortable wheelhouse was, and then a lot of Italian spaghetti stuff.  So, I always like to say: I don’t know whether to have sushi, or spaghetti. You know, is kind of where I came from.

 

And you had a big family, too.

 

Yeah; there was five of us.  Is still five kids.  Um, and that was … you know, they were spaced out rather well; we’re about five years apart, for the most part.  So—

 

So, you get along.

 

Yeah.  You have an—always an older—older sibling doing something.  And it was bad.  When I went to Niu Valley, every single class I went to, my three older siblings had had that teacher.  So, they had expectations of what you were gonna be like, and it was like, I was never that—you know, whatever they—

 

You were different from the other kids?

 

Absolutely.  Every one of us were different from each other, you know.  So …

 

How would you describe how you were in class?

 

Umm, I was kinda the loudmouth.  I mean, I spent a lot of time being told to be quiet. Surprise!

 

And you built on that for your career.

 

I built on that. Yeah; that really made it … you know, it’s—it’s who you are.  Um … and I think that’s really one of the things always in my life, I’ve tried to strive for; just to be who you are.  ‘Cause you can’t be anybody else, really.

 

But how ironic too, because you’re always becoming other people, or other puppets—

 

That’s where I become other people.  That’s where you get to look at other people, and make fun of other people. By choosing their character traits, and rolling them into a puppet.  You know.  Um … an—and getting to explore—and really, every puppet is a part of you.  I mean, there’s that—you have to connect to it on some level, just like any acting role.

 

M-hm.

 

You have to find that part of yourself that connects directly to the character in order to make it believable and real.

 

These days, when she isn’t bringing characters to life on Sesame Street and other programs, Pam Arciero travels around the world to perform live or train aspiring puppeteers. She’s proud to serve as Artistic Director of the annual National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center.

 

 

I had no idea that being in your field, you would be asked to go all over the world to teach, and to—

 

Yeah.

 

–perform, and—

 

Yeah.

 

It’s been—you’ve been everywhere.

 

Pretty much.  Um, I… I’m lucky that way.  I—I always wanted to travel.  Um, and so, pretty much, I go and I work.  I think … the most unusual place I went, I put in a—a large acting show in Saudi Arabia.  Um, and of course, there—this was about four years ago, three years ago.  Um … and they’re very repressive of women, um, as you probably know. Uh, I had to wear an abaya to work with my guys when we were outdoors.  But it’s a very schizophrenic thing, ‘cause once you’re indoors, you can take off the abaya, which is the black—the scarf and the black, and you can wear anything you want.  And we would work and rehearse, and do all our things, and then once I stepped—once I had to go outside, I’d have to get all dressed up to even just get in a car to go back to my hotel.  Um, and you had to eat separately; women eat separately from men there, if you’re alone.  Um—

 

Were the puppeteers squished up against each other, male and female?

 

No; they were the dancing ones.  They were the big—

 

Oh, I see.

 

–dancing, and they were all male.  There would be no females.  Yeah.  Females aren’t allowed to work.

 

How did they like a female directing them?

 

The guys liked it, ‘cause they were young men, and they keep—they all said to me: Pam, five years, it’s gonna change; I’m telling you, it’s gonna change. And I’m like: Yeah.  But umm, I would do semi-submersive things—subversive things.  Like, uh, if we did a song about driving, which we had a song called “Let’s Go Driving In An Automobile,” I made sure the one female character Khokha, which is umm, an Arabian character, she’s in all the Middle Eastern productions—she drove the car.  Because they couldn’t drive; women can’t drive.  So, I made sure the girl was always the one driving.  And then, we had this little thing where uh, Ernie and Bert teach you car safety.  And if you go through—and all the things—seatbelt, and you know—

 

Mm.

 

–all the things about being safe in a car—don’t hang out the window, then you would get a driver’s license.  And we made sure that every girl got a driver’s license and would go home and say: Mom, look, I have a driver’s license. Now, that just changed; right?  They just recently changed to have driver’s licenses.  So, that actually is a li—more of a change than I expected.  But the guys really said to me, when I—the guys I worked with really thought it would be completely different in five years, that it would be a much more open society.  And I just think it’s gonna take a lot longer than that.

 

What about women in puppetry?

 

So now, it is better.  It’s still not great.  If you look at the Muppets, the main Muppet guys are still six guys.  There’s no woman there.  But Sesame Street, we have five really strong women puppeteers, and we have nine really strong men.  That’s our core of puppeteers.  So, that balance has gotten much better.  And it’s a difficult thing, ‘cause not—initially, not that many women wanted to be puppeteers. It sounded—You know, if you’re an attractive woman who does a lot of voices, you can be a comedienne or an actress.  Why would you hide under a puppet; right?  And in fact, I was doing a show called The Great Space Coaster, and our guest was Steve Allen.  And he was playing the piano, and I was hiding under the piano doing the puppet on the side of him.  And the g—the human who was in our cast came out, and she—he’s talking to her, and I’m talking with him as a puppet.  And he looks at her and he says: Well, you’re not a puppeteer; right?  You’re much too attractive to be a puppeteer.  And so I stood up like this and looked at him, and said: What?  And he goes: Well, I didn’t mean—I said: Yeah, yeah, yeah.  And got back under the piano and went back to being a puppeteer.  But I didn’t get insulted by Steve Allen. Not many people can say that.

 

And you stood up and said you wouldn’t take that. 

 

Yeah.

 

So, better, but there’s still not a big infusion of women.

 

There’s still not a lot. Yeah, yeah. I mean, we’re working on it; we’re tr—constantly looking for women who are skilled, and training new women in.  And again, it takes a long time; you have to have the patience.  And it’s one of those things, either you have it or you don’t.

 

Mm.

 

And there are some people who can train, and train, and work, and work, and they still don’t have that natural feel for what—making the puppet alive.  And you have to have that core.  So, it is a kind of uh, unique-

 

Mhmm. Skill-

 

-skillset. But uh, I have traveled a lot, all over, um, directing those large dance shows, as well as teaching.  Um, I teach at … uh, Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, I’ve taught.  I’ve taught at the uh, Taipei National University of the Arts.  In Yukon, all over.  Universe—University of Hawai‘i.  Um, and actually, I have a lovely University of Hawai‘i thing that I love, which is Kermit Love came to teach the University of Hawaii puppetry, and I took that course, and that set me sail on a course.  And then, I came back 30 years later to teach that same course to—at the University of Hawai‘i.

 

And was there a young Pam Arciero there?

 

Kind of; yeah. No, not that I know, but yeah.  But it was just really that … it was completing that circle.  I’ve been very lucky to have circles that complete in my life.

 

Pam Arciero has lived in Connecticut for more than three decades, but says Hawaiʻi will always be her home. Her two sons, both of creative minds, are pursuing an array of projects, including stand-up comedy, live music, film production, and video-game voiceover work. Of her husband, Steve Lanza, Arciero says: “He has been my biggest supporter and fan, and a guiding light when I need it.” Mahalo to Pam Arciero for sharing her story with us – and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

 

Did you ever doubt yourself, that: Oh, maybe I shouldn’t do this?

 

Oh, yeah.

 

Or maybe I’m not—

 

The first few years.

 

–good enough?

 

Oh, yeah; I still do.  I still have my doubts. I’m like: What am I doing? How—how did I do … you know, that’s just part of the nature, I think, of being a performer, of constantly putting yourself out there, trying to put yourself out the best you can.  And then, there are times when there is no jobs.  Or you go to auditions—‘cause I still audition; we all audition to get whatever roles it is.  You go to auditions, and you leave and you just go: That was terrible; what—what was I thinking, that was an awful choice.  And then, you don’t get the job, and you go: Yup; definitely an awful choice.

 

Yeah.

 

You know.  So, that’s just kind of the way the business is.  It’s not easy.  It’s—it’s a hard … hard part of the business.

 

So, you have to have a thick skin and being able to take rejection, even now, after all this time in the industry, and all your accomplishments.  And you have to have a thin skin, because you’re dealing with children, and you have to be sensitive to that.

 

And you’re acting; you have to ac—be able to access your emotions in order to really get it across.

 

So, you have to really feel.

 

I—yeah.

If you really want to do something, you just have to do it.  And people are always gonna say: Well, that’s not a good idea.  And—but you have to say: Yeah, but …  I think if you do what brings you joy, and you continue to follow that, you will make it happen in some form or shape. In some ways, I guess people are just: Well, you’re a girl, you can be a ballet dancer, who cares what you become.  You’re gonna be a mom, was sort of how—

 

Mm.

 

Ultimately, you’re gonna be a mom, was sort of how the feeling I got from some people.  And it was like: No, no, you don’t understand; this is not about that, this is about expressing who you are through movement, through dance, through arts.  And I knew that in—intrinsically, and I don’t know why.  But I did know that that—that was the key for me, was just to follow, to stay the course, to do what I wanted to do, and it would pay off eventually.

 

You didn’t know what the end would be, but you—

 

No idea.

 

–knew this was the right thing to do.

 

Yeah, yeah; no idea.

 

[END]

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
George Kon

 

George Kon of Honolulu teaches teenagers how to rehearse for life. He co-founded and leads the T-Shirt Theatre, a performance group based out of Farrington High School in Kalihi, Oʻahu, which uses a low-tech, high-zest approach to their productions, forgoing elaborate sets and costuming, and relying on honest performances by the students. Learn how Kon’s approach to theatre helps his students navigate the challenges of life and translates to skills far beyond the stage.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Sept. 15, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

George Kon Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

We have a delightful scene about road rage, and our grandest boy-very big boy, plays his mom, who has road rage. And he’s-he does this wonderful scene. This boy- He almost didn’t get a chance to because his teacher, and I didn’t know this, he’s in Special-Ed. And here he is composing five scenes.

 

And that’s the magic. This is not about training people to be actors-

 

No it’s not. We want contributing adult citizens.

 

He teaches teenagers how to rehearse for life. George Kon of Honolulu, next on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou. I’m Leslie Wilcox.Honolulu’s George Kon helps Hawaiʻi teenagers navigate that challenging time of life. He co-founded and leads the Alliance for Drama Education and its flagship performance group, T-Shirt Theatre. T-Shirt Theatre is based out of Farrington High School in Kalihi, Oahu and uses what George calls a low-tech, high-zest approach to its productions. The students dont use elaborate sets or costumes and their honest, raw performances resonate with audiences.  Many of the plays are written by the students and have helped young adults explore issues like racial prejudice, bullying, abuse, and teen suicide.

 

George Kons own path to becoming an educator and theatre director was anything but conventional.  He spent his early years in the sleepy plantation town of Puʻunēnē, Maui but his country lifestyle was put on hold for a few years.

 

You know uhh.. Growing up, I didn’t spend the whole time on Maui. Because-

 

What happened? You moved.

 

Yes, yes. After I was-when I was about 4, my sister was 8, my mom and dad decided that instead of being a nurse, she wanted to have a schedule that was closer to ours. So she wanted to go and get her teaching certificate from the University of Hawai‘i.

 

In Mānoa?

 

In Mānoa.

 

Honolulu.

 

Honolulu. So for a Japanese lady to take her kids to another island, leave her husband on, thats… Thats a no-no. In fact, we’re split right in half in our family. His parents thought it was a bad idea.

 

‘Cause she was leaving her husband.

 

What will people think? Right? It was like ‘hmm’ no no no no.

 

Did he consider going with her? I guess…

 

Well, how would, she needed to earn-

 

Oh.

 

Keep the money but, how would she gonna pay for the tuition?

 

And what did he do with the plantation?

 

Well he was an accountant.

 

Okay, so he had money.

 

Yeah he-he-not for the plantation. He was a-uhh, public accountant.

 

Oh I see.

 

He had his own business. So he couldn’t leave that business. He had clients, and-

 

And she-she had to leave the island because there was no four year institution-

 

Well yeah.

 

-on Maui at the time

 

No, not on Maui. Now they have one but you know-

 

Yeah

 

That was then…

 

So, that must’ve been the talk of the camp.

 

That was a big deal! But her mom-and dad-when they found out about uhh, the feathers being ruffled, I think they got on the phone with them and said “Mind your own business.”

 

Ohh.

 

She’s gonna do this because-

 

True family squabble.

 

Yeah, but they you know, they didn’t come to blows or anything like that but it was a rift. So dad obviously couldn’t go to his own parents house to eat dinner. So he went to mom’s house, mom’s family’s house. He would have dinner at there every night, and then uhh one of the neighbor ladies who did his laundry for him, would have him come over for dinner as well.

 

So he-

 

He got no support from his own family.

 

Wow. But-but, so he supported his wife and-and her-

 

—yes

 

-goals. And-and he apparently couldn’t cook or wash his clothes himself.

 

Or wouldn’t. Yeah, yeah but he was-he was uhh taken care of.

 

Well, four years is a long time.

 

It’s a long time. So we would go home at summer times, and winter.

 

What did you-oh so while your mom was in class you were in school.

 

So-so I was-

 

-But still it must’ve been hard.

 

Yeah I went to many schools. Y’know I went-I can remember being at Hickam, uh, Ben Parker, Ala Wai school. I think I was at-

 

Maybe because she was renting around town or-

 

Well, we were- y’know how it is right, you stay with family first before you rent. And then finally we rented our own place at Isenberg Street, and she walked up to campus-

 

Maybe 3 miles or so?

 

The healthiest she’s ever been in her life.

 

Wow, that-that was a big deal for you and your sister too because-

 

It was.

 

-this is Honolulu, and Kāne‘ohe

 

It was. Yes, yes, yes.

 

Great lesson, probably for your sister especially, that mom has a career goal, and actually the career goal was in order to be around you folks more.

 

Yes, yes yes. Y’know, she was a very effective teacher. She taught first grade.

 

Where at?

 

Lihikai.

 

Lihikai school.

 

Mhmm.

 

And did the two families come together after-

 

-Never

 

-this?

 

Never. No, it was-uhh-it never…It was never healed. It just stayed as uhh-as a rift.

 

After George Kons mother completed her degree at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and became a teacher, the family moved back to Puʻunēnē, Maui. 

 

What were you interested in, in high school?  What kind of interests piqued your—

 

Student Government. And, I don’t know how it happened ‘cause I came from this really small school, PuʻunēnēSchool. But when I got to Baldwin, I got right off, freshman class president. Sophomore student body president.

 

Student body when you’re a sophomore?

 

Sophomore. So that got me invited to Lexington Kentucky for a National Student Government conference.

 

You were a talker, weren’t you?

 

I was-

 

You could make speeches.

 

-I was, was. Yeah.

 

You weren’t shy.

 

I was not. So, here I am thinking, I’m gonna do something with public speaking, maybe be uhh…A politician or lawyer.

 

Mhmm.

 

And then I see this fabulous Chinese dancer named Al Huang. He came to Baldwin, and he’s dancing with a Caucasian partner in modern dance. Never seen modern dance before. And, when I saw it, you know I wasn’t attracted to the ballet, but modern dance had elements of gymnastics and martial arts-

 

And you were-

 

-which I had.

 

-You were into those things. You were into martial arts and gymna-

 

Those things. Yeah. Al Huang-

 

Okay

 

The modern dancer, gave me that idea that maybe I’d like to try this, so uhh-Often times when touring artists come, they’ll do a workshop on the weekend. I went to the workshop. I was the only boy. Not surprising right? But I stayed, and I said to myself when I go to college, it has to have modern dance. So Grinnell had modern dance.

 

And that’s where George Kon went after high school. A private liberal arts school in the middle of Iowa.

 

But very soon, l found that dance was related to theater; it’s in the same department. I started to take courses in both dance and theater. And then, year and a half into Grinnell, I got a chance to go to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. There, I met Rick Zank, who had just come back from Nepal.

 

Mhmm

 

He was a very, very accomplished professional actor who was kind of disenchanted with how theaters were run. And he had a book by Jerzy Grotowski called Towards a Poor Theater. You know, my low tech, high zest email address comes from that aesthetic. He said: Theater is too fat; it’s got way too many things that … film can do much better. You shouldn’t try to replicate reality, because what theater has that no other art form has is the live relationship between the actor and the audience.

 

Mm.

 

You can really discard everything else. Which was pretty revolutionary at the time.

 

Thats right.

 

So, here, with Rick … I created at Grinnell a piece called—uh, I didn’t even title it. It was uh, based on the character of Pentheus from Euripides’ The Bacchae. I don’t know if you ever come across that in classics. So, it’s a—it’s a movement piece with very words. And I show it to my dancer teacher, and I show it to my theater instructor at Grinnell, and both of them kinda pat my head and say: That’s very interesting. End of story. When I take it to Milwaukee Repertory Theater and show it to Rick, he starts directing me, and he starts to evolve and develop the character that I’d started. And he says: This is he kinda theater I want to be making; would you be interested in coming to join me and a few others at the University of Iowa, which has a center for new performing arts that’s just gonna start.

 

How far along were you at Grinnell in Iowa?

 

Hour and a half. And Iowa City is just an hour away from Grinnell, coincidentally. But it’s a world away. It’s where the International Writing Workshop, where Tennessee Williams got his start.

 

What did your parents think? ‘Cause you left—

 

Oh, here—

 

–college.

 

Here it is; yeah? Uh, I—I—I had trepidations about making that phone call. ‘Cause I’m the only son. My dad, eldest of five boys, the smartest of the litter, and he didn’t go to college ‘cause his father begged him to help send the other boys. So, all the other brothers went to college, but not him. So, his only son …

 

 

He’s gonna live through you.

 

You were gonna get your degree.

 

I was gonna get my degree. He said: Take business administration.

 

Uh-oh.

 

And here I am, studying drama and dance; right? And then, I call him and say: Dad, I got this opportunity to join this professional group; it’s a Rockefeller-funded, five-year project at the University of Iowa. If I’d gotten my degree, I would have to work for seven or eight years before I could even position myself to go for a grant like this. It’s being put in my lap here. And I’m not even finished college, but they feel I have what it takes.

 

So, you substituted your capture of a college degree with professional experience.

 

Professional job. Fully paid. We didn’t have to wait tables, drive cabs. It was not fat, but we had a living stipend. Which is like, unheard of; right?

 

George Kon continued to perform professionally with the Iowa Experimental Theatre Lab which eventually relocated to Baltimore, Maryland and later toured in New York and France. Then George began to share his style of experimental theatre at New York University.

 

The company starts to fragment. You know. Uh, people start to leave. And I get picked up at NYU. They want me to head up um … what we do with the lab work in

something they called the Experimental Theater Wing.

 

You were hired to be a teacher.

 

I was hired to be a—

 

And you didn’t—

 

–teacher.

 

–have a college degree.

 

I did not have a—

 

And you worked for NYU.

 

I worked for NYU. Isn’t that something? Yeah. ‘Cause in the Experimental Theater Wing, it didn’t matter your certification. It mattered that you had—that you made theater.

 

M-hm.

 

And we had worked for, by that time, six or seven years, in this form, ala Grotowski.

 

And at the time, were you going to Broadway plays? Were you enjoying the city?

 

I got invited to try out for Pacific Overtures.

 

And did you?

 

No. But uh, somebody scouted me, and said, you know: I think you would be good for this.

 

That’s not the way you wanted to go.

 

Well … it kind of flickered through my mind, that that would be interesting to see if I could cut it, you know, doing that. But we hadn’t—we hadn’t finished—at the time that I was made that offer, we hadn’t finished with our work with the lab. I was still in the full course of creating plays for them. If that had happened … after, when I was in between things, I might have—I might have gone—

 

But there are a lot of people who had have said: Are you kidding? I’m gonna grab that. That’s a choice I may never get again.

 

Yeah.

 

But you said: No, I’m committed to what I’m doing.

 

Right. At the time, uh … the work that I was doing with the lab was uh … was really interesting and consuming, all-consuming.

 

While teaching at NYU, George Kon would reunite with an old friend, Walt Dulaney, whom he met back in high school. The two would go on to form a partnership that would span three decades.

 

You know, Walt and I had been friends since I was in high school.

 

Okay this is Walt Dulaney.

 

Walt, the famous Walt Dulaney. I met him-the way I met him was umm…I knew he did prom assemblies. I asked ‘would you come to Baldwin, do a prom assembly?’ That’s how I met him.

 

Wow, and this is a guy who would be your artistic partner for years.

 

Yeah; for years. So, Walt and I—uh, Walt went to m—uh, Rochester Institute of uh, Technology to um … get his uh … photo illustration degree at the same time that I was doing the work with the lab. And then, we reconnected in New York to teach the Experimental Theater when he assisted me. And then, when the first snows would come, we would relocate to Hawaiʻi. And Farrington was one—one of the first places that we anchored in.

 

Why is that?

 

We got—uh, Wally Chappell, who ran HTY, we—we got hired at HTY first as their education directors. And we suggested to them that they should … run drama education in the schools. HTY didn’t go for that project, so we decided to branch off on our own. So, Wally helped us meet Alfred Preis. Do you remember Alfred Preis?

 

Alfred Preis was an architect, and he—State Foundation on—

 

State Foundation—

 

–Culture and the Arts.

 

State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. But he was a czar; he was the art czar. And everything that went, he said: Go.

 

And he funded it.

 

He funded it. Right. So, Alfred gave us our first, first grant; it was called Suitcase Theater. And in that grant, wer—we were—our goal was to meet every drama teacher in the State.

 

Oh …

 

So, we went … with our suitcase, to every—and we didn’t have a car. So, we went by bus all the way out to Kahuku. Walt and I, from the Suitcase Theater grant, discovered that of all the schools, Farrington was most like the neighbor island schools.

 

Mm.

 

The kids were super-appreciative of what we did. Even if they had a hard time doing our Stage Fright Workshops, they loved—you know, they were—they had aloha.

 

Stage Fright Workshops; what are those?

 

Yeah; yeah. You know, audience manners.

 

Okay. And this is actually what got you a permanent role

 

at—

 

At—

 

–Farrington High School.

 

–Farrington. Yes. Audience manners.

 

So, we—

 

There was a need to teach the—

 

So, we—we—

 

–students manners at assemblies.

 

Yes; yes, indeed. So, we—we—our workshops uh, had a component called performer fitness, project—

 

Mm.

 

–pronouns with poise. Tchk-tchk; ah. And personality. Everything’s alliterated; right? Those four aspects are what we teach for the actors. And then, audience have to pay attention, uh, show appreciation, appropriate applause. That part is what Sherilyn Tom saw when she came to see our Midsummer Night’s workshop with the gifted and talented students. She said: I want that, because our kids are so rowdy, we can’t have assemblies; can you help us?

 

And when was this? What was the year when the audiences were so unruly?

 

  1. Early; very early. But Sherilyn Tom, English Department chair, was a visionary. She said: This is what you do. Teach Shakespeare four days in the classroom, on day five take them into the auditorium, just their class. Have each of them stand in the solo spotlight. But soft, what lychee in the window breaks? Right? One-by-one. They will earn empathy for the guts it takes to be onstage.

 

That is very—that’s a really brilliant idea.

 

It’s a brilliant idea.

 

Empathy.

 

Yes.

 

From the audience.

 

Empathy. So, four years later—shhh, we could open the doors because everybody knew how to be an audience.

 

That’s amazing.

 

Same lady says: You get these kids all excited; why don’t you take the most talented kids you saw during the year, and do a summer drama workshop. So, we did just that. Six weeks later, couldn’t let go of the kids. So, we go to Alfred Preis; right? State Foundation. Normally, it takes uh, a year to apply for a grant, da- da-da. We just asked him: Would you fund our dream project? We’re in Kalihi at Farrington; we’re gonna call it T-Shirt Theatre. What do you say? He gave it to us.

 

George Kon and Walt Dulaney co-founded T-Shirt Theatre in Honolulu in 1985. George estimates theyve touched the lives of more than 10,000 students.  Walt Dulaney passed away in 2011, and George continues to serve as Executive Director and Artistic Director of the program.

 

We are a private not-for-profit corporation. Alliance for Drama Education is the mothership, and T-Shirt Theatre is the flagship, the most visible and heartstrings part of the—

 

And you followed your mentors, and you didn’t go for the costumery. It’s imagination that really—

 

Yes.

 

–you know, basically—

 

Low tech, high zest.

 

Is T-Shirt Theatre an after school program?

 

Yes.

 

So, what-what hours is it?

 

It—it goes Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, three to five-thirty. And we go eleven months out of the year.

 

And can any child in the district—

 

Any child—

 

–participate?

 

–on the island, if they can get themselves there to rehearse with us, to participate.

 

And do they have to pay to enter?

 

There is no fee. How you pay is by coming promptly, and consistently to rehearsal, and giving it your one hundred percent. The first project is the envoys. That’s where we take small teams of actors to each of the … was it ten feeder elementaries to Farrington. They perform for each class. We do like, five classes a day. And then, they coach small groups of students to perform for their own class by the end of the forty-five-minute period. It’s an amazing process to see these kids, who sometimes are very, very shy, be able to do this. Very, very big project, they have to take a whole day off from school to do this. But that’s one project. Then there’s a fall show, and then there’s a spring show. And if they do two out of the three, we can—you know, you can take a pass. You can say: I need to take a leave of absence.

 

So, you do treat them as professionals in the sense—

 

I—

 

–that we expect you to be here—

 

Yes.

 

–here’s the requirements.

 

Yes. Because … and actually, if they don’t show up, then you’re left with …

 

–a real puka.

 

It is a puka.

 

Not kipuka, but a puka—

 

Yes.

 

–in your program.

 

It is a puka.

 

So, that’s a real world lesson. You know, there’s a real—

 

Yes.

 

There’s a real consequence when you don’t show up.

 

I think uh, why I love drama education so much, particularly when it comes to performance, even in elementary schools is, when you don’t say your line correctly, or when you don’t show up, somebody suffers, and they will let you know about that. You know. And I think … academics sometimes don’t have that real world consequence.

 

Do the students determine their own material in T-Shirt Theatre?

 

We work to a theme. And this last show actually came to us from uh, two of the actors. They said: George, can we do something with memories? I said: Memories, memories … let me think about that. I liked the idea, but I didn’t want to just be nostalgic. So, as Jonah and I were discussing it, I said: How about … memories to capture, or capture; capture is gonna be like our title. So … you know, well, can you distill it even to a moment, when you were changed. That’s—and that became the prompt.

 

That’s a good question. What came—

 

Yes.

 

–out of that?

 

Our show, Memories to Capture. That was our spring show. Th—the one that touches me the most is um … a scene we call In Due Time. And this boy is trying to figure out how he can come out. And so, he says—uh, in the scene, he—he converses with his—his conscience, and he’s kinda deciding who is gonna be the first one that I tell this to. Can I tell my parents? No. Uh, can I tell my best friend? Uh, she’s not really ready to hear this. Ha; can I tell my sister? Yes. So, this boy has a really good relationship with his sis, so he comes out to his sis. And then, he comes out to his good friend. And the good friend, you can see, really has trouble with this. And then, he comes home. As he’s opening the door, he overhears Mom and Dad talking. And Mom is saying: Stelthen, Stelhen; where are you? And Dad is saying: Where is that boy? Mom says: Maybe he has a girlfriend. I’ve never seen him with any girls; if that boy is gay, I will have failed in my role as a father. So, he never comes in the house; right? Stelthen chooses to do this at the public show where his dad is in the audience. He has not disclosed to his family.

 

Wow.

 

That’s some guts; huh? After the show, Dad gives him a big hug. Son, I love you.

 

That’s what you’re dealing with youth who are going through all kinds of—

 

All—

 

-changes—

 

–kinds of things.

 

-and adjustments, and very big struggles. Especially in a low-income area, where you just—you know, sometimes there is some dysfunction. I mean, some of the kids are really vulnerable.

 

Very, very vulnerable.

 

And your career is still going strong in this, and it’s all … you’re still following this course that nobody instructed you in. You know, you see where it takes you, and you make the best of it, and you’re looking to mold young people.

 

I am. I am. And I’m hoping that uh, Jonah and Primo are able to carry it. You know, I’m grooming them as a legacy. You know if- as a parent, if you form a business, you hope your son or your daughter will take it over; right? Primo came from the inaugural T-Shirt Theatre group. And now, he’s back coaching. He’s the one that sells Harleys. Story about Primo. Um …he’s closing the windows one day, and the windows in the room pops and cracks, and cuts him. So, he’s got this kinda scar on his wrist. So, remember that. He’s working at Zippy’s, and his supervisor comes roaring in on a motorcycle, coincidentally, very pissed off. He and his girlfriend are having some kind of fight, throwing pots and pans. So, Primo, who has played a number of counseling scenes in T-Shirt Theatre, starts to say some of the words from one of his scenes. Hey, what you doing, man? Chill. You know, he starts to try to talk the guy down. The guy doesn’t want to have anything. What? What are you talking about? And then, you know, he doesn’t give him the time of day. Primo keeps on talking about it, and at one point, he goes like this. He doesn’t say anything; he just shows him. And the guy goes— Whoa; you too? ‘Cause he’s suicidal, this kid. Primo says: You know what, you should go home; I got it covered over here. Go home; call me as soon as you get home. What for? Oh, just talk story. And he—he got the manager to go home.

 

That is a good life skill. And the manager is still with us today, I presume.

 

Yes.

 

Mm.

 

So … life following art. Script it, and then use it. Rehearsing for life; that is our mission.

 

In 2018, T-Shirt Theatre presented Kipuka, an anti-bullying project that explores the issues of bullying, cyberbullying, and teen suicide prevention. This latest production under the artistic direction of George Kon was original and drew from the true life experiences of his students. T-Shirt Theatre continues to serve as a kīpuka—like green growth in a lava field… for the next generation of students. And while George looks to pass on the direction of T-Shirt Theatre to the next generation, he told me during this conversation in the spring of 2019, he’s not ready to exit the stage yet. Mahalo to George Kon of Pālolo Valley in Honolulu. And thank you for joining us for this edition of Long Story Short on PBS Hawaiʻi. Im Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

Take two. Very much. That came from Walt. T-Shirt Theatre, because we rehearse, is a perfect uh, environment for that. You know, and the kids learn that if they make a mistake, they can always take two. And I think if th—you know, if we can help them understand that that doesn’t just go for drama, that goes for anything that you’re trying to accomplish, there’s really almost always a chance to redo.

 

 

 

[END]

 

 

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