John F. Kennedy Theatre sign

John F. Kennedy Theatre

On December 4, 2013, the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa John F. Kennedy Theatre celebrated its 50th anniversary. It’s opening in 1963 was a major cultural event for Honolulu, one of the first modern theatres to be built in the community. The 50th anniversary milestone came after thousands of students produced and performed more than a thousand theatre and dance productions in front of close to 1.5 million people.

“It’s an amazing legacy and I think that is one of the most important things that people understand who came before and who built this program,” said UH Mānoa Theatre and Dance Department Chair Paul Mitri.

Kennedy Theatre, designed by internationally renowned architect I.M. Pei, has been home to that program, the Department of Theatre and Dance, since it opened. Dennis Carroll, the department’s now retired long-time chair, was a student when the theatre was under construction.

“We were very excited,” remembered retired department chair Carroll. “We were wondering too about the challenge though, how could you use the space, what would it be like.”

The students and faculty lived up to the challenge and the theatre’s motto: where tradition meets innovation. In addition to the hundreds of productions of theatre and dance from all eras and parts of the world, there have been a number of world and Hawaiʻi premieres and as of 2013, 37 Shakespeare, 15 kabuki and eight Beijing opera productions.

Most of the great playwrights of western literature have been represented on stage as well as the works of local playwrights like Lisa Matsumoto.

Kennedy Theatre audiences have seen it all.

“From spectacle to small, from Shakespeare to kabuki, from youth theatre to dance,” said Mitri.

The university’s dance program launched in 1966 performing full-length ballets, the classics and the works of many well-known choreographers. The annual dance concerts always feature a wealth of new material by UH faculty and students along with an amazing display of Pacific-Asian dance forms.

“I think the thing that makes us special here is that the diversity of our programming is greater than anywhere in the world, literally,” said Mitri. “No other community has that.”

“You’re proud of the things that have happened and proud for the successes of the students you’ve tried to mentor,” added Carroll.

Students have gone on to work professionally all over the world. Others stayed in Hawaiʻi creating and contributing to the state’s theatre and dance scene. Many students have gone on to teach.

“I think most of the drama teachers in the islands have come through our program,” said Mitri.

Since 1963, every UH Mānoa theatre and dance student has come through Kennedy Theatre.

“And they step on to the stage and they see this wonderful space in front of them and all of the seats, 600 plus seats, looking at them, that’s then when they go, “Oh this is great. This is really great,” said Mitri. “And after they perform here, they really get to feel what it’s to fill a wonderful space like this.”

“It was an inspiration,” said Carroll. “Very many directors wanted to use, student directors, wanted to use the main stage as being the ultimate challenge.”

Kennedy also features a smaller side-venue, the Earl Ernst Lab Theatre.

“The great thing for the students in both spaces is they’re allowed to be as intimate as they want over there and as big and passionate as they can be here,” said Mitri.

Kennedy Theatre was originally called the East-West Theatre and then became one of, if the not the first building named after President John F. Kennedy just days after his death and the theatre’s opening night. It has proven to be a living tribute to JFK’s commitment to arts and culture and relationships between Asia and the Pacific.

“I think that we have been, continue to be, and absolutely should be, the major resource for all things theatre and dance here,” said Mitri. “And Kennedy I think is a wonderful place for that.”

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