When I was 11 I asked my fifth grade homeroom teacher, Mrs. Hashizaki, if she would be in her classroom after school that day so I could come in to work on a project for art class. Mrs. H, as she is known at Heeia Elementary School, squinted at me almost quizzically.
“You are so ambitious,” she said. “Do you know what that means, Kathleen, because you really are!”
I knew what ambitious meant, but I didn’t know why that applied here – I just wanted to create stuff. When I was two, I would make up songs singing into a microphone and demanding my mother’s undivided attention. Later, I would fold origami on Saturday mornings just for fun. Sometimes it wasn’t fun cause I didn’t understand what the stupid instructional pictures were telling me to do and I’d wake my dad up, crying because I couldn’t do it right. My parents’ philosophy in raising me and my brother was to get us involved in as many activities as possible. For me that meant soccer, softball, swimming, archery, watercolor, ceramics, leather crafting (what?), choir… but it wasn’t long before all my extra-curricular activities took place in a theater.
My onstage life began as a member of the children’s chorus in Hawaii Opera Theatre’s “Hansel and Gretel” when I was 8. I loved the smell of the makeup – tons of eyebrows and rouge for the little girls. It made me feel like a grown up. Mom told me then and there that I was not allowed to wear makeup out of the house, unless I had to for a show, until I was 16. (That didn’t really get reinforced. Oh well, Mom!)
When I was 9 I was a guest artist with the only professional theatre company on Oahu, and the title character in “Revenge of the Space Pandas or Binky Rudich and the Two- Speed Clock,” by David Mamet. I learned the difference between Stage Right and Stage Left. I learned how to write blocking in shorthand. I learned not to mouth other actors’ lines (I wasn’t!) or wiggle my fingers unconsciously as I said my lines (totally wasn’t doing that). It was also the first time I learned responsibility to the script and the playwright, when I asked the director about a line in which I ask my buddy for a “bottle top”.
“Can’t I just say ‘bottle cap’ here?” I asked, little know-it-all that I was. “I mean, who says ‘bottle top’ anyway?”
“I don’t know,” answered Daniel A. Kelin, II, director and amazingly patient educator. “Are they the same thing?”
I started to reply quickly in the affirmative – but then stopped, realizing what it was he was trying to tell me.
I learned a lot in those early days of theater that grew into numerous community theater productions per year, and participation in nearly every musical put on by my high school. I would listen to the big Broadway spectacular musicals, starting with The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Miss Saigon, over and over in my mom’s recliner, headphones plugged into the CD player (a relatively new invention!) imagining the world created through the cast recordings and knowing that was where I belonged.
I was fortunate enough to play Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific” at Castle Performing Arts Center, which traveled to the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska. There I was invited by Peter Coxhead, co-founder and principal of Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, to “come to my school” – a theater conservatory in London, England. Mom was thrilled by the prospect of sending me off to a structured environment to begin my training, rather than allowing me to “live in a box if I have to” to make it in New York. I’m glad she recognized the need for training, instead of allowing me to become a 17 year old vagrant; I scrambled to get my school credits in order and graduated a year early from high school.
The most powerful gift that my Hawaii theater days provided was the constant nurturing of my pilot light – a term I first heard coined by Barbara Deutsch, entertainment career guru, much later in life. It’s that light inside of you that burns its brightest when you are following your passion. And it can be so easy for that light to fade as you venture into the big leagues and navigate new places, new people, and new challenges. But the smells, emotions, and physical feelings that I found as a novice in theater stay with me so many years later. I feel at home whenever I walk into a theater.
So that ambition Mrs. H was talking about back in fifth grade… I really wouldn’t know how to find that drive if I wasn’t using my energy to create. I feel privileged to call myself a professional actor today. And I’m so excited for the journey to continue.
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