Kauai’s premier performing arts stage has been closed for more than four of the last six years, reducing the island’s ability to attract big name acts and frustrating a rural arts community left with scant alternative venue options.

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The Kauai Community College Performing Arts Center closed for a year and a half in 2017 when the transformer that powered the air-conditioning system went dead. It reopened for a matter of months in 2019. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, shutting the theater down again in March 2020.

The stage has remained dark since.

“This is a state-funded facility that is tragically going to waste,” said Greg Shepherd, who teaches music and acting courses at the college, part of the University of Hawaii system.

In a typical year the Kauai Community College Performing Arts Center hosts about 100 performances, drawing nationally and internationally acclaimed talent, as well as local performers. Courtesy: Jason Blake/2022

Faulty theater rigging is to blame for the prolonged closure, according to Interim Vice Chancellor for Administrative Services Calvin Shirai. Repairs, which have not yet begun, are expected to cost about half a million dollars.

The college has enlisted a structural engineer for the project but supply chain snarls have made the work slow-going. As such, it’s difficult to predict a reopening date.

“We realize how important it is to the community and we are sorry that it’s taking so long,” Shirai said, adding that the college can’t afford the repairs so the University of Hawaii Community Colleges System has agreed to foot the bill.

He said he hopes the theater will be ready to resume productions sometime between late spring and fall of 2023.

Since 1995 the 560-seat Performing Arts Center has been the top performing arts stage on the island in terms of acoustics, location and appearance. It’s the only venue on Kauai with a Steinway concert piano, which many professional musicians who travel to the island require to perform. And it’s equipped with professional sound and lighting systems, along with the staff to operate it.

Centrally located on the college campus in Lihue, the theater in a typical year hosts up to 100 performances — from string quartets and tango ensembles to musicals and hula shows. The venue draws international and national talent but also accommodates nonprofit performing arts programs, including youth groups, with discounted rental rates.

On rural Kauai, the venue is in a league of its own. During its closure, local performing artists say they are forced to utilize venues with inadequate seating capacity, poor acoustics, no staff to help with production or which have higher rental costs.

Island School, a private college preparatory academy near the KCC campus, relies on the Performing Arts Center as a concert venue. With the theater closed, student performances have relocated to a small stage in the school cafeteria.

“It was heaven-sent to have this gorgeous theater right in our backyard,” said Philip Steinbacher, who staged two dozen concerts at the theater as the former head of the school’s arts department. “It elevates the experience to them in a way that makes them feel like they are doing something really, really special and important, whereas to perform a concert in the place where you eat your lunch everyday is not the same experience.”

Students from Island School, a private college preparatory academy on Kauai near the KCC campus, have relied on the KCC Performing Arts Center for student productions. The school has a small cafeteria stage but no dedicated theater. Courtesy: Island School/2022

The theater’s closure has also reduced opportunities for Kauai residents to see big name acts.

“As small and as rural and as remote as we are, we often got top name classical or pop performers here,” Steinbacher said. “Judy Collins is an example of that. But it doesn’t look promising that we’re going to get these names again because there’s no suitable place for them to go. They’re not going to perform at a pavilion at the food court.”

Plans recently fell apart to bring Christina Bianco, who won acclaim for playing Fanny Brice in a production of Funny Girl in Paris, to perform on Kauai, according to Steinbacher, because with the theater shut down there was no suitable venue.

Chris “Angus” Sweitzer, who has designed sound and lighting in the theater, said he’s concerned that if the theater continues to go unused, it will start to degrade.

“I don’t know how many countless millions of dollars of taxpayer money went into building that facility, but it’s going to fall into beyond neglect unless it starts getting used,” he said. “Buildings are in a sense like living breathing things. If they aren’t used, they begin to fall apart. Equipment begins to fall apart. It’s not unlike sports in that if you suddenly stop an athlete from working for two years they can’t just jump back into it.”

Almost as frustrating as the theater’s shutdown, members of the Kauai performing arts scene say, is the fact that the college has not responded to questions about why the theater remains closed now that the pandemic has subsided.

“There’s been no transparency about it, no accountability,” said Jason Blake, president of the Kauai Concert Association and founder of Kauai Sings. “We still have been given no specifics on what’s really going on.”

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