Warm, bubbly and infinitely energetic, Carolyn Wright is a Maui Academy of Performing Arts director, teacher, actress, volunteer and super-mom of three. I caught her for an interview at the Seabury Hall box office last Friday evening, counting cash and folding programs before the audience arrived for the show. I grabbed a stack of programs and began folding while we chatted about her fascinating and unconventional career.
"I never expected to have a career in theater," she told me. As an undergraduate at Duke University, she studied theater on the side while majoring in political science. "I was trying to be smart and major in a 'real' subject," she said with a laugh. "I really thought I was going to be, like, a diplomat."
After graduation, she got a job at the State Department in San Francisco. In the evening after work, she auditioned for shows. After about a year she had her first success: a role in an educational production produced by Kaiser Permanente called "Professor Bodywise."
Carolyn Wright works on a grant proposal for The Maui Academy of Performing Arts.
Eliza Wright photo
Wright played Ma Joad in MAPA’s 2009 production of “The Grapes of Wrath” with Mark Collmer (from left) Daryl Jane, Steve Hatcher, William Makozak and Perry Kunin.
Eric Rolph photo
Kalani Whitford as the Wicked Witch is surrounded by Winkies Jett Batoon (from left), James Natividad, Isaac Rauch and Lana Canton in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
Sydney Roberts is Janet Van De Graff in Seabury Hall’s “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
ERIC ROLPH photo
"I didn't even realize it was a kid's show when I auditioned," she told me. She was even more surprised to learn that rehearsals ran from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., right on top of her day job. Suddenly, Wright had to choose between her safe career and her true passion.
"I went to my boss and asked for a leave of absence . . . and I ended up never going back," Wright said. "I was really lucky in San Francisco to work for six years as an actor. I never had to have my real job!"
After "Professor Bodywise," Wright performed in a second Kaiser Permanente production, "Secrets," a show for teenagers about the HIV/AIDS epidemic. "This was the '80s, when people were just starting to realize that AIDS affects everyone, not just homosexuals," explained Wright.
"Secrets" was a huge success in California schools, so the show began to branch out to schools in other states, including Hawaii. While touring on Oahu for several weeks, Wright took advantage of her weekends off to explore the neighboring islands. "My second weekend, I was staying in a bed and breakfast in Kihei. Jerry, my husband, was living next door. We met in the driveway. It was like, Ah! Love at first sight, I guess."
She and Jerry stayed in touch after Wright returned home to San Francisco. Six months later she left her job at Kaiser Permanente and moved to Maui to marry him.
Of course, as soon as Wright arrived on the island she dove straight into the world of Maui theater. For several years she performed in Shakespeare plays with Studio H'Poko, until she became pregnant with her first child, Nicholas, and put acting on a 15-year hiatus.
Meanwhile, she began working for Maui Academy of Performing Arts (MAPA) as a drama specialist for the Voices program, which uses drama to teach reading comprehension skills to elementary school kids. She earned a masters degree in Arts Education from the University of Phoenix and a license to teach elementary school in Hawaii in 2003. In 2005 she became the Director of Programs at MAPA, where she plans and organizes the many classes, educational programs and productions MAPA offers each year.
Two years ago, Wright returned to the stage as Ma Joad in MAPA's version of Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." Since then she has performed in several productions, most recently MAPA's production of Dylan Thomas' "Under Milkwood."
Today, Wright is a mother of three teenagers, all of whom show a penchant for theater. Her oldest, Nicholas, played Romeo in Seabury Hall's production of "Romeo and Juliet" last fall. Makena, her oldest daughter, was the fiery maid Martine in Seabury's spring play, Moliere's "Learned Ladies." Her youngest, Eliza, sang the part of Gwenny in "Under Milkwood" last April.
In addition to being a mom, a MAPA director and an actress, Wright is also a dedicated volunteer. She is the head of the box office at Seabury Hall and the chairwoman of the Publicity Committee for Seabury's annual Craft Fair.
When I asked her how she finds the energy and motivation to do all that she does, she said, "I couldn't do it if I didn't love it . . . Though you can't really measure the rewards, you see them everyday."
Building a strong community and helping young people develop into capable and conscientious citizens are two of Wright's overarching goals, and she believes theater is a powerful tool to achieve them. "You see how the arts connect people," Wrights said. "And it's exciting what it does to children and their development."
She quoted her colleague David Johnson, MAPA's executive and artistic director, who often says, "We live in a white water world," a concept originally coined by author Peter Vaill. "When kids are comfortable with the arts," Wright explained, "they are comfortable in a world where things are changing fast and are not black and white."
Wright and I finished folding the programs just as the first few audience members strolled toward the table. Wright's face lit up with a welcoming smile as she pulled out her reservation list and began selling tickets.
Wright's life is obviously fast-paced and far from cut-and-dry, but she makes living in a "white water world" look easy, and even downright fun. Her story is yet another piece of proof that theater is not only "real," but an absolutely vital fixture in today's hectic world.
"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz": Don't miss the last weekend of ProArts' production of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," adapted by Jonathan Lehman from the beloved story by L. Frank Baum. The show features 12 talented Maui performers, including Tyler Charbonneau, Dale Button, Joseph Duncan, Bill Schnitzer, Laurel Sherwood and Kalani Whitford.
* "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" shows at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 4 p.m. Sunday at the ProArts Playhouse at Azeka Mall in Kihei. Tickets are $15 for reserved seats and $10 for floor seating. Call 463-6520 for tickets or more information.
"The Drowsy Chaperone": This is the final weekend of "The Drowsy Chaperone," a new musical masquerading as an old '20s musical. This fun madcap romp of pure entertainment all begins when a die-hard musical-theater fan invites us to listen to his "favorite 1920s musical," puts the record on his turntable, and the characters literally burst to life in his living room! Two dozen Seabury students are working with director/choreographer David Ward and music director Stephen Haines.
* "The Drowsy Chaperone" shows at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Seabury Hall Performance Studio. Tickets are $13 for adults, $11 for seniors, and $7 for students. Call 573-1257 for reservations and information.
Generations - The Farden Family in Hula and Music: The descendents of Charles and Annie Farden have long been prominent figures in Maui's music and hula scene. Kumu Hula Emma Farden Sharpe and Composer Irmgard Farden Aluli are part of this talented family whose legacy continues to this day. The family's heritage lives on as Holoau Ralar and Hailama Farden gather their talented family members and students for this not-to-be-missed special presentation.
* "Generations" takes the stage at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 27 at McCoy Studio Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Tickets are $25 for adults and $12.50 for kids 12 years and younger, plus applicable fees, available from the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org.
Gabriel Iglesias, The Fluffy Shop Tour: Dubbed as unbelievably funny and electrifying, Gabriel Iglesias is a gifted performer who has the ability to consistently deliver a quality comedy experience in every performance. His high-octane show is a hilarious mixture of storytelling, parodies, characters and sound effects that bring all his personal issues to life. Gabe's clean, animated comedy style has earned him national crossover appeal.
Known as the "fluffy" comic in an aloha shirt, the 32-year old funny man often riffs about his girthy middle -whether it's talking about how little dancing it takes for him to work up a sweat at the nightclub, or how hearing his girlfriend coo the words "chocolate cake" over the telephone works for him like phone sex, he evokes laughter.
* Gabriel Iglesias performs at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 27, at Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center Tickets are $40, plus applicable fees, available as above.