ProArts producer Jonathan Lehman has experienced both the joys and pitfalls of community theater over the course of his long career. When I interviewed him this week, he spoke candidly about the insecurities and financial difficulties of working in the arts, producing shows and running an independent theater, and why he continues to do it anyway.
Lehman has spent most of his adult life working on various theater projects, although he has had no formal training in drama. "You know, I never took an acting class in my life, a directing class, or really a theater class," Lehman told me. "When I went to high school, my mom didn't let me take drama. She thought drama was going to be evil, until she saw my name in the newspaper, and then she changed her mind!"
His mother's opinion of drama had no influence on Lehman, who got involved with his local community theater almost as soon as he finished high school. "I went to junior college for one year, and I couldn't find a parking space so I decided to drop out and get involved in theater.
As Hucklebee in “The Fantasticks”
"No, I'm serious. We had a very severe shortage of parking in the college that I went to. I'd drive around for hours and I'd go, 'Oh, I can just skip this class and work on a theater project instead.' "
The local theater in Walnut Creek, Calif., where Lehman grew up, was a converted walnut warehouse called the Civic Arts Theater, run by the city of Walnut Creek. Lehman started out as an independent contractor, working as a box office manager, property manager and eventually director and producer.
He directed his first show, a production of "The Music Man," when he was only 21. "That was quite an experience because the author/composer, Meredith Wilson, actually came to see the production," Lehman said. "That was quite a coup for us to get him to come see the show. He even sang 'Seventy-Six Trombones' with the cast."
For 16 years he worked as an independent contractor and occasionally a full-time employee of the city of Walnut Creek, in various capacities on dozens of different shows.
"Eventually I got a little burned out of that and I decided to put it on hold." Lehman told me. "I couldn't take the financial strain of it so I went into corporate America and took a break from it for a while."
He got a job with the Clorox Co., which allowed him to move to Maui and telecommute for eight years. During this time he got involved with community theater on Maui, at first as an actor and later as a producer for ProArts, a company he and his business partner, Doug Kendrick, founded in 2006.
ProArts started out as a dinner theater, which turned out to be popular with audiences but was not financially viable. Lehman explained, "Maui audiences decide to do things kind of last minute, and when you're doing dinner theater, you have to guarantee a certain number of dinners. So we lost a little bit of money on that project and we were kind of disenchanted at first."
However, a few years later, the opportunity came up to produce a show at the Steppingstone Playhouse, Maui Academy of Performing Arts' new theater at Queen Ka'ahumanu Center.
"In 2008 we came back and did a production of 'Urinetown,' the musical, the show with the worst title in the world. We didn't think anyone would come to see it, but it was actually a surprising hit."
After that, Lehman and his partner decided to experiment with producing children's shows. "When I was on the Mainland, I performed for many years in a company called 'Fantasy Form Actors Ensemble,' " he said. "We did one-hour theater productions. They were a little bit fractured in those days, but Doug and I decided to fracture them even more. We write all the scripts, original scripts, and we make them very funny. We wanted them to be very funny for adults and still very entertaining for kids."
ProArts also does occasional productions for grown-ups, including "Cabaret" and its current production, "The Fantasticks."
As ProArts grows, the structure of the organization is changing. It began as a limited liability company, but is making the switch to nonprofit, a change which should become official in April.
"We weren't making any money anyway, so we thought we might as well be legitimately named nonprofit. As a nonprofit, you can apply for grants, you can get donation money that is completely tax deductible, things like that. You become more of a community organization."
Obtaining nonprofit status is often the best strategy for a small community theater group, even a successful one like ProArts, Lehman explained, because "With just tickets sales, it is very difficult to make money."
Paying rent each month for the new ProArts Playhouse at Azeka Mall is an added financial burden.
"Although we have really a very good deal with Azeka, we still have to have that net every month to be able to proceed," Lehman told me. "And if we can't, then we close down, which is what we did before. We just closed the place and took a month off until we were ready to do shows again. But we're not going to do that this time! We're going to keep going, at least until summer time. Summer time is a really slow time for audiences here, so we'll see."
A year and a half ago, Clorox asked Lehman to move back to the Mainland, but he decided to stay on Maui and continue his work with ProArts instead.
"So I'm semiretired and doing this right now. Hopefully if we can really get it going as a nonprofit and start building on it, it might be more of an actual job for me where there's a paycheck involved, but at this point it's [he sings] what I did for love!"
"The Fantasticks": ProArts resumes its run of "The Fantasticks," the longest-running musical in history. This wonderful parable tells the story of a young man and the girl next door, their scheming fathers, romance, disillusionment and the realities of love. Directed by Doug Kendrick, the show features some of Maui's most talented performers, including Robert Wills, Leighanna Locke and Tom Althouse. With book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt, "The Fantasticks" includes such great tunes as "Try to Remember," "Soon It's Gonna Rain," "I Can See It" and "They Were You."
* "The Fantasticks" performs weekends at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Jan. 16 at the ProArts Playhouse in Kihei. Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for kids 12 and under. Call 463-6520 for tickets.
LOL@MACC with Melinda Hill: Laugh Out Loud with Melinda Hill, a Los Angeles-based comedian, actress and writer who has performed stand-up all over the world at theaters, clubs, colleges and for U.S. troops in Guam, Singapore, Hawaii, the Marshall Islands and beyond. LA Weekly describes her comedy as "bubbly, adorable, outlandish, funny" and Buzzine Magazine claims she "puts the fun back in funny and the smart back in smarty-pants."
* Hill will perform her new work, "Marriage Material," an interactive, hilarious dating show, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 13, at the McCoy Studio Theater. Tickets are $25 for standard and $45 for VIP with post-show meet. Applicable fees are added to tickets, available from the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.MauiArts.org.
"The Great Kaua'i Train Robbery": "The Great Kaua'i Train Robbery" is a historical drama with a strong emotional core and a nostalgic, bittersweet tone. Set on Kauai in the early 20th century, this play was inspired by a series of real events: a dramatic train robbery (the only one in Hawaii's history), investigation of the crime and the ensuing trial. The main character is a man named Hali, whose devotion to his loved ones and deep sense of social responsibility drives the play and ultimately makes him a suspect in the case. Kumu Kahua Theatre commissioned Lee Cataluna as playwright.
* "The Great Kaua'i Train Robbery" shows at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 14 and 15 at the McCoy Studio Theater. Tickets are $22. Call 242-7469 or visit MauiArts.org for tickets.