Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, January 25, 2002

Sharon Adair, as Emma, left, and Lynn Weir, as Aida, fuss over Joe Abraham's Nick in Manoa Valley Theatre's "Over the River and Through the Woods."

Actors ready for
pilgrimage to Big Apple

Hawaii's brain drain accompanied
by art depart as talent demands
bigger challenges

By Scott Vogel

There's much talk these days about Hawaii's "brain drain," the flight of our islands' best and brightest to the mainland in search of greater opportunities and better pay. But though less is said about an "art depart" -- the fleeing of our artists -- it's a phenomenon just as pervasive, and one that measurably threatens our future cultural life.

Still, you can't help getting excited for Joe Abraham, 27, currently winning critical raves for his terrific comic performance in Manoa Valley Theatre's "Over the River and Through the Woods," who in a few months will pack his bags for New York. For young talented actors, even Hawaii's, the ritual pilgrimage to Gotham is the chance of a lifetime you dare not miss.

"I just can't wake up when I'm 50 and wonder why I didn't at least give it a shot," said Abraham.

Ah, to be young and striving in New York, surrounded by the excitement of millions of dreams crammed onto an island a fraction the size of our own. Manhattan's make-it-there, make-it-anywhere challenge to live your aspirations has been embraced for decades, by everyone from stockbrokers to artists to terrorists. But for stage actors, New York holds an even greater fascination. Why? Despite the long odds, it's still possible for a kid from the outback, one motivated by little town blues and vagabond shoes, to find himself the toast of the town. If lightning strikes.

"It's just something I have to do."

Mom to Joe Abraham: "How come you acted so goofy?"

Abraham laughed as he said the above, mindful perhaps of how many thespians in how many hamlets around the country have uttered those exact same words.

He sounded like a character in a play, or someone who might crop up in an E.B. White essay, a naive young man from the hinterlands who "embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love ... absorbs New York with the fresh eyes of an adventurer," thereby generating "heat and light."

The actor's plans would no doubt meet with White's approval, though he'd surely want him to heed his famous piece of advice: "No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky."

A recent UH graduate and self-described military brat who moved to Kaneohe when he was 10, Abraham seems peculiarly up to that latter challenge, especially as his dreams have long taken precedence over reality.

"My sister and I were kind of loners as kids," he reluctantly revealed. "We spent all day playing pretend and had some really intimate scenarios. We were nuts for poignancy." Among the siblings' favorite dramatic excursions was "Tony," in which Abraham's sister would "play this 2-year-old named Tony and I'd find her in this trash can and she'd tell this sob story about how her parents left her there. It was real elaborate. We were odd kids, I guess."

Odd or not -- by the way, Sis is now studying to be a (surprise!) psychologist -- the devotion to imaginary scenarios virtually guaranteed that the family would end up with at least one actor. Nevertheless, Abraham's parents don't know quite what to make of him. His mother, in particular, stubbornly clutches dreams of her own -- that young Joe will become an air traffic controller.

"Acting's the last thing my mother would ever want me to do," he said, adding that she's baffled by her son's travel plans, and indeed by the entire acting profession. "On ('Over the River's') opening night, well, she didn't really relate to the story. 'How come you acted so goofy?,' she told me later. 'The girls in the audience aren't going to want to go out with you.' I said, 'Ma, I have to do that stuff, it's in the script.' "

Mark Pinkosh: There's not much demand for scrawny, bald 37-year-olds, so he's had to create his own opportunities.

WHEN IT comes to family support, Moses Goods III counts himself among the blessed. "I took a class in acting at UH but still didn't think of doing it the rest of my life. But then my dad, which surprised me, said 'Why not do the acting thing?' "

And do it he did, with great gusto, winning plaudits for his turn as Mephistopheles in the University of Hawai'i's production of "Faust," the title character in David Mamet's "Edmond" (which he played in white face, causing a few raised eyebrows), and currently as a pair of characters in Kumu Kahua's staging of "To the Last Hawaiian Soldier," by Sean T.C. O'Malley.

It's the latter set of performances, as both 19th century activist Robert Wilcox and a contemporary Hawaiian who's inspired by Wilcox's writings, that has generated the most buzz, local critics praising his booming stage voice and nimble ability to shift characters on a dime.

"A lot of people don't like kabuki," said Goods, divulging a surprising root to his love of acting. "It's stylized and you're going through the same motions that have been done for centuries. You're not really putting yourself in the character and it's kind of mechanical. But the fact that you have to do it in a certain way and the frustration that comes with failing over and over again until you finally get it -- that's something that sticks with you."

Moses Goods: Kabuki's discipline applies to life.

It's a discipline Goods hopes to take with him when he embarks on his own New York journey, sometime in the next year or so. The actor, who turns 25 on Valentine's Day, originally considered moving to Los Angeles to try his luck in the film trade, but in the end, his love of the stage won out. Like Abraham, Goods feels compelled to make a Hawaii exit, though not without some trepidation.

"I'm pretty terrified but excited at the same time," the actor admitted. "I've never really left Hawaii. Everyone says the typical things -- that it's a city and people mug you -- but they also say that living there can give you a new zest for life. That's what I'm looking for."

MARK PINKOSH knows all about the zest that great cities can provide. He's traveled the world in the seven years since he left Hawaii, staging and acting in plays in Britain and throughout the mainland. As the founder of the Starving Artists Theater Company, which brought the work of playwrights like Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman to Honolulu for the first time, Pinkosh toiled admirably for years in our theatrical trenches, eventually leaving in search of greater opportunities.

"I do a lot of teaching of young people," said the actor, who's starring in a reprise of his own hit play, "Haole Boy," which opens tonight for a limited two-week run at Hawaii Pacific University Theater. "And what I tell them is, if you're a plumber and you're in a town of 200 people and there's 10 plumbers, maybe you should go to a town where there's no plumbers. You've got to go where the work is."

And while Pinkosh is under no illusions about the success rate of actors elsewhere ("I'm a really scrawny, bald 37-year-old and that's not in big demand here"), he understands the desire to take a stab at New York and L.A. (where he currently resides), though Hawaii actors should be prepared for a tougher climate, in more ways than one.

"It can kind of kick you and shock you. The thing about Los Angeles for me was how everybody across the planet who's the prettiest in their hometown comes to L.A. and has to realize that there's a whole different, mythical standard of beauty here that bears no relation to anywhere else in the world. It's surreal."

But the industrious and persistent will find work, he insisted, especially if, like Pinkosh, they "become entrepreneurs and do it themselves" -- finding scripts, staging them and inviting agents to productions. And for moral support they can reach out to the legions of Hawaii actors who've made the trek before them, "networking with each other, helping each other out and sleeping on each other's floors."

In the end, for actors it's still a long shot, a roll of the dice, a sucker bet, even for those willing to be lucky. Then again, what's a sure thing these days?

"My cousins are all in the computer business in the Bay Area and they're all unemployed now," said Pinkosh. "I mean, if you're going to be unemployed, you may as well be unemployed in a field you love."

"To the Last Hawaiian Soldier"

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 10
Where: Kumu Kahua Theatre, 46 Merchant St.
Cost: $15 ($10 for students); $10 for unemployed on Thursdays
Call: 536-4222

"Haole Boy"

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 3
Where: Hawaii Pacific University Theater, 45-045 Kamehameha Hwy.
Cost: $14 ($10 for students); $5 HPU students
Call: 375-1282

"Over the River and Through the Woods"

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 4 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 3 (extended)
Where: Manoa Valley Theatre, 2833 East Manoa Rd.
Cost: $25
Call: 988-6131

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