Stage Presence: King Kekaulike High School Performing Arts Center

After more than a decade, the doors open on a royal venue for King Kekaulike.


Story by Kathy Collins | Photos courtesy of AHL

King Kekaulike Performing Arts Center
Designed by Honolulu architectural firm AHL, the theater is a stellar performer—like the students who tread its boards. Technical capabilities include a fully rigged, modifiable stage, and an orchestra pit that rises hydraulically to extend that stage when the pit’s not in use.

Theatre folk will tell you—while nothing compares with the thrill of opening night, the more important consideration is: Does the show have “legs”? Can it endure and maintain relevance?

In April 2018, the curtain rose for the first time at Maui’s newest performing arts center: a $35 million facility boasting a 414-seat auditorium, state-of-the-art audio and lighting systems, finely tuned acoustics . . . even a hydraulic-lift orchestra pit. The reviews are in, and it looks like the King Kekaulike High School Performing Arts Center is in for a long, successful run.

Yes. High school.

Act One

First, the backstory: King Kekaulike opened in 1995 as Upcountry Maui’s first public high school; parts of the campus were still being built when the first class of students enrolled. As costs rose, plans were scaled back, and the theater was one of the casualties. It took parents and other supporters three years to convince the Hawai‘i State Legislature to approve funds for the start of construction, and another decade to complete the building. Finally, last April, the doors opened to eager audiences.

Chris Kepler, who has taught theatre at King Kekaulike for the past ten years, says the center’s opening has coincided with a dramatic increase in student interest. “Theatre isn’t just for geeks anymore,” he smiles, citing the resurgent popularity of movie musicals, both animated and live-action.

Backstage Passes

“And it’s not just about performing,” says Kepler. For every onstage experience, there’s a world of offstage activity, from set and costume design and construction, to lighting and sound. Kepler notes that the new facility enables the department to provide education in technical theater, including recording, engineering, and technology integration, fields that hold great potential for employment in the future. Principal Mark Elliott agrees, envisioning a technical-theatre academy that could someday gain national recognition.

It’s not just about theatre, either. In its first eight months of operation, the center has hosted programs and activities for the school’s Hawaiian Immersion program, English department, senior projects, and general assemblies. The first public-school TEDxYouth event on Maui was organized by King Kekaulike students and presented in the center, as was a pre-election mayoral debate sponsored by the school’s National Honor Society.

King Kekaulike Performing Arts Center
Flames of color spill from the lobby floor onto the sidewalk outside, symbolizing the rays of the sun. The motif pays homage to the school’s location—on a mountain whose name means House of the Sun.

Plot Twist

Although the state legislature funded the center’s construction, it made no appropriations for the management or maintenance of the building. So parents, students, faculty, and concerned community members formed the King Kekaulike Foundation for Performing Arts. The group is in the process of obtaining 501(c)3 status so that it can pursue its mission of raising and allocating funds for the center’s operation. Once that has been achieved, Kepler says, the foundation will contract an operations manager and eventually open the center to more possibilities, including increased community use and public rentals.

With talent like that, this show will most assuredly go on.


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