Artistic leader Jane Campbell, who served as managing director of Honolulu Theatre for Youth for 42 years, died in March at age 87. There will be a celebration of Campbell's life at HYT on Sunday, Oct. 20.
I recall Jane Campbell once stepping into our office, laughing to herself. When I asked what caused the chuckle, Jane said, “I just met this young woman who blurted out, ‘Jane Campbell! You’re an institution.'” Despite her numerous and quite inspirational accomplishments, Jane never saw herself as anything more than those with whom she worked and played. However, those of us who knew Jane know two things: One, she was an influential part of theatre in America, particularly the Theatre for Young Audiences movement. And two, she was as down-to-earth a person as any in professional theatre. Jane’s strength was her ability to be, well, Jane.
As Mark Lutwak, past HTY artistic director, puts it, “Jane was the most truthful, honest, and relentlessly human person I have ever met in our profession. She had a heart the size of Hawaiʻi, a place whose people she loved more than the world. When events would break her heart, or people in whom she placed great trust disappointed her, or she embarrassed herself with social faux pas, Jane would take a deep breath, suck up the hurt, forgive and forget, or take her foot out of her mouth. And then, in true Jane-like fashion, she would move ahead. What mattered to her was that HTY served as many children as possible with the best theatre possible.”
Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Jane moved to Honolulu in the late 1950s to join the staff of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. After writing a particularly lovely article about a fledgling children’s theatre company, the troupe’s founder, Nancy Corbett, enticed Jane to join HTY in 1960 as a part-time publicist “with the impressive offer,” Jane always joked, “of $50 a month.”
David Furumoto, one-time HTY company actor, recalls, “Once, in the middle of a pretty grueling performance tour, we had just returned to our hotel when Jane came by with some Jack Daniel’s. We sat outside in the dark, looking at the stars. Between slugs, I recalled other difficult times at HTY. And there sat Jane, as always. She stood by the people she cared about. She was a fierce defender of HTY in the face of some pretty daunting situations. Jane was Mother HTY to me.” Furumoto recalls her compassion, care, and love. “These were traits that may have lay hidden at times behind her Midwestern facade. But I will always remember her warm emotional interior.”
At a time when theatre for children was seeking a place at the American professional theatre table, Jane quietly yet determinedly guided her company from a tiny community ensemble to a fully professional company with national and international recognition. She started HTY’s neighboring island tours with state support (it is still the only local arts organization with statewide reach), spearheaded national tours, and helped HTY become the first American theatre company to tour the Pacific.
“Jane always had my back when I served as HTY artistic director,” writes Wally Chappell, “and was a believer in my work with local island cultures, with productions like Maui the Trickster and Tales of the Pacific, the latter which toured the U.S. mainland and put HTY on the national map. Jane was relentlessly upbeat, carrying on through financial challenges, and a proud supporter of the artists that created HTY’s legacy. The triumph of Jane’s work is evident in the current flourishing of the theatre: Everybody gets paid! Everybody gets benefits! Hallelujah!”
Jane served as president of the Arts Council of Hawaiʻi and the Hawaiʻi State Theatre Council; as an executive board member for the Hawaiʻi Alliance for Arts Education; vice president of ASSITEJ/USA; and as an NEA site evaluator. She received awards from the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, ASSITEJ/USA, Theatre Communications Group. In Hawaiʻi, she was the 1992 Alfred Preis Awardee and honored with a State Governor’s Fine Arts Award.
“My life was forever and gloriously transformed by Jane,” says past HTY company member Polly Sommerfeld. “My many memories of Jane include her dry and sweetly acerbic wit and the roll of her eyes at any silliness, followed by a snort of laughter. During one outer island tour, we had difficulty finding a new venue. The direction was to ‘turn by the Jodo mission.’ We missed the landmark but still made it with enough time to set up, laughing all the way. One scene took place in a car, so we ad-libbed a special line that as the characters ‘drove’ on a lonely road, an actor piped up ‘Eh, brah, turn left by da Jodo mission.’” Jane didn’t disappoint; she rolled her eyes and snorted, and five company members finished the scene with joyful relief.’”
Gina Gutierrez, a previous HTY development director, shares, “If I had to pick one memory, it’d have to be when I was Jane’s ‘roommate’ for two weeks when I was in between living situations. The evening chats after work sitting on her couch with drinks in hand will stay with me forever. She was a leader, arts advocate, storyteller, great writer, mentor, drinking buddy, matchmaker (considering she hired HTY’s then future technical director and now husband!), and a forever friend.”
Jane retired from HTY in 2002 after 42 years. She noted at the time, “I thought staying till my 50th year would be stretching it.” During her tenure, HTY produced around 300 plays for more than 5 million attendees, growing to a $1.3 million annual budget with 35 employees.
“Jane taught me to listen to the teachers,” wrote past HTY artistic director Kathleen Collins. “To trust the children. To understand aloha. When she asked me, as artistic director, to dream big for our 25th anniversary, I wanted to tell stories of the Goddess Pele. Jane cautioned that my haole (non-native) take on those stories might be better told by a Hawaiian. I listened to her and instead commissioned Mark Twain in the Sandwich Islands. I, like Twain, took in the vibrancy, the people, the magic of the Islands through the eyes of a white visitor. This was the start of my understanding and practice of cultural diversity. I will forever love Jane for her mentorship, her friendship, and her wicked sense of humor. E ho’omaha me ka maluhia, Jane.”