HICCUP circus – ‘Malama I Ke Kai’

‘Taking care of the ocean’

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work…I want to achieve it through not dying.” Woody Allen – quote from ‘ImMortal.’

In 2002 Irene and I worked for three months with No Fit State Circus in Cardiff running summer camps for Welsh kids in the mining valleys.  We also got to perform in ‘ImMortal’ a community based show they presented with over 100 performers. Seeing how this show brought so many artists together inspired me to create our future ‘Malama I ke kai’ and ‘Malama ka aina’ productions to promote community connections in Puna.

2002 Show

During the Healthy Hawaii Initiative program of 2001 HICCUP had collaborated with most of our local schools and a host of community associations teaching circus classes. Immediately after returning to Hawaii from Wales I initiated a much bigger program called ‘All Together for the Pahoa Ho’olaulea.’ involving series of workshops culminating in a community show with over sixty performers. I talked up my vision with community leaders, school principals and local arts groups encouraging them to recruit participants and to provide additional support.

The classes in four locations were well attended and our production entitled Malama I Ke Kai was held on December 7th, 2002 in the Pahoa School gym and formed a part of the Pahoa Winter parade activities. We’d looked for other covered facilities that could support the anticipated audience, sets and props but found no other option. Working with director Jackie Paris our team successfully brought actors, dancers, musicians, prop makers and set builders together with our adult and youth circus artists to produce the first ever collaboration of it’s kind in Hawaii. The audience and performers praised the project and resulting from the buzz many eyes were opened to possibilities for the future.

Throughout 2003 I worked hard fundraising for a enhanced new proposal based on a six month performance arts training and community building program. I submitted grant applications locally, statewide and nationally looking for the money we needed. I pitched Puna’s need to provide healthy after-school opportunities for our children and ways to strengthen family and social connectedness. This conception caught the attention of funders including the National Endowment for the Arts who approved their first ever grant for a Puna arts group. With financial support our new dream became a reality culminating in the epic Malama I Ke Kai and Malama Ka Aina community performances of 2002, 2004 and 2005. 

My personal objectives were to unite the super talented people of Puna in a community celebration, to increase resident volunteerism and to grow the social connectedness of diverse groups so they could network to share resources and help resolve community problems. This community building project became a significant new approach for our HICCUP social circus vision.

Our action plan was to organise teenage mentors and adult performance arts professionals to lead ninety workshops, individualized training, and group rehearsals for a set of fourteen public performances. The longer term dream was to create an annual series of workshops and performances involving community residents of all ages learning and performing diverse talents including music, dance, drama and a variety of circus skills. 

The target I set was for us to engage at least 300 community members in the program workshops with 160 eventually participating as performers and show support staff. I was also hoping to attract at least 3,000 youth and adults to attend our shows.  The first task was to find venues. We collaborated with six local community associations taking the circus to their kids and we decided to use the Leilani Community centre for the show. It was a huge covered court with a concrete slab and a steel frame roof ideally suited to rigging so we could add aerial acts to our performance. Another first for the Big Island. We brought in Monnya Silver from Colorado who trained our youngsters in this new art.

We left ourselves the logistical task of dealing with lack of walls, toilets, changing rooms, seating, adequate electricity or a stage. But it was important to stage this show by the people of Puna in Puna and not succumb to ease of presenting it in Hilo town. In addition to performing artists this production also needed construction workers to build our huge stage plus electricians, ushers, ticket collectors and security. Creating a theatre is no easy task.

2004 state set

Our 2002 project demonstrated a slice of the talents and strengths possessed by our community and we discovered folks who regretted missing out on the opportunity to participate. People who previously hesitated to get involved because of uncertainty about how it would work out or because they were not aware of how they could participate became eager to join us. Children who became more confident about performing enticed their parents and families to join us. It was a hugely ambitious plan for our isolated and sparsely populated rural area – but it worked beautifully.

Within the pool of local residents we formed a fabulous production team. Jackie Paris, our energetic director was a creative writer and also brought her connections with dance and theatre troupes. Shakti came aboard as our community outreach champion taking care of PR and program recruitment. Irene indulged in her passion to design and sew by fabricating many dozens of costumes and supervised a number of senior citizen volunteers fabricating an amazing number of decorative banners and flags.  John Keeler performed his airbrush magic on costumes and banners as well as painting our stage set and building our larger aquatic props.

Gregory McCleur wrote and performed the original music and sound effects which was supplemented by contributions from Bruddah Cuz and James from Big Mountain. Our limited budget for staging, sound and lighting facilities was boosted by equipment donations that greatly enhanced our show under the direction of Eric Marantz. Natek and Cindy Greenlaw stepped in to provide professional quality video production so we were later able to share our show with people far and wide.  

Hawaiian for “take care of the sea,” Malama I Ke Kai was a culturally appropriate message for Puna.  Being a coastal community many residents were engaged on a daily basis with the ocean and shores as surfers, fishermen, sailors, swimmers, hikers and sun worshippers.  Consistent with the cultural practices of the indigenous Hawaiian population, we wanted to bring awareness to the fact that the health and the welfare of sea creatures and our natural environment affects everyone. 

Malama I Ke Kai became a community commitment to advocate and educate about ways to care for the ocean complementing the efforts of other local organisations working towards the same goal. With it’s grand pageantry and beautiful costuming our story featured unicycle dolphins, stilt-walking jellyfish, a shark demi-god and a life-size humpback whale puppet that became the centrepiece for our whole production.

Between June and November of 2004, we organised cultural activities for about twenty five youth in six separate community associations learning performance arts skills. We also trained volunteers of all ages to help with backstage, prop building, lighting and sound technical support for the shows. The project involved a total of twelve feeder shows presented to school groups and at community events and concluded with the collaboration of over 120 residents as performers and support staff in two major presentations of the full ninety minute spectacle.

Local residents made signs and distributed publicity after we hired a local professional graphic artist who did a great job creating posters and flyers using images of Malama I Ke Kai 2002. Shakti did an awesome job working with local community leaders and publicists gaining us full media coverage including television, radio, local and statewide newspapers. G. Brad Lewis, my internationally renown professional photographer friend, volunteered to provide top quality photographs for the media. Representatives of local ocean preservation groups Malama O Puna, the Puna based Dolphin Foundation, the Sierra Club and Environment Hawaii set up tables at the performance with education materials.

The result was what we believed became the largest community project of its kind ever on the Big Island. With tickets at only $5 for adults and $1 for kids we had over a thousand residents from our impoverished society attending each show. 

I like to believe that our production brought a great sense of pride to the population of Puna.  I know for sure that we got the attention of  parents, teachers and students, community association members,  members of the general public and also community dignitaries including the Mayor and members of the County Council. Malama I Ke Kai utilised the creative skills of the renegade people of Puna presenting a powerful performance that will remain for a lifetime in multiple memories. It also led to further achievements including it’s sequel Malama Ka Aina and soon after the Seaview Performing Arts Centre for Education.

Graham Irene and Isla at Malama I Ke Kai

P.S. 2004 was also the year that our baby Isla was born. It was quite a juggling year for our family!

Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

One thought on “HICCUP circus – ‘Malama I Ke Kai’

  1. I can’t overstate the impact the HICCUP Circus had on our rural community. The ‘UP’ of HICCUP is Unity Project. And that was what this show was for Lower Puna.


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