Renelaine Pfister
Special to The Hawai’i Herald

Award-winning director, playwright, educator: these all define Taurie Kinoshita. One thing we might not know is that she was also once homeless.

It seems incongruent with a woman accomplished in the theater world. Kinoshita received the Lucie Bentley Award for Excellence in Acting; the Inouye Award for Excellence in Playwriting; five Po‘okelas for directing by the Hawai‘i State Theatre Council and Best New London Company in 2010. She received the Excellence in Theatre Education award by the Kennedy Festival; the Francis Davis Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award; the Meritorious Lecturer at Windward Community College; and, most recently, along with her partner, Nicolas Logue, the Kennedy Center’s Gold Medallion, one of the highest honors in educational theater.

It sounds like a long journey from being a homeless teenager for two years. Other people might not have turned out like she has. Her accomplishments are a testament to her character.

Kinoshita believes that the theater teaches important life skills.
Kinoshita believes that the theater teaches important life skills.

When she was 16 years old, her mother, who battled mental illness, kicked her out of the house. Her parents were divorced when she was very young, and her mother told her father that she ran away. Kinoshita remembers crying at the door, begging to take a shower. She initially slept at a friend’s garage, and then at the beach and in public parks. For food, she would steal candy bars or go to hotels, pretend she was a guest and swipe food that were laid out on the patio. She suffered hunger pains for days, then her stomach would get filled and she had to learn to cope with hunger pains again after that. Finding a bathroom was difficult, and she took many cold showers in public parks. Still, she considers herself lucky that she lives in Hawai‘i, where she didn’t freeze to death at night.

“I grew up with an extremely brilliant, bipolar mother,” Kinoshita says. “Because of her, I knew who Marx was when I was eight years old. A couple times I was sent to live with relatives when my mother was in Kekela [an inpatient, long term psychiatric unit] at Queen’s. I tried to take care of her as best I could.”

In spite of her mother’s actions, Kinoshita steadfastly admires her and is grateful for the lessons she learned. “I consider myself very lucky because growing up with someone so brilliant meant I learned early to see the world differently — my mother had a way of cutting to the bone very quickly, and she was fearless. She had a Sherlock Holmes-ian ability to see patterns in behavior with lightning speed and always understood hidden motivations — the darkest, saddest or most selfless best. Often what she said about the world was shocking (for example, when she explained why affirmative action was necessary), but it helped me immensely.”

Kinoshita is incredibly optimistic, despite (or because of) what she went through at a young age. She became a good judge of character from living on the streets. She learned how to sense danger and when to run. She learned both kindness and cruelty, and what survival actually means.

Her affinity towards theater germinated from her childhood, when she would make up stories, memorize and recite poems to entertain her mother, who loved the arts. In her mania, her mother lavished her with praise. Kinoshita says, “I had this unwavering confidence in the arts from a young age. She was abusive in other ways, but the thing that counted the most — confidence in something I loved doing — is a priceless gift I have infinite thanks for.”

“The downside, of course, is that when she was very ill — she would imagine intentions that weren’t real. When she was very high, we’d get chocolate and laugh; when she was low she’d scream and cry all night. Politically, I’ve always been on the ‘right side of history,’ and this is because of my mother — she rarely fell victim to logical fallacies such as the bandwagon fallacy or appeal to the people.”

When she was around nine years old, Kinoshita had her friend Lianne over to her house, where they cooked and cleaned up after dinner. Through Lianne and Lianne’s mom, Kinoshita realized her household was different from her friend’s. Being brought up differently, she realized she was socially awkward. The first time she had dinner with her husband’s family, she sat at her husband’s dad’s seat (not realizing whose seat it was until much later) and immediately started eating, unaware of social protocols. Taurie says, “I’ve sort of had to learn slowly what ‘civilized’ behavior is.”

Kinoshita was expelled from Punahou for failing math and chapel, but at 18, she decided to attend community college and paid for it by stealing and using her mother’s credit card. Her mother didn’t mind because she always valued education. She eventually received an MFA in directing, even though she didn’t have a high school diploma. “I had something I loved and was good at, I worked hard at theater and it slowly rehabilitated me. I was also very lucky to meet some wonderful people and some amazing teachers.”

Taurie Kinoshita at the Palikü Theatre, where she is the artistic director of the Hawai‘i Conservatory of the Performing Arts. (Photos by Brandon Miyagi)
Taurie Kinoshita at the Palikü Theatre, where she is the artistic director of the Hawai‘i Conservatory of the Performing Arts. (Photos by Brandon Miyagi)

When asked what she thought about the homeless situation in Hawai‘i: “The current situation is incomprehensibly horrific. Because of inflation and the price of homes being so egregious, you see more and more families on the street. Also, if people have a dog or a cat, they will have trouble finding affordable housing, and this is not fair and cruel. Kinoshita thinks as citizens we could write to our representatives or donate or volunteer for nonprofit organizations that help the homeless. Or just show compassion. Late one night Kinoshita came out of a Long’s Drugs, and there was a homeless person asking for help. She ended up getting assaulted; half her face was black. Three hours later, she went to work. “A director can’t miss tech,” she explains, when theaters hold rehearsals focusing on sound, light and sometimes projections a week before the show opens.

Kinoshita says she would always rather help than not help someone. She and her husband will often buy food at 7-Eleven for the needy people sitting outside. “I can tell you from experience — it’s really appreciated,” she says.

Theater and teaching has been her anchor in life. Kinoshita has directed over 130 critically acclaimed productions in New York City, London and Honolulu. She spent four years in England, teaching at East15 Acting School, University of Essex, considered one of the top acting conservatories in the UK. She said she learned something new everyday.

Kinoshita is also the education director for Hawaii Shakespeare Festival and the artistic director of the Hawai‘i Conservatory of the Performing Arts.

She is most proud, not of her own awards and accomplishments, but how well her students are doing.

She believes all theater lessons are life lessons. “Theater skills are life skills! Reading comprehension, memorization, solving problems creatively, discipline, adaptability. The most and only important lesson is caring about learning and seeing learning as a continuum – something to constantly strive for. This relates to everything in life – learning to be a better person, partner, friend, learning to get increasingly better at your job, learning to be a more thoughtful citizen – learning relates to every aspect of life, so if someone cares about learning, their growth will be infinite! As Stanislavski said, ‘if you’re not going forward, you’re going backward’ and Zeami said ‘never forget the beginner’s mind.’”

Renelaine Pfister is a physical therapist and writer based on O‘ahu.


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