Celebrating Magnificence: Karen Hackler – Storyteller of Life

Karen’s life has been spent collecting, enjoying and sharing what she loves: beautiful stories. Karen is currently one of our beloved Hula Awana dancers whom you’ll watch in many of our Still & Moving Center performances. A lot of her storytelling has come through theatre.

Karen’s most recent acting experience took place at Kumu Kahua Theatre with “A Cage of Fireflies”. The story of three Okinawan sisters in America and was so compelling, and Karen got to work with so many dear friends being in it, she broke all her rules for herself and rehearsed over the holiday season that she usually reserves as family time!

Back in 1979-1980 she took her savings and moved to New York to enjoy the museums and theatres. There she worked with the NYU Creative Arts Team to provide workshops to special ed students and their special teachers. While doing creative movement with a class of special ed students, she kept trying to include a tall guy standing alone on the side of the room. She finally managed to get him onto the floor, laughing and moving with all the others. She afterwards found out he was the school guard for the class – not a student at all!

In her work with stories and drama over the years, Karen has helped thousands of children and adults to learn to express themselves – whether through words or pantomime – and to gain self-confidence, especially the quiet, shy ones. She loves the chance to have a positive influence on kids’ lives.

Karen majored in cultural anthropology, minored in drama and has an elementary education degree. She spent decades with the Honolulu Theatre for Youth sharing the dramatic arts. Beginning as an actor paid with love and meals from MacDonald’s (!), she eventually became a member of the paid acting company and the Education Director. With HTY Karen conducted many teacher and student creative drama workshops. Working directly with teachers allowed Karen to further expand her work to their students.

The teachers often asked her to do plays with their classes, which often had more kids than could fit in regular play scripts. That’s when Karen started putting together performances of the student’s creative writing and writing plays of her own.

As Karen studied taiko drumming with local Taiko master Kenny Endo, she found a way to weave taiko into her stories. Taiko used to be the heartbeat for villages in Japan. Honolulu Theatre for Youth commissioned her to write a play incorporating taiko and Japanese folktales. Kenny Endo agreed to compose music for the play and perform in it.

While on sabbatical with her family in Japan, Karen began writing the play about a village of rice farmers. One day as she was walking through a large field of rice, the sound and movement of the wind undulating through the plants brought her the name of her play: Song of the Rice, Song of Life: A Tale of Japan.

Her play incorporates Japanese folktales that were happening to the rice farmers. They bring in taiko to help end the drought that was threatening their farms. Her personal experience includes writing about that scene of the play in the middle of the night, when she began to hear thunder in the background. Just when she was writing about the thunder and taiko drumming coinciding to end the drought, the rain actually started to fall onto the roof and yard of their own house, a lovely concurrence of storytelling and nature.

Karen’s play was accepted by the Kennedy Center for the “New Visions, New Voices” Festival for young audiences in Washington, DC in 1996. She successfully negotiated to bring Kenny Endo and his enormous taiko drum, at least 9 feet long, to Washington for the performance. As Kenny’s started drumming, the kids and the rest of the audience were enraptured. That drum became the heartbeat of the kids.

At a playwrights festival in Los Gatos, California, Karen stayed at the Villa Montalvo estate donated to the arts. There she further developed her Song of the Rice play for a staged reading in collaboration with other playwrights for the San Jose Repertory Theatre. Her play was then produced in Los Angeles. Eventually, Karen would like to see her play produced in Hawaii.

Besides the theatre, for two decades, Karen went around the State through the University of Hawaii Outreach program, into the community and classrooms as a storyteller, sometimes with drama and creative movement follow-ups. She started with folktales, with the collected wisdom of the ages, then went into personal stories of her family. She would end her sessions by urging the audience to share their stories with their own families. When people think about their legacy, they usually think of money and land. Karen teaches that one of our most important legacies is our stories. Unless we tell them, they will die with us. We need to tell stories of our own lives, our parents’ lives and tell our kids stories about their younger selves. The beginning of Karen’s own life tale starts with the positive story her wonderful, loving Mom and Dad always told her about adopting her as a baby… People came up afterwards and told Karen how important that message was to them.

All of these dramatic endeavors are explorations of our humanness, of what makes us tick, of finding our voices, of finding how creative we are, to gain trust in ourselves as creative beings.

There’s so much fear of death in our culture. Karen’s a collector of positive stories about death. Honolulu’s storytelling meistro Jeff Gere invited her to share stories about death for public consumption, young and old – funny and heartwarming. Karen was with her mom when she passed away, her face lit up from within. Karen sat with her mom during labored breathing, she gave her mom permission to “go be with Dad”. Karen’s son arrived later, looked at his grandmother’s face and agreed it was luminous. Being a caregiver teaches us so much wisdom about life and death.

As another community contribution, Karen’s been able to share with friends and friends of friends the cancer journey that she went on. Her story joins the nutritional knowledge of her naturopath with the allopathic treatment of her oncologist. People are so frightened by hearing they have cancer. Karen never uses “war” terms around cancer, instead using terms like “path” and “journey”. Telling her story of surviving endometrial cancer bolsters others, giving them hope for their own recovery.

Karen’s interest in the rich variety of human stories began in the 2nd grade with her teacher Mrs. Ohta. The teacher took the class on field trips to a Quaker meeting house and a Catholic church in Manoa Valley, then to Buddhist temple in Nu’uanu, followed by an authentic tea ceremony with one of the student’s Japanese grandmother. Mrs. Ota had each child create their own beautiful ceramic tile mosaic in their classroom. Her teacher’s legacy of living a creative life, believing in each human being and making a difference in others’ lives is part of the person Karen has become.

We are so delighted Karen has made Still & Moving Center a part of her life story for so many years!

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