KAKU 88.5 FM is playing on the car radio. There’s an actress chatting about staring in Boeing Boeing at the Iao Theater. The host, Bill Best, asks her if she comes from a family of theater people. “My parents were involved in dance and theater,” she said. “But they are no Alexis and Steven Dascoulias!”
Alexis Dascoulias is executive director of Maui OnStage, the nonprofit organization that operates the Iao Theater. She’s also an actor, director and educator. Her husband, Steven–who has more than 30 years experience as an actor, singer, voice instructor, theater director and music director–is the general manager of the Iao.
The Iao Theater is a true Maui landmark, like a manini Radio City Music Hall of the Pacific. The Spanish Mission-style theater opened in 1928. In addition to hosting stage greats including Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and Mickey Rooney during its formative years, the theater is home to The Maui Fringe Theater Festival (January 20-22), plays, musicals, concerts, comedy shows, youth productions and many other arts endeavors.
The theater faced a decline in the 1980s. Then in the mid-1990s, there was a community effort to save the Iao. Now it’s a flourishing performing arts center. “It has so many things going on,” said Maui OnStage board member Randol Leach. “It’s part of Wailuku town–it’s a hub, a focal point, which is wonderful.”
According to the Iao website, the theater has undergone a million dollar-plus renovation; and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior, helping make it the cornerstone of theater on Maui.
But Leach credits Alexis and Steven with much of the theater’s success. “What they have done is amazing,” he said. “They’ve upgraded the Iao. It’s now air-conditioned. There are new seats and a new sound system. And it has a great reputation. They have turned around the Iao Theater and made it what it is today. They get all the credit–their leadership.”
Walking up to the theater, you know you’re somewhere special the minute you see the vintage box office. The Iao has the feel of an old movie house. Yet when you step inside and spot the vast stage, you quickly realize it’s a home for live productions.
Alexis and I sit at a small table in the downstairs lobby and Steven pulls another table over and joins us. We’re immediately greeted by their dog; Maui OnStage is definitely a family affair.
Steven and Alexis came to Maui from New Hampshire and have been running Maui OnStage for nearly a decade. When asked what brought them to Hawaii, the answer is simple: Maui.
“We had visited many times,” Alexis said. “Once we decided to move here we plotted a three-year plan.”
“She didn’t give you the backstory, which I think is a compelling part,” Steven then said. “About a year before, Alexis and her mother were doing a show together. When the rehearsal ended, she went her way, her mother went hers. And her mother was crossing the street and got killed. That kind of changes your perspective on how quickly life can change.”
The couple said they put their decision to the rocking chair test. “When you’re old and you’re sitting on your rocking chair on your porch, we’d rather say, ‘Wow, that was really fun. I’m glad we tried that,’ versus saying, ‘I wonder what would have happened if we had,’” Alexis said.
In the midst of the three years, the couple was planning a vacation on Maui. About two months before their trip, a friend was visiting the island and saw a post about a job opening for executive director of Maui OnStage. Their friend said (jokingly), “Wouldn’t it be funny if you did what you were doing now but on Maui?”
“We didn’t think it was a joke,” Alexis said.
Alexis–who at the time was executive director of a theater in New Hampshire–submitted her resume but did not receive a response. Shortly thereafter during the couple’s vacation, she called and asked if she could meet someone on the board and tour the theater. “I met with the board and spent a couple of hours with the people that were here already,” Alexis said. “We came back a night or two later and watched a rehearsal. About a month later, I had a follow up interview and they offered me the position shortly thereafter, on my birthday.”
With their passion for theater, it’s no surprise to learn that Alexis and Steven fell in love on the stage.
In the late 1980s, Alexis and Steven were acquaintances, working together at a theater in New Hampshire. “One day, I told her she should audition for Carnival which was being presented at the Seacoast Repertory Theater,” Steven said. “We both ended up in the show playing opposite one another. That’s how our love affair started.”
Alexis has a degree in theater education from the University of New Hampshire. After college, she taught high school for seven years and then went to work as the education director for a professional theater company in New Hampshire. She moved up, becoming the managing director and eventually the executive director.
Steven got his theater start in high school, playing music in the orchestra; at the time, he never thought of himself as an actor or singer. His perception changed when he was playing in the orchestra for Annie Get Your Gun (a show both Alexis and Steven starred in at the Iao in 2015).
The music director told him to sing for Mr. Tilton, the director. “Mr. Tilton had been on Broadway; he had been in South Pacific and The Sound of Music,” Steven explains. Despite the fact that Steven didn’t view himself as a musician, he sang anyway. After he performed, Tilton told him that next year, he was in the show. The following year, Steven played the lead in The Sound of Music.
“After that, it was clear to me that I wanted to be in theater and on stage,” he said
Steven applied to the Boston Conservatory of Music, which recently merged with Berklee College of Music. He was called to audition and was accepted. “I just thought that was the way it was done,” he said. Steven eventually went on to study music and theater at the University of New Hampshire.
In addition to working together behind the scenes, Alexis and Steven have performed together on stage, most recently in Annie Get Your Gun.
“We’ve also done things where Alexis has directed shows that I’ve been in,” Steven said. “I’ve directed some shows that she’s been in. We just had call back auditions for Mary Poppins, and she’s the director, and I’m the musical director.”
In 2016, they worked on their fifth Christmas holiday show together. “It’s more fun to work together,” Steven said. “If one of us has to be here, we might as well both be.”
Leach said Alexis and Steven are the most dynamic, positive, influencing couple on Maui and they thrive on working together. “That’s really rare to have a husband and wife team that work together so well,” Leach said. “And they both love each other and get along. And they have enriched thousands of people’s lives. That’s an inspiration.”
“We love working together,” Alexis said. Then under a giggle she added: “We don’t share an office.”
Shortly after Alexis and Steven were hired, Leach had a conversation with then-theater president Tony Lavoy. “We are so lucky,” Leach said to Lavoy. “Alexis and Steven really know what they are doing. They can do it all.”
“Well, Randol,” Lavoy responded. “We hired real professionals.”
“They are Broadway caliber on Maui,” Leach said. “This is a first-class operation.”
Some individuals with an artistic nature have a difficult time with business and finances. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Alexis and Steven.
“The theater is a nonprofit organization and most nonprofits struggle with fund-raising, making payroll and all that,” Leach said. “When she took over the theater it was struggling. Now it’s a thriving financial success.”
Four years ago, Alexis and Steven expanded productions at the Iao to include two youth shows each year–a musical and a non-musical. This year, they have 60 kids doing Peter Pan.
Steven said the youngest participant is five and the oldest volunteer at the theater is 79. “It’s great when some of these ages cross over,” he said. “That’s really fun to see,” Alexis added. “Especially when you have those ah-ha moments and the adult realizes they learned something from the youngster. The 50-year-old can learn from the 5-year-old just as much as the 5-year-old can learn from the 50-year-old.”
“That’s what we enjoy the most is seeing people learn,” Alexis said.
Steven and Alexis are also co-founders of Camp CenterStage on Maui, a camping program for kids who love theater, music, dancing and singing. The camp’s tagline is Camp CenterStage: achieving excellence through the arts. “We use the arts as the basis to build character and build leadership skills and get young people to understand the importance of community and providing for each other,” Alexis said. “It is not about, ‘I want the solo’ all the time. We’re not a make-your-kid-a-star program.”
“For myself, for Maui, for Hawaii, we’re so lucky they are part of the Maui ohana,” Leach said. “They get the kids acting and that helps their self esteem, helps them become wonderful people. They get a lot of happiness and fulfillment from seeing the fruits of their labor, how they’ve affected so many people–and so many young people.”
For that reason, Steven and Alexis are special, he said. “They don’t accept the way things they are. They look at things like they should be and they try to make that attainable. They are real visionaries.”
Cover photo: Sean M. Hower
Cover design: Darris Hurst