'I Will Stay Here, Because I Feel Free' - Kyra Soleil-Dawe's Struggle to Stay, Part Three

Jul 20, 2017

It’s nothing unusual to think about leaving your hometown after you graduate high school, but sometimes it’s not an option to leave, and sometimes, as we’ve heard, leaving can be difficult and expensive, too. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

But making it work financially here in Appalachia, well, that’s tough, too.

The past few months, we’ve introduced you to three Appalachians on The Struggle to Stay series.

Recently, we’ve heard from 20-year-old Kyra Soleil-Dawe in Shepherdstown, West Virginia who, at the age of 17, started a small theater group called Whiskey Shine and Pantomime Productions, or WSP.

The company has grown since its beginnings in 2014, and now WSP is putting on its third and biggest production, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Kyra hopes this show will help to establish WSP as a credible theater group – one that’s recognized and taken seriously.

“I know it’s so hard, and I can’t imagine it would be any harder than what we’re already doing, which is just getting people to believe it. Getting people to believe that we are real, and that we are here, and we mean business, and just because we’re young, does not mean that we are any worse off; that we are any less talented.” - Kyra

Achieving this dream is part of Kyra’s struggle to stay.

As a reminder to our listeners, Kyra identifies as genderfluid and prefers they, them, and their pronouns.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting takes us back to the story, where Hamlet is just about to open to the public.

The Timber Frame Folly in Shepherdstown.
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Opening Night

It’s late October 2016 - nearly Halloween, and it’s finally time. It’s opening night for WSP’s production of Hamlet.

While the cast was getting situated back stage, Kyra was walking around the performance space, making sure everything was ready to go, and chatting with guests.

“I am okay. I’m a little non-feeling right now, because I’m kind of in shock that this is happening," Kyra said, "This is happening right now. It’s happening right now. We’re opening in like… it’s 7:22 p.m. We open in 38 minutes.”

Since Kyra’s first show in 2014, WSP has been performing here in this space – the Timber Frame Folly located in the woods on the outskirts of Shepherdstown. The Folly is a wooden structure built a little over 20 years ago. It’s used as a performance space for the community, and it’s situated in a grassy clearing, surrounded by trees.

“Yeah, no, this - this space is definitely home.”

Seating is either in the grass or on benches cut from logs. The space is rustic and charming.

A large crowd has turned up. Everyone settles in...and Hamlet begins.

(left to right) Joshua Riese, Ben Johnson, Koty Crawford.
Credit Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The cast gets a standing ovation. The audience laughed at the Shakepearean jokes, there was silence during the dramatic moments, and the cast just had a lot of energy.

There were about 50 people who came out to see the opening show, which Kyra says is an accomplishment considering their very first opening night, back in 2014, only had 8 people in the audience.

“Everything is just better than when we first started. The sets and the crews, and the actors and the acting, and the text, and the lighting, and just the; we have merchandise, like what is this world that we live in, I mean this was just like an idea that developed in my parents’ basement, and now we’re like here.”

The entire run of Hamlet - all four shows - made about $5,000, so Kyra was even able to pay their actors and crew.

Several members of Kyra’s family also came out for the show, including Kyra’s mom, Kathleen Dawe. At the time, Kyra was just beginning to ask friends and family to use they, them, and their pronouns, so Kyra’s mom still uses she and her in this interview.

“I’m so proud of Kyra," Kathleen said, "She’s always been a go-getter. She’s been a doer since minute one. I remember coming in when she was four-years-old, pretending to be 8 and being on homework hotline. She was writing and winning writing contests in first grade, and she has always excelled. There are a lot of reasons why one can’t succeed, but when I look into that little fireball’s eyes, do I want to think that she can’t succeed? No, I really think she might. I think she might.”

Pronouns & Acceptance

While Kyra’s mom does support her daughter, it’s been tough to understand Kyra’s struggles with gender identity. It’s been hard for all of Kyra’s close family.

“The fact that they’re trying to make an effort means a lot, because it is an accommodation," Kyra said, "They are trying to accommodate me, however, I would say that I would really hope that people, and families, and anybody who is associated with transgender or genderfluid, or nonbinary, or androgynous people make those accommodations, because it’s a sign that you care. You know, do you care about grammar more, or do you care about that person more? Do you care about your perceptions of girl and boy more, or do you care about your kid more? And I think that those are the lessons my family’s learning right now, that I’m learning right now as well. But I love them dearly; they love me back. We’re working out the kinks in between.”

Credit Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Being genderfluid, Kyra says there are some places in West Virginia where they don’t feel safe, but that’s not the case everywhere.

“I feel very safe in the panhandle of West Virginia, even Martinsburg, Fayetteville especially, and also, you know, Jefferson County very, very accepting. We’re also very close to D.C., and Maryland is doing pretty, pretty good on those efforts to make those people feel comfortable.”

Despite those safety concerns, Kyra still supports this state.

“Oh, I’ll always fight for West Virginia. That’s why I got it tattooed on my body, but uh, cause I care. And this is home.”

New Opportunities, More Dreams

So, Whiskey Shine and Pantomime’s production of Hamlet came to a close. Kyra started writing an original play they hoped to showcase for the public in the summertime, and Kyra continued to juggle a handful of jobs and lived paycheck-to-paycheck.

And then, in May 2017, Kyra got hit with some big news.

Kyra learned their mother, Kathleen Dawe, and father Brighten Dawe, were moving out of West Virginia...to Colorado for a job opportunity.

Now, Kyra’s conflicted whether to follow them...especially for their mom.

“Cause I don’t think I’m just my mom’s kid, I think that I’m one of my mom’s best friends, and my best friend’s moving away, so that’s, that’s really scary," Kyra said, "but it is good. It is a good thing, but it’s sad that they have to leave me to do it…But my family was certainly an incentive to stay in West Virginia, because I had my family here, but now I don’t really have that, so it is conflicting, cause I’m the only one here now, and of course my parents want me to follow them to Colorado, and it is tempting, there’s a lot of cool stuff down there, but I’m not ready to leave here. My life is here.”

You see, ever since the family moved to West Virginia, finances have been a battle.

Kyra’s dad is a computer programmer, and he got a job here in the area in IT, or information technology, when Kyra was six-years-old.

When the family first arrived to West Virginia, they had money put away in savings from other jobs, and they did well for a while. The family bought a nice big house, lots of art, a couple cars - Kyra started out well-off.

But the job Kyra’s dad picked up here wasn’t as lucrative as the family hoped, and the savings and paychecks started to dwindle.

When Kyra was old enough to work, they started helping to pay their parents’ bills.

“They were stuck in West Virginia, because they had so much debt," Kyra explained, "and they had all these mortgages to pay off, and no stable footing, no retirement set up, none of that, so you’re basically trapped in a big’ole house that you can’t afford, and so for my father to receive this incredible job opportunity in Colorado is huge, and it is the only way they could get out.”

Kyra says, even though they’re sad to see their parents leave the state, Kyra will stay - as long as they don’t feel the same trapped feeling their parents’ felt.

“That’s why I will stay here, because I feel free, but the second I’m unable to leave, the second I feel like my freedom is squandered, I will have to leave, because I will not tolerate that, because I watched my family go through that for the past decade.”

This past June, Kyra put on their fourth theater production at the Timber Frame Folly, and things have been going well for Whiskey Shine and Pantomime Productions.

In fact, earlier in the year, in February, WSP was made into an LLC, or limited liability company.

This was Kyra’s dream, for years. Now - WSP is an official licenced company in the state of West Virginia.

To Kyra’s surprise, it wasn’t as hard to do as they thought it would be…just a little paperwork and a hundred bucks.

But that was just the beginning.

“It was so terrifying to become an LLC. It’s really scary to have my name on that, because I’m so worried I’m gonna screw it up, but at the same time, I can’t think that, otherwise, I’m gonna. I have to think that I’m gonna prove all those other little business owners that told me I couldn’t do it, and that it was too hard, and that blah, blah, blah, you can’t do it, no, thank you, I’m not gonna take that for an answer, I’m gonna do it, but I’m terrified that I can’t. But I’m gonna try my hardest to prove them wrong.”

Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Becoming a business owner at 20-years-old, is scary for the same reasons it’s exciting to Kyra. This is a big step towards digging in long term roots and settling for good here in West Virginia.

Kyra’s next dream for WSP is to have a theater space to call their own, to continue to make art and thrive right here...in Appalachia.