Liz McCormick Published

'We Are Real and We Are Here' – Kyra Soleil-Dawe's Struggle to Stay, Part Two

Kyra Soleil-Dawe, Kyra, The Struggle to Stay

Last week, we met Kyra Soleil-Dawe, a 20-year-old aspiring theater director and playwright who lives in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

“And this place is so beautiful,” Kyra said, “how would you ever wanna leave it? And I hope that I’m not the only one that sees that, I hope that I’m not the only one that sees that there’s something really incredible happening here.”

Kyra hopes to make it here in West Virginia as a young artist, having started a small theater company called Whiskey Shine and Pantomime Productions in 2014 at age 17. Kyra’s goal is to get it licensed as an official company. The success or failure of the group plays a pivotal piece in whether Kyra stays or leaves Appalachia.

Just to remind our listeners, Kyra identifies as genderfluid, so throughout Kyra’s Struggle to Stay, we’ll be referring to Kyra with they, them, and their pronouns.

We left off last time during auditions for Kyra’s production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Kyra, Kyra Soleil-Dawe, Struggle to Stay

Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Kyra follows along in the script during the first rehearsal for Hamlet.

Forming WSP Productions

It’s a late, summer night in August 2016. I’m in the basement of Kyra’s parents’ house where the last auditions for Hamlet are taking place. Hamlet will be Kyra’s third and biggest play since forming WSP Productions. It’s also the first-time Kyra’s held auditions for a show.

After almost two hours, auditions are over. Kyra and best friend and stage manager, Lydia Johnson, are feeling pretty good with the turnout.

“People came out and took it seriously,” Kyra said.

“They took it seriously,” Lydia agreed, “They’ve been really respectful. They showed up on time,”

“Right, and filled out their paperwork,” noted Kyra.

“Which like, not being part of a company that’s recognized – and working with actors is kind of like herding cats, so the fact that everybody actually showed up, and it wasn’t like two people showed up, and then ten people said, oh hey, but could you do it some other day, cause I can totally make it out, but like, next week,” Lydia explained.

Kyra was pretty nervous before auditions started, but they were also excited. Kyra says, hosting auditions really made it feel like like WSP was beginning to go somewhere.

“Everyone took to direction really well,” Kyra said, “and everyone that auditioned was older than I am, not that, that really matters, but that is something in my mind that I am one of the youngest people participating in this show, and I’m the one running it, and everyone just treated me, and the rest of our crew behind here listening in on auditions, with absolute, just complete and utter respect, and that’s so great, and I had so much fun. I’m so excited to do this show. I’m so excited to work with these people.”

Whiskey Shine and Pantomime Productions was formed not just by Kyra alone, but with help from two people. Kyra’s boyfriend, Ben Johnson, and his older sister Lydia played a major part in forming the company three years ago. Kyra even refers to the two of them as their “tribe.”

But more than just a hobby between friends, WSP developed into a conduit for Kyra’s artistic expression.

“It’s nice that we can make it sound all nice and professional with WSP Productions,” Kyra noted, “We have stickers, we have t-shirts now; it feels like we’re so real already. I’m so pleased about it, but what was once a joke is now just becoming kind of a dream come true.”

Fears & Finances

Kyra is determined to stay in West Virginia and make WSP a lucrative business in their childhood home. But, at the same time…Kyra is also terrified of feeling trapped.

“As long as I can leave, I wanna stay, but that’s the common misconception about West Virginia is that you live here, and you get stuck here,” they said.

So, one way Kyra deals with that fear is through traveling.

“Because it’s proof to myself that I can always leave; that I can always choose something else; that to me is ultimate freedom.”

Travel, like with art, is something Kyra says they need – but to travel, you need cash; to get cash, you need work – and financial security is also something on Kyra’s mind.

Kyra gets some support from family, like using the basement at their parents’ house for rehearsal space. But despite that, Kyra says their family isn’t able to financially support them. In fact, Kyra says their family has some financial struggles of their own, and Kyra often helps out.

So between Kyra’s own bills, their family’s difficulties, and keeping WSP afloat, Kyra’s budget is pretty tight.

During the entire production of Hamlet, Kyra works four jobs – as a raft guide, selling cheese on a goat farm, as a barista and manager for a coffee shop, and as a freelance photographer and filmmaker. But even with all those jobs, Kyra says they only take home about $16,000 a year.

“Because of the lack of opportunity here? It worries me, because when is that gonna be me? When am I no longer gonna be able to afford to leave, you know? If I can’t leave, then why am I staying?”

So, Kyra’s really hoping Hamlet will bring in more money, while also helping to get WSP on the map.

Kyra, Kyra Soleil-Dawe, Struggle to Stay

Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
The cast of Hamlet sit together during the first read-through.

A few weeks later, Hamlet rehearsals are in full swing.

One early morning, after a full night of rehearsing, Kyra recorded an update on their iPhone on how things were going. It was around 1:00 a.m.

“I just had an argument with one of my actors, and it was fine, it was totally fine, we hugged it out, and it was okay, but…I’ll get off of my day job, and all of these people want me to make these decisions, and it’s…it’s my own damn fault. I am the one to make these decisions, I signed up for that, but half the time, I just feel like, oh my god, I don’t even know what I’m doing, I don’t even know what I’m doing…”

Kyra recorded this late night update while sitting on the back patio at their parent’s house. It was early fall, September, but you can still hear the cicadas.

“I want to prove everyone wrong. Everyone says that it’s impossible. I’ve had so many conversations with business owners, and it always just ends in them saying it involves so much sacrifice, and I know that, I know it does, I feel it every day. I spend hours just making our social media look pretty. I spend hundreds of dollars trying to help get the word out, and I spend so many nights that I don’t sleep just so that I can come up with a plan. 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.”

Opening night of Hamlet is just around the corner, but will the outcome be everything Kyra hoped for?

And what about Kyra’s family, who have financial burdens of their own? How will that impact Kyra’s Struggle to Stay?

Music was provided by Marisa Anderson.

The Struggle to Stay, Inside Appalachia, West Virginia Public Broadcasting