In 2014, when Kyra Soleil-Dawe was 17-years-old, they formed a small, theater company out of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle in Shepherdstown – a historic, artsy, college town just miles from Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
We’re using the pronouns they, them, and their when referring to Kyra, because they identify as genderfluid or genderqueer, which are terms within the LGBTQ community. Kyra was born female, but doesn’t identify exclusively as female or male - but somewhere in the middle.
It was theater that helped Kyra come to terms with questions about gender and identity. It helped with one of the darkest periods of Kyra’s life - during middle school.
Kyra wants their theater company to be licensed and to be a sustainable business here in Appalachia. Kyra wants to be taken seriously, recognized for their talents, and make a profit. Part of Kyra’s struggle to stay rests on this dream.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting has been following Kyra’s story for about one year. We step back to August 2016. Kyra was still 19-years-old at this time.
“My name is Kyra Soleil-Dawe, and I am deciding whether to stay or leave to pursue better artistic opportunities. I really want to stay, but I’m told I really should leave, so I’m trying to make what some people say is impossible happen, and make a very high quality of work in a place that a lot of people stigmatize as not a high quality place to work.”
Dreams Down By the River
Kyra sits on Shepherdstown's iconic stone “Wall” eating a burger and fries. They’re sporting a t-shirt with the Whiskey Shine and Pantomime Productions logo or WSP for short - that’s the name of Kyra’s theater group.
Kyra’s dream is for WSP Productions to become an official company - they’d love to own a business or a small profit theater company before turning 20 - but knows it won’t be easy.
It’s about 9:00 p.m. This is Kyra’s favorite time of day.
We walk from the “Wall” down to the Potomac River on the West Virginia side – it’s here where Kyra comes to think.
It’s dark, except for the stars and the reflection of the moon on the water. Street lamps twinkle in the darkness from a bridge connecting West Virginia and Maryland just a few hundred feet away. Cicadas chirp loudly around us.
We stand on a concrete boat ramp, just steps away from the warm water, and we’re the only ones here.
“I love bodies of water, it really helps me think. I love coming down here to think," Kyra said, "I’ve had a lot of really great discussions with people that have come and gone through my life, and almost every single conversation, I always am pushing this dream that we can be successful artists in West Virginia; that we don’t have to just go across the river, we don’t have to go across the country, we don’t have to go anywhere to make the work that we wanna make.”
Shepherdstown is Kyra’s home. Though Kyra was born in California, they moved to West Virginia at the age of six.
“And this place is so beautiful, 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, and my fear of both leaving or staying is the fact that it won’t ever get acknowledged unless I go elsewhere," Kyra explained, "but if I go elsewhere, it won’t be derived from this place; this beautiful, beautiful place.”
Theater & Coming Out
Just a few days after this interview, I attended the second day of auditions for Kyra’s latest production - William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, Hamlet. Auditions were held at Kyra’s parent’s house, just a few miles from the heart of Shepherdstown.
Shakespeare has actually played a large role in Kyra’s life. In fact, it was one of the playwright’s other plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that was a turning point for Kyra.
“When I was in junior high, I was in my first Shakespeare play, and I was really confused; everybody’s hormones were crazy and vicious, and so were the people," Kyra remembered, "and I didn’t really fit in with the girls. I was really bad at being a girl; I’m still really bad at being a girl, and I didn’t really fit in with the boys, cause I still was a girl, at least I thought. And I got bullied really hard.”
Kyra says this point was the most difficult time of their life. Kyra was beginning to recognize they were genderqueer and struggling with identity.
“I just felt so lost and confused and kind of empty, and I really genuinely thought that, like, if things didn’t get better by high school, I would try to opt out in whatever way that applied. Whether it meant, like, leaving, running away, or, like, actually attempting suicide, whatever that looked like, I knew that was very real for me, because I just did not enjoy what was going on at the time, and that’s like nobody’s fault, it really isn’t, but that’s how I felt mentally.”
Things changed for 12 year-old Kyra when they were cast as Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; a character who’s an outcast and no other characters seem to love. Kyra connected with Helena to a T. And for the first time, Kyra felt in control.
“It finally gave me something to connect to, and as a weird, seventh grade kid who doesn’t know how to act like a person, or a girl that was a really big deal. That was a really big deal. I learned that I could pretend, and if I could pretend, I could make it through. And then in learning how to pretend, I realized everybody else was doing the exact same thing; sometimes without realizing it," Kyra noted, "So it took me out of that very vulnerable place of feeling very put down by my peers and by myself, and being in a weird body and not knowing what that was and coming into a queerness that I did not know I had, and it gave me, not just an activity, but like a philosophy, like a way of life; to kind of fake it til you made it, or fake it til you fake it some more. And although that sounds kind of terrible, that is absolutely what I needed in that moment,and that’s part of the reason that theater is, like, my life. It’s my philosophy, it’s my world, it’s how I see the world, and it saved my life.”
A few years after playing Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kyra came out as bisexual to friends and family. And that was tough.
“I would say there are definitely some growing pains, but my family supports me as a person, pretty much unconditionally, and I hope to see those growing pains actually be real growth in both their person and mine, and our relationship. It’s hard. I’m not gonna lie.”
And then during their senior year of high school, Kyra came out as genderqueer, or genderfluid.
“Being a pansexual, non-binary person just means I don’t necessarily identify really strongly as both male or female, I just feel kind of masculine, and that’s just fine, so I’m just a person. That’s all that means.”
And then underneath this self-discovery was theater. Theater helped Kyra feel more self-assured, more grounded while coming out.
Back at the Hamlet auditions, Kyra’s feeling nervous but excited to get the show cast.
We’re in the basement of Kyra’s parent’s house. On the patio outside, a handful of other local actors – all millennials – chat, smoke cigarettes, and wait to be called in to audition.
Inside, Kyra’s boyfriend Ben Johnson is reading for the part of Hamlet. Kyra gives him some pointers.
“I’m really hoping that this production kind of establishes us as really credible, right? I want people to, like, I want people to realize the talent that I’ve realized in these people, and it’s really helpful to do that with, like, a big name production." Kyra on Hamlet.
In just a couple of months, Kyra’s latest theater production, Hamlet, will open to the public. But how will Kyra handle the weight of directing such a big show? One where Kyra rests so much hope? And how welcome does Kyra feel here given their gender identity?
More next time on Kyra’s Struggle to Stay.
Music was provided by Marisa Anderson.