There’s a certain weariness in Contemporary Youth Arts Company (CYAC) director Dan Kehde’s voice.
“I’m old,” he said with a laugh. “And I’m tired.”
Kehde, who opens CYAC’s annual holiday production, “MARY,” Friday night at the Elk Playhouse in the Elk City district of Charleston’s West Side, has been seemingly running non-stop for the past two years.
After the youth arts company lost its long-time home at the Capitol Theater on Summers Street, Kehde led his mostly teenage actors and crew to the Charleston Town Center. They converted a store into a small, experimental theater, scheduled plays and hoped for the best.
“The kids worked their butts off,” Kehde said.
But they struggled to bring in audiences.
Last winter, the company moved into the new playhouse in Elk City.
The new theater is in a blossoming neighborhood, has better traffic and more convenient parking.
He said, “We closed out our last show at the mall and then started work immediately on ‘Jack the Ripper.’”
Kehde sighed and added, “But it’s been hard, if you want to know the truth.”
CYAC still struggles to be taken seriously, he’s said. Too often, Kehde thought, the company is seen as just a juvenile theater company, when it’s a lot more than that. CYAC’s productions push buttons, envelopes and boundaries.
They do original work, take chances and yes, serve as a training ground for young, local actors.
It was a hard year, but not a bad year, Kehde said.
“There’s a great quote from Mr. Rogers,” the playwright and director said.
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the quote reads.
The children’s television icon kept the line written by French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery (“The Little Prince”) by his desk to remind him of the importance of the inner being of adults and children alike.
Kehde said he understood the quote better now, watching the company tackle settling into the new theater space.
“It’s not like moving into a show,” he said. “They’ve really taken this place to heart — and in a way we don’t usually attribute to teenagers. The sense of commitment from the kids has been underscored.”
Once again, this year’s production of “MARY,” about the life of the mother of Jesus leading up to his birth, will be a lot different than previous years.
As had to happen when CYAC moved into their theater in Charleston Town Center, the most recent move also means the show has been adapted to a space it wasn’t originally intended for.
“It’s spectacular,” Kehde gushed. “It looks good. I can’t say it’s better than last year. That’s not fair to the kids who were in the show last year, but it’s good.”
Because of the design of the playhouse, the director described the experience as “immersive.”
“You don’t get to blink,” he said. “They’re right up in your face and if you pull out a cellphone, they’re going to knock it out of your hand.”
Well, probably not, but don’t check your phones during a show. It’s a distraction.
Kehde said he was happy with what the show looked like and was excited about bringing it to life in the new playhouse.
Weary and maybe in need of a vacation, the CYAC director said he had high hopes for 2020. The Elk City Playhouse will be someplace they can stay, hopefully, permanently.
“We won’t be dealing with any unknowns,” Kehde said. “We can rehearse on our own stage and I have the opportunity to write some fantastic pieces because I know where we’re going to be now.”
The playwright said with that kind of anchor, he could write for the location and for the audience he expected.
“I can write for effect and include the audience in the process,” he said. “That’s incredibly luxurious for a writer, particularly for a playwright.”