Patrick has been involved with Contemporary Youth Arts Company (CYAC) since 1998, when he played the courier. Dan Kehde, CYAC's founder, writer, and director, highly influenced Patrick's formative years in theater. When we had been dating for only a month or two, he took me to the WVSU Capitol Center Theater to watch the play Fireflies, and meet his mentor.
Fireflies was not a warm, fuzzy play about living in the South and catching lightning bugs in the backyard, like I used to do at my Grammy's house in the country. Its theme centered around domestic violence and its effect on families. It provoked thoughtful discussion. Dan occasionally writes fun, "fluffy" plays, but more often, his works scream, punch, and beat you over the head with important social issues. Sometimes they're downright preachy. Dan himself is charming, gracious, and obnoxiously opinionated. You will often find his wife Penny selling concessions, opening doors, or taking care of the costumes. As its patron saint, mother, and costume field marshal, Penny is beloved by all who meet her. Dan and Penny quickly welcomed me into the supportive CYAC family.
That was ten years and many shows ago. In 2012, my brother Matthew Connelly and I auditioned for the musical Norman Rockwell's American Paradise, book written by Dan Kehde and music by his collaborative partner in all things musical, Mark Scarpelli. Neither of us had performed with CYAC before, although we had attended many shows. American Paradise is a series of vignettes that bring Rockwell's paintings from the Saturday Evening Post to life. Dan cast us both in various parts. We had a blast. Matthew enjoyed it so much that he has become a regular fixture at CYAC, acting and singing in as many shows as possible. American Paradise was a fun and historically accurate musical, a change from the more controversial pieces Dan likes to write. It had its moments, though. "Right to Know," for example, which depicts a painting from 1968 near the end of the Vietnam War, gets unapolagetically political. Lyrics from the chorus ask a question still relevant today:
"Your Honor please, where did it go? Where is our America? We have a right to know."
When WVSU put its theater building up for sale earlier this year, after over twenty years of shows there, CYAC had to move. Last weekend, Patrick and I went to see Hoods at CYAC's new space in the Charleston Town Center. Patrick saw Hoods when it premiered in February 2004, as well as its repeat performance in 2010. I saw it last night for the first time. I knew it was about racism and the KKK. I had been told it was intense. That knowledge did little to prepare me for the emotional onslaught of the next two hours.
Hoods transports the audience to rural West Virginia in the 1950s. The local high school has only one black boy, but that's one too many for most of the men in town, including Joe Stampers and Max Whitlow, both proud members of the Ku Klux Klan. The characters loudly and bluntly express their views on people of color in the most visceral ways. The intimacy of the theater, with a maximum capacity of 60, enhanced the poignant (sometimes overbearingly so) performances of the actors. There was no way to escape the tension of the piece, and I strongly suspect that to have been intentional. It deeply affected me; even hours after the performance I was processing my emotional response.
Magic happens when art is so intense that you need to stop and think hard, or intensely discuss what you just experienced and how you feel about it. It doesn't have to be a play that stabs you in the heart with its message, but it can be. Maybe if we continue creating work like this, we can cause more people to look inside and outside themselves at the institutions that still support the injustice and the tragic prejudices that Hoods so clearly painted.
While we were rehearsing "Right to Know" in American Paradise, Dan got onto us for smiling. He said we shouldn't act happy about our America being unrecognizable. We should look pissed. Angry. And rightly so. These are characteristics of Dan's signature style. He doesn't pull punches, and he doesn't take crap. But it's only because he cares that much. His website emphasizes a drug-free environment. He doesn't hesitate to ban anyone--youth or adult--who breaks his rules. No drugs, no drinking, no smoking if you're under 18.
Young people need places like this. Charleston, West Virginia needs organizations like Contemporary Youth Arts Company that force the hard questions upon you--the ones you didn't want to have to think about. A friend of mine once told me, "Theater people are always pretending." That may sometimes be true, but Dan's shows prove that sometimes theater can go to a level of honesty that some people don't face in their daily lives.
What is a piece of art that evoked intense, uncomfortable emotions for you? What about it caused that to happen? Is that something you want to do in your own work? If so, what elements and techniques can you incorporate to facilitate such feelings?