After talking and meeting with Dan Kehde and visiting his theater, I can best describe him as the Shakespeare of Charleston. His long and prolific career as a full-time playwright, director, and acting coach has led to an incredible track record right here in our town with dozens of plays and monologues, including his collaborations with the local composer, Mark Scarpelli.
While for years I have followed his work through newspaper notices and reviews, I am embarrassed to confess that I have only seen two performances: the Christmas rock opera, Mary, which is a collaboration with Mark, and a drama that I saw so long ago that I cannot remember the title. But now I am a committed fan and plan to attend as many future performances as I can.
My takeaway of Dan’s mission is that he is dedicated to writing meaningful and relevant pieces of all kinds while working with youth to produce great performances. Both his writing and his work with youth are equally important to him: he gets the benefit of seeing his plays take life while, at the same time, his young actors have an opportunity to develop their gifts and talents in new roles.
Not that Dan and his family haven’t made the sacrifices necessary for him to work as a full time artist. For years, he lacked a predictable income from month to month until qualifying for a modest amount of social security based on his limited earnings. Still, he feels that these sacrifices have been worth it for the writing, directing, and working with young people that it afforded him.
As you might imagine, Dan loves all aspects of the creative process. Seeing a dozen opportunities for topics every day makes it all fun and he is always working on one piece while a list of other subjects to draw from lurks just beyond the horizon. If and when he experiences down time after finishing a piece, he looks around, consults his list, and decides what to do next.
“There’s not a lot of logic in my choices,” he told me, “I just work on what feels right at the time.” This flexibility allows him to address topical issues. Sources may include media like the Washington Post online, National Public Radio, or local news. Still, even in these topical pieces, he works to blend in eternal themes.
Aside from a new drama currently in the writing phase, one of the projects Dan is most excited about working on next is a series of monologues based on soldiers’ experiences in the Vietnam war.
Another is the creation of a monologue production based on historical people and events in the City of Charleston. That production is funded in part by Charleston Creativity Connections.
The underlying principle in all of his work is to involve compassion. It is not about the size of the audience who ends up viewing it, he says, but he is most focused on the connection between the players, those who attend any given performance, and the subject matter and message of the particular piece.
He is also dedicated to making the most of his small theater, the Elk City Playhouse, which, with the help of local investors, he helped design and build out. With a seating capacity of seventy, the theater allows for an intimacy in the performances while also providing a kind of home and sanctuary for his actors.
Dan first landed in Charleston during the big snow of 1978 when he met two assistants to Rev. Jim Lewis who invited him to visit. He met his wife, who is from here, and later reconnected with her, moved to Charleston to be with her, and never left.
Originally growing up in New Jersey, first in a beautiful little town upstate and then moving with his family to a part of the shore with a view of Manhattan, Dan remembers being in high school when he could check into homeroom, leave the building, and be in Greenwich Village by bus in thirty-five minutes.
He attended American University, where he majored in political science with a passion for political theory. As a student he lived the history of national protests against the Vietnam War. Playing guitar in high school led him to songwriting in college and an early career as a lyricist based in New York.
One of the things that most impresses me about Dan is the wonderful caring energy he brings to the difficult challenges faced by at least some of the youths he works with and by our community at large. He is also a student of the theater with a vast range of knowledge and experience to share with those who work with him in a low key and collaborative way.
Dan said he likes being in Charleston in part because he finds residents of our city to be the most tolerant people with relationship to him and his art. He feels that this level of tolerance is even better than he would find in DC.
According to Dan, his greatest privilege is to watch things he has created come to life. I think about how he has also extended this privilege to the rest of us by investing as he has in his work.
Dan and his company continue to make their vision for the theater happen year after year as an integral part of our local cultural experience. How cool is that!
Dan by the numbers:
1996 - Year that Dan founded the Contemporary Youth Arts Company
>1550 - performances by the CYAC
>1000 - youth who have participated in the program
158 - Productions by CYAC
45 - Dramas written by Dan
12 - Comedies written by Dan
10 - one acts written by Dan
>500 - Monologues written by Dan
23 - musical pieces in collaboration with Mark Scarpelli