Proud Theater truly is an annual demonstration of “art, heart, and activism”, a phrase used by founder Sol Kelley-Jones to describe what this unique theater group is all about. As one of the fortunate people to be an adult mentor for these amazing teens I am filled with pride every spring as I watch them courageously tell their stories in theatrical pieces, songs, dance, and spoken word, all of which they create themselves out of the stories of their own lives. Sometimes raw, sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious, and always honest their ability to dig deep into themselves and share vulnerable parts of their being amazes me. I am blessed to be a witness.
Proud Theater started in 1999 when Sol approached me and asked if I would help her form the group. At thirteen years old she was already a seasoned community activist working hard for social and economic justice in many ways. She also loved theatricality and wanted to combine her love of theatrical arts with her passion for activism. At the time I was a writer/director/actor at Broom Street Theater in Madison, a theater group that created nothing but original theater (and occasional modern takes on extant material). I had recently been on the cover of the local arts paper in an article about a play I had written called Gay Like Me and was working as the Direct Services Coordinator at OutReach, Madison’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. Sol figured I might be a good fit for her idea.
We started by working on Saturday mornings in the OutReach office. Now there are 15-30 youth every year, but for the longest time there were just three kids who came every week, learned about theater, and created stories to tell. In the summer of 2000 we had our first public performance of one short skit at Madison’s M.A.G.I.C. Picnic, an annual fundraising event that was mostly about beer and food. Several teens were given a few minutes to do their piece in the middle of a shelter house filled with talking people, most of whom did not listen or care what the kids had to say. But the kids perservered, performed their piece, and made me proud and there were some adults who did notice.
Proud Theater has never been easy, but it has always been worth it, and the group has earned its name again year after year. Those of us involved have seen and heard some very hard things. We have worked with young people struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, suicidal ideation, sexual abuse, bullying, discrimination, families who don’t accept them, and more, and all of this on top of the toughness of the teen years that most students typically go through at that age. We have watched them face those struggles head on and beat them and share those stories with the public for a larger good.
When you watch a young person grow into themselves and you know that you were even a small part of that growth there is little more rewarding in life. We have seen kids come into the group afraid to speak even in a small circle of their peers who several years later would stand on the stage at the end of the year and hear applause for their powerful performance of a story they tentatively shared at the beginning of the year. We have seen young people grow into themselves and find their identity with the support of the group. We have seen them share intimate details about the difficulties of their lives and discover that they are not alone. These kids have heart and they have courage. They have stories to share and they understand that their stories can move people, that their stories can change the world through the power of theater, one person at a time.
The thing is it is not just the audience that learns from these stories. All of us do. We have had audience members write us letters to tell us that because of a performance they were now going to work harder for LGBT rights. We have had youth tell us that Proud Theater was their weekly lifeline when they were in school and that without it they wouldn’t have survived. As adults we know we are changed every year. We learn far more from the youths in the group than we could ever give back to them.
Social change comes slowly, but it starts with changing one person’s heart. Proud Theater changes hearts every year and often it is the heart of the storyteller, who learns to be proud of their own unique being in this world. I sit in the dark of a theater, tears at the corners of my eyes, because I know the back stories. I know the pain behind a line or an action and I understand the bravery in its expression. These kids amaze me and I am blessed that they allow me to be a part of their growth and their lives.