Curtain call, Proud Theater: Beyond. 2012. Photo by Callen Harty.

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.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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