Twenty years ago I was working at OutReach, which is Madison, Wisconsin’s LGBT Community Center. I was also heavily involved at Broom Street Theater, a unique theater company that produces nothing but original works. I was an actor, director, and playwright there. A couple of the things I have cared passionately about for many years are LGBT rights and theater, among others, so I was dedicated to doing my best in both areas.
One day I received a call from Sunshine Jones, a woman who has since become a good friend of mine. She knew of my involvement in Broom Street Theater and that I was working for a queer agency. She told me that her 13-year old daughter, Sol Kelley-Jones, was looking to start a youth theater group for LGBT youth, children of LGBT parents, and allies, and asked me if I would be willing to help out. Combining those two passions of mine struck a chord with me and so I agreed. Afterwards, I think I was a little scared, as my only experience with young people was helping out with a small youth group at OutReach for a couple months. It turned out that the intergenerational aspect of the group was one of the best things about it. The youth and the mentors learn from each other and respect has always been a tw0-way street for us. Proud Theater is not a hierarchical organization. Both the adults and youth have power and a voice.
Proud Theater started in the office of OutReach on a Saturday morning with me, Sol, and two other young people. Because of my experience at Broom Street Theater with writing new plays, sometimes with the cast, we used that as our process. The difference was that the stories came from the young people’s own lived experiences. Funny or sad, we shared the stories of their lives. We started each week talking about what was going on in the lives of the youth and then talked about how we could make the stories of their experiences into theatrical pieces. From there we would improvise, try things out, check back in about how it was working, and finally end up with a finished product.
It took until the summer of 2000 for us to do our first public performance. It was one short skit and it was performed at a large gathering of mostly adult lesbians and gay men who were eating, drinking, talking, and in general not noticing the handful of youth doing a performance under the shelter house. There were a few people who watched or listened, but not a lot. Still, the young people in that performance gave it everything they had.
As time went on, the group size ebbed and flowed, going from as few as eight performers to as many as forty-something, with sold-out audiences in real theaters around town. My partner and Proud Theater mentor, Brian Wild, decided we needed to start a parent organization, Art & Soul Innovations, so that we could officially qualify as a non-profit, tax-exempt group. Through Art & Soul, an additional five chapters were started in other locations around Wisconsin–in Wausau, Milwaukee, Sun Prairie, and Green Bay, with a second Madison chapter for young people from 18-24 years old. We have held performances and workshops in Minneapolis, Crown Point (Indiana), Milwaukee, Wausau, Green Bay, Platteville, Eau Claire, River Falls, and countless times in Madison and surrounding towns. Proud Theater was also one of the founding members of Pride Youth Theater Alliance, an umbrella organization of queer youth theater groups from around the country. Currently, two of our members serve as Board members of the alliance.
More important than our growth are the ways that we have impacted the lives of our queer youth, the audiences who see the group, and the mentors. After our first full production, we received a letter from an elderly couple who said the show helped them understand the struggles of young LGBT folks and that because of that new understanding they were determined to dedicate the rest of their lives to working to ensure equality for LGBT citizens.
There are so many stories about changed lives that I cannot even remember them all. We have had a large number of youth tell us, sometimes years later, that Proud Theater literally saved their lives. They have told us that it was their lifeblood, the one thing they looked forward to every week during a school career that was generally difficult and sometimes impossible because of bullying, harassment, dismissal, and more. In Proud Theater, their opinions and feelings were listened to, heard, and respected. They were supported in ways that they didn’t get at school or sometimes even at home.
One youth wrote a monologue in which they talked about what they felt about being transgender and that piece proved to be their coming out. Another had his mother tell him after a performance that she understood him better and that she would do her best to use the correct pronouns as long as she could still call him honey. Others explored their sexual assault, bullying, and suicide survivor stories. Still others were able to talk about their first loves. Some shared the hurt they felt from families or friends who rejected them and would not accept their identities. The short theatrical pieces created in the group were slivers of reality with all the emotion, angst, wonder, fear, joy, confusion, love, and hate that the teen years can bring to figuring out oneself and one’s identities.
When I first started on this proud journey I had no idea how many lives would be changed for the better, how much heartbreak I would feel when one of our graduates died in a car crash and when two of our young people ended their own lives. I couldn’t have imagined how many young people would tell Brian and me that we were like fathers to them, how much love I would feel for so many young people, and how proud I would be of those young folks who would overcome their natural shyness to shine on stage and in their lives despite some harrowing circumstances. I am so happy I said yes so many years ago.
But I also understand that there is a time for everything, and I feel that it is my time to retire as a mentor to these incredible young people. Twenty years of doing anything is a long time and it’s probably past time for younger mentors with fresh ideas. We have several great young mentors in place who are ready to move the group into its future. We have put the group in a place where it can sustain itself as mentors come and go.
As I age, I also realize I need more time to myself, to spend it with Brian, family, and friends, to do things I’ve always wanted to do before it’s too late. I need to know that I don’t have to be somewhere on certain nights of the week and that if I just need to sleep one night I can do that. I’m tired and if I don’t leave now I’ll likely suffer burnout and not give my best to the youth, and they deserve the best we can give them.
I will miss it. You don’t give twenty years of time and energy to anything and not miss it. I have a difficult time imagining the fall without being there at the start of the new Proud Theater season. I know there will be days when I pine for the laughter and loud conversation of the young people in our group, when I will miss guiding them both in theater and in life, and when I will look back wistfully on all the brilliant, creative, giving, and beautiful lives I’ve watched grow through various stages of their lives on a stage I helped build. The curtain is drawing on my part of it, but the show will go on.