Proud Theater: Our Story

A story of family.

Proud Theater is, and always has been, a family – literally and metaphorically. Proud Theater is a surrogate family for those without, a second home for others, and a space of love for all.

Co-founder Sol Kelley-Jones was raised on the front lines of the fight for LGBT equal rights. Following numerous, life-informing experiences as a queer-identified youth in the public school system and as a progressive activist, Sol partnered with Madison artist and activist Callen Harty to co-found a theater company dedicated to performing the stories of queer* youth. Proud Theater’s early development was a family affair – the combined efforts of Sol, her mothers Sunshine Jones and Joann Kelley, along with Harty, his husband Brian Wild, cousin Lauri Harty, and through her, John Sable (who directed PT’s very first show) – all helped the organization in its early years.

Proud Theater’s first performance in July of 2000 took place in the pavilion in Madison’s Brittingham Park with a handful of youth, no technical capabilities, and amidst drag-shows and beer tents at Madison’s annual MAGIC Picnic. Supported by Madison’s premiere LGBT resource center OutReach, Inc, area schools, artists and progressive organizations and sponsors, Proud Theater has blossomed from a rag-tag group of dreamers to a highly polished, structured theatrical model that provides a place of support and nurturing for its participants, while pursuing its activist mission to “change the world through the power of theater.”

Like all families, we are a composite of those who have so meaningfully been a part of our family history – youth and adults alike. The Proud Theater family is a unique space where queer-aligned youth can engage in in-depth discourse with several generations of diverse, queer-identified adults. By serving as role models, inspiration, and educators to one another, youth and adult participants both benefit from the other’s lived experiences. Many youth participants have returned to the family as adult mentors, and In 2010, more than thirty alumni returned to the Madison stage to perform in Decade, the company’s ten-year retrospective: a testament to the lasting power of the Proud Theater family.

* “Queer” for Proud Theater is an inclusive term that encompasses experiences of youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, person-specific, or other; youth from queer families; and their allied peers.

A story of activism.

Clearly, bringing the stories and experiences of queer youth to life and performing them within the community is a clear example of the activism inherent in the Proud Theater experience, but the company’s mission goes beyond merely “preaching to the choir” in year-end capstone production. The youth perform for educators and engage with them in dialogue about how to increase awareness, improve conditions or respond to queer youth in their schools. Youth perform for diverse school-aged audiences, and have been met by hostile audiences. Such is the critical work of Proud Theater’s activist mission.

But there are more, subtler modes of activism at work within the company’s creative process itself. Through the process of sharing their stories, youth find commonalities among experiences, empowering them to own and acknowledge the importance of all experiences – positive and negative – in their personal growth. By taking stories, compounding them with a number of points of view, and bringing them to life through improvisation, youth have a unique opportunity for role-taking. Youth perform roles across gender, sexuality, race, age and ideology. By taking on the role of others, youth are able to engage with multiple ways of being in a supportive, reflective environment. Role taking offers a chance for youth to see the world through another’s eyes, and in doing so, must come to terms with the inherent worth of each individual. While such experiences may or may not translate into dynamic protests on the steps of the Capitol, activism can also be the seed of an idea planted in a person’s mind: that all points of view have a space to be heard, debated, and most importantly, respected.

A story of opportunity.

Proud Theater embraces and promotes all avenues for personal growth, interpersonal development and community engagement. Youth develop creative and dramatic approaches to dialogue, are given the chance to act, compose, dance, direct, and participate fully in developing a show from conception to closing night. But beyond performance opportunities, youth can serve in democratically elected leadership positions on the Youth Artistic Committee – which serves as a critical communication conduit between youth and adult participants – or work alongside adult mentors and create their own role as a Youth Artistic Director. Proud Theater also serves as an inroads to the larger community: youth participants have the opportunity to perform in primary and secondary educational settings, conferences, banquets and ceremonies within the LGBT community, or for Proud Theater benefits. Proud Theater seeks to open up these avenues for its participants, but like all paths, the participant must choose to walk it or not: the individual determines their experience. Proud Theater’s goal is to support all participants on whatever path they choose.

A story that grows.

In 2012, Proud Theater reorganized under Art & Soul Innovations, a non-profit company established by core Proud Theater members. It was established to ensure Proud Theater’s fiscal and organizational independence as the company began to expand beyond the Madison community. Proud Theater welcomed its first new chapter, Proud Theater-Wausau, in 2011. Within weeks, group participation grew to more than a dozen youth eager to bring Proud Theater’s unique brand of art and activism to Northern Wisconsin audiences. Proud Theater-Milwaukee was established in 2013. Proud Theater-Sun Prairie was started in 2015.

As we look to the future, we invite you to join us. Proud Theater is a volunteer-based, non-profit organization. We value your time, your money, and your vocal support in our community.