Using theater as a method for outreach and development, Proud Theater has provided a safe space for LGBTQ youth since its founding in 1999.
Executive Director of Arts & Soul Innovations Brian Wild became involved in Proud Theater after falling in love with the idea of using theater as a means to educate, guide and create a sense of community within a group of LGBTQ youth.
Wild especially hopes to reach out to this demographic because of the higher bullying and suicide rates among LGBTQ youth compared to their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts.
Regardless of prior theater experience, Proud Theater welcomes all kids ages 13-18 who are in the LGBTQ community, have same-sex parents or even those who are just allied with the community and want to see positive change, Wild said.
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Proud Theater guides youth in using their personal stories to craft original theatrical works, which are eventually presented to the group and community throughout the season. The season traditionally ends in late spring with a large-scale performance that showcases all those involved, Wild said. This year’s performance will take place May 25-27 at The Bartell Theatre
Dylin Billingsley and Charlie Alipranti, Proud Theater members of three and four years respectively, had troubles finding friends and a sense of family before they became a member of the group.
After first discovering information about Proud Theater online, Billingsley knew they may have stumbled upon what they had been missing. Though they knew no one before attending their first rehearsal, Billingsley left feeling accepted, already having made a few friends.
Alipranti had a similar experience, after attending one of Proud Theater’s shows upon a suggestion from a friend. Alipranti saw the show during an especially difficult time in their life, as they struggled to find acceptance in their own family and home life. Immediately upon seeing Proud Theater in action, Alipranti knew it was a community they needed to be a part of, and gravitated towards the inclusive, family atmosphere of the theater group.
Alipranti, now 19 years old, is currently heavily involved in choreography and slam poetry.
“When you don’t have a lot of people who can really relate to you because of parts of your identity, it can be really hard,” said Billingsley. “So to just have a place where you can go and have people who are going to relate to you and identify with you is definitely really beneficial.”
Madison isn’t the only Wisconsin city with this program. Since its founding, Proud Theater has spread and opened other unique Chapters in Wausau, Milwaukee and Sun Prairie.
In Milwaukee, a new program, Proud Theater Beyond, has emerged to support an older demographic of adults ages 18-24. While each program follows the same mission statement, they are independent of one another and run mainly by the ideas, interests and creations of the those involved.
While Wild is beyond satisfied with everything Proud Theater has become, he is constantly reaching out to find more young people to get involved.
“Proud Theater is a life changer,” Billingsley said. “I can say personally that there have been weeks where the only thing getting me through has been theater, and getting to see my friends, the people who I really consider my family — the people I know who really support me, no matter what I’m going through.”