For Dale Soules, Being Openly Gay Has Felt Like a Duty Since the '60s | Playbill

Playbill Pride For Dale Soules, Being Openly Gay Has Felt Like a Duty Since the '60s

Currently starring in The Welkin Off-Broadway, the stage veteran looks back on her career, including the time she got rejected from Hair because she was a Libra.

Dale Soules Bob Newey

Stage and screen stalwart Dale Soules, now back Off-Broadway starring in The Welkin at Atlantic Theater Company through June 30, has seen it all. Her career on stage and screen spans more than 50 years, which means she’s watched the theatre industry—and the world—go through several transformations.

Perhaps most telling there is her anecdote from making her Broadway debut in the original run of the landmark rock musical Hair. She’d auditioned and been called back for the musical many times before she finally was cast. She’d come in and been rejected so many times that once she was in the show, she asked a stage manager what the deal was. “He said, ‘Well, we have a company astrologer,’” Soules remembers. “It turned out that my sign, which is Libra, didn’t line up for a period of time.” 

Soules says she shares this story with young actors a lot, because you truly never know why you’re being passed over for a part sometimes.

She grew up in Greenwood Lake, New Jersey—“Only 60 miles northwest of New York, but it could have been the moon,” she says. “Frontier Days” might be a better descriptor. Even in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Soules family lacked running water, and had to carry water in pails from a brook that ran alongside the house.

But in a roundabout way, that hardscrabble upbringing ended up bringing her to the theatre. Soules says she was not well-liked at school. She didn’t have the “right” clothes, and her home situation made people think she was dirty. And to make it worse, by her teenage years she realized she was also gay—which was mostly thought of then as a mental illness. “I imagined that meant I had to be alone for the rest of my life,” Soules remembers.

Dale Soules Michaelah Reynolds

“I was very depressed, and suicidal,” Soules says. Ever expressive, Soules was getting a lot of those feelings out via poetry, which caught the eye of an influential teacher. He thought to introduce her to theatre, specifically Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!. After reading the script, he asked which character she liked best. Soules had a surprising answer: Aunt Eller. “She was the peacemaker! If she hadn’t been there at the hoedown, everybody would have killed each other,” she says. “I guess I was a nascent dramaturg.”

That led to a school production of the musical starring Soules in her favorite role—and suddenly her schoolmates were changing their tune. “I saw it turn mean spirited, unkind, prejudicial people into cooperative human beings,” she remembers. “It saved my life. It gave me hope that I could be accepted for who I was and what I had to say and how I treated other people. And not by what kind of clothes I had on or how much money I had.”

Just a few years later, Soules was living in New York City. And she says that when she arrived. She could immediately tell it was where she needed to be. “It was clear that there were places where [being gay] was alright, people with whom it was all right,” she says. “I wasn’t considered a pariah. There was the possibility of acceptance, and that made all the difference in the world.”

Nowhere was that more apparent than when Soules found herself working as an electrician on a small Off-Broadway play in The Village, a production that would just so happen to become a landmark moment in the history of queer theatre: The Boys in the Band. Written by Mart Crowley about a group of gay men struggling in a homophobic world and the internalized homophobia it can create, the play was truly groundbreaking. When it opened in 1968, being openly gay was still illegal, even in New York City.

Cast in the 1968 production of The Boys in the Band

But Soules' place in queer history doesn’t stop there. While working on the production’s long run, Soules took an apartment near the theatre in the Village. And that’s how she happened to find herself outside the Stonewall Inn, a now-legendary gay bar, on June 28, 1969.

“I heard glass breaking and I saw cop cars,” she remembers, “a frightening commotion.” She’d stumbled upon the first night of the Stonewall Riots. Cops had raided the place, a not-unusual occurrence for a gay bar in those days. But that night the patrons, mostly BIPOC drag queens and trans people, fought back. Before she knew it, Soules was being asked to stand with the protesters, who hoped police would be less likely to attack with a cisgender woman on the frontlines. Soules says she remembers at one point dancing in a Rockettes-style kick-line. This was, after all, queer activism, which is to say a delightful camp sensibility was in the air, arm in arm with the justified rage.

It was the beginning of what would become the modern gay rights movement, a fight that has made the world of 2024 very different from 1969 for queer people. “I was and am very proud of having stood there,” Soules says.

But even after success on Broadway, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, and countless other projects, Soules says it still all goes back to that beloved teacher who saw an expressive but deeply sad student and decided to lend a hand. “The best advice I have ever had to give to anyone is to know that whenever you are speaking to someone, you never know how important it is,” she shares. “You may save a life and never realize that you have done it, just by being accepting.”

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