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Caleb Probst ’04

Caleb ProbstFor Caleb Probst ’04, playing a variety of roles comes with the territory of being a professional actor. But many of these roles—educator, mentor, public speaker, and activist—extend well beyond his stage presence, and Syracuse University laid the foundation for a rewarding arts education career.

Syracuse had always been on Probst’s short list. He wanted to study theatre in a conservatory-style program and have the “college experience” on a beautiful campus with lively sporting events and other activities. “Of all the schools I visited, I felt very much at home with the faculty at Syracuse,” he says. “A few weeks after auditioning, I received a generous scholarship from the University and a phone call from Geri Clark—one of the drama professors—inviting me to join the program. Those two things sealed the deal.”

An honor student, Probst still vividly remembers attending the College of Visual and Performing Arts honors orientation. “I received a book to read over the summer in preparation for a guest lecture by the author. It was very long; I hadn’t read it,” he says. “I turned to the girl sitting next me at the meeting and asked if she’d read the book. She stared back at me and emphatically replied, ‘Yes! The letter said we were supposed to!’ She and I remain best friends to this day, and that book remains on my bookshelf—unread.”

Missing assignments, however, wasn’t a regular pattern for Probst, who went on to work for several national touring theatre companies after earning his degree in drama. He planned to see the country and save up some money, then move to New York City and become a Broadway star. Probst was well on his way to achieving the first two goals when some friends from SU talked about moving to Chicago. “The plan was to use our collective knowledge to begin a theater company that brought the power of language to Chicago schools. It sounded like a delightfully exciting challenge, and something well suited to my skill set as both an actor and educator,” Probst says.

When his last contract ended, Probst headed to Chicago expecting his friends to join him a few months later. But after those few months passed his friends opted for New York instead. 

The plot twist in Probst’s life drama had a funny way of working out though. During his first week living in Chicago and hardly knowing anyone, he met two people who’d prove very influential. The first, a woman named Allison, would eventually become his wife. The second, Rachel Durchslag, was founder of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE), an organization that would allow Probst to apply his education background to address some major societal issues.  

CAASE was founded to address the culture, institutions, and individuals that perpetrate, profit from, and support the sexual exploitation of others. Probst began working with CAASE in 2007, researching attitudes and beliefs that lead to violent masculinity. From there he began developing a classroom curriculum to address root causes of violence, aimed at proactive prevention. He piloted the curriculum in 2010, and today Probst travels to many Chicago-area high schools teaching teenage boys about healthy masculinity, building relationships, gender-based violence, and sexual exploitation. Empowering Young Men to End Sexual Exploitation was the nation’s first high school curriculum to engage boys in a critical discussion about demand for commercial sexual exploitation. Probst has been invited to speak about this work at national and international conferences to combat human trafficking, violence against women, and child abuse.

Beyond his work for CAASE, Probst has put his acting background to use with such companies as Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Remy Bumppo, Strawdog Theatre Company, and Emerald City Theatre. Presently, however, the majority of his involvement is focused on a theatre company called Barrel of Monkeys.

Established in 1997, Barrel of Monkeys sends teams of actor-educators into 3rd and 4th grade classrooms in underserved Chicago Public Schools to conduct creative writing residencies. Using theatre as a primary teaching tool, the teams spend six weeks helping students craft their own stories. The residency culminates with the company of professional actors adapting some of the stories and poems into short plays and songs, and performing the work for the students. There’s also a show for the public called That’s Weird, Grandma in which the company performs some favorites from every school.    

Looking back, Probst may not have read that book for the honors program, but he took many valuable lessons away from his experience at Syracuse. He credits nearly all his professional success to one class in particular—the teaching artist workshop. “Lauren Unbekant, one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever known, taught skills I use almost every day in my work with both Barrel of Monkeys and CAASE,” Probst says. “We were encouraged to think of how to use metaphor and a carefully crafted entry question to guide students into making their own discoveries. The technique works—whether I’m helping elementary students discover the stories hidden inside their imaginations, or engaging boys in high school to end violence against women. I’m not sure I’ve ever told her that, so I hope she gets to read this story!”