Defying Labels

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This triple-threat performer and teacher hopes to build new theatrical traditions in the city.

When Joshua Denning was earning his stripes as a young actor at Jeffersonville High School in Indiana, he was the lead in many productions—Peter Pan, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Fame—but the production of a show with a message of inclusivity, called School Colors, was by far his favorite.

The premise was straightforward, yet rather groundbreaking: Each actor improvised scenes out of his or her own experiences on the topic of racism. His vignette—at that time, his knowledge about his ancestors was not what it is now—involved the sketches of his Uncle Preston, an artist whom his relatives said he resembled.

“People think that a mixed-race person needs to choose sides or needs to connect with their White side or represent themselves as culturally Black, and my whole scene was about how I’m mixed,” said Denning. “I claim both and I’m just as White as I am Black—and that’s how it is and you need to deal with it.”

The production resonated because the cast members were honestly invoking their ancestors: In fact, they were later invited to perform at various corporate diversity seminars. “Everything about it was real,” he added. “It wasn’t staged or canned or prerecorded.”

As a child in southern Indiana, Denning would follow his older sister, who took dance classes, and hang out backstage when she performed. He developed a fascination with the mystery of theatrical spaces, with their spiral staircases, weird sets, and nooks and crannies. His parents allowed his burgeoning creativity to flourish, encouraging him to take things apart, paint them and even construct an actual theater, complete with lights and orchestra pit, in their garage. Was he more driven than the average theater-loving child? Most definitely: voice lessons, dance classes, and performing in every single play he could squeeze into his schedule.

“You come up on all these different styles with these roles, and they really make you self-reflect.

That part was difficult for me, to be taken apart and prodded,” said Denning. “What are you? Who are you? Especially when you’re young and you don’t know all the answers to those questions yet.”

After earning his BFA on a full scholarship to Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, Denning moved to New York City, where he lived and worked in his field both inside the city and abroad. He appeared in many shows, including a German production of Disney’s The Lion King, in which he played Simba for two years in Hamburg.

While he was still living in New York City, but performing in the ensemble of Miss Saigon for Theatre Under the Stars in Houston, unbeknownst to him, his artistic director sent a note to ZACH Scott Theatre’s artistic director, Dave Steakley, singing Denning’s praises. Steakley was impressed with the young man’s talent after seeing him audition for a few roles (that he was not cast in) for shows at ZACH with guest directors. When the company began to produce Rent, Steakley wanted to cast him as Angel Dumott Schunard, a gay drag queen percussionist living with AIDS.

“When I think of New York City drag in the time in which Rent is set, I loved those fierce singing divas like Kevin Aviance, who were equal parts male and female onstage and usually performed onstage with a shaved head, no wigs, but with makeup,” said Steakley. “There was something about Joshua that triggered this for me. I wanted him to play a role very different from any he’d done before and from who he is. That was the best decision I could have made, as Joshua was exceptional.”

For his part, Denning said that the city embraced him fully in that role. “It was one of those things that you hear people say, you’re a channel for it, a vehicle and that’s how that whole experience felt for me.” The consummate perfectionist, he fully inhabited the role as well as anyone performing in the original cast on Broadway. At the end of each night, Denning would collect donations for AIDS Services of Austin, an organization that benefits Central Texans living with HIV/AIDS and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

The director of the musical Parade, being produced at McCallum Fine Arts Academy, was seeking male actors with powerful voices who could sing demanding songs in the story of a Jewish man who is lynched in south Georgia during the Civil War. Denning auditioned and was cast; he’d been toying with the idea of becoming a teacher or theater director, wanting to replicate for students in Central Texas the positive experiences he had in high school.

McCallum Fine Arts Academy, with about 500 students, puts on eight productions a year. After approaching another teacher there with his idea, Denning was told that another teacher had just left the school that day. After receiving his teaching certification, Denning came on as a substitute and, after a nationwide search that began late last year, is now the school’s Director of Performance Theatre. Beyond his resume—he’s staged more than 19 productions as a director and choreographer—he brings the intensity of his passion and his belief in the life-changing power of theater.

It’s that unshakable belief in theater that informs Denning’s latest project, which will perhaps leave a legacy in Austin that will last well beyond his time here. When he was in college, a program called Muse Machine mounted a production at Dayton’s equivalent of the Paramount Theatre. A director was brought in from Broadway and a casting call was put out to all high school students. Denning applied for a grant to put on a similar program here via MINDPOP, which is a coordinating body that promotes a collaboration of educators, arts groups and funders passionate about the impact of creative learning on student success.

“What if the resources aren’t there at your school? Or what if arts programs have been cut? What about those kids?” he asked, adding that he wants to open it up to students of all ages here. “I want to open it up to all levels and create a new tradition in Austin.” That $100,000 Transformation Grant from MINDPOP would cover the costs of his first effort; the grant application deadline was in May and, as of press time, Denning was awaiting word.

For this self-confident performance artist, moments of meaningful connection have sometimes come in very unexpected places, like a subway platform in New York City. Once, while buying groceries at Food Emporium, Denning heard some high school kids catcalling him. At first, he ignored them, but of course that just made it worse.

“Finally, I was like, these kids need to learn something. I went back around and said, ‘I’m just a guy. I’m buying groceries. I’m buying cheese.’ Once they heard me speak, they were like, ‘Oh, look how gay he is.’ It turned into that.”

He paid for his food and waited for the subway to take him home to his apartment in uptown Manhattan. He was feeling dejected, as situations like that had happened to him before, and wondered, “What is it about me that provokes that type of behavior in people?”

“I hear this voice next to me, and he says, ‘Is everything okay?’” Sitting next to him, scrolling through photos on a digital camera, is a Buddhist monk in full regalia. He asked more questions. As it turned out, he was a monk with a lot of well-known friends, as evidenced by the pictures with celebrities.

He wanted to see how Denning lived and asked if he could come over to his house for a visit. Momentarily freaked out—this is New York City, after all—Denning decided that if anything weird happened, he could handle an old monk. He went to the apartment, befriended Denning, and over the course of the next six months, taught him about meditation. “He still calls just to check on me,” he said. “He’s given himself the name Joe. He’s Joe the monk. I love him.”

For Denning, that experience brought him back around to being centered on his art and the positive impact he was having. It also sparked a deeper awareness of the power of meditation, which he practices on a regular basis. Even reflecting on the moments when he’s felt like a fish out of water, he has maintained a positive attitude about the profound, positive impact of culture on a community and on society at large.

“Big changes happen one mind at a time; that’s really the only way. You can create a policy, and that’s one thing,” said Denning. “It doesn’t matter if it’s not in the hearts of the people. That’s what theater does; it puts it in the heart of the person or in their mind.”

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