BWW Interview: Joshua Denning and the Fine Arts Academy at McCallum High School
Broadway World Austin continues our series looking into Austin area theatres with the Fine Arts Academy at McCallum High School. As Austin ISD's district-wide fine arts intensive high school program, it provides arts education for 9th - 12th grade students pursuing an accelerated arts curriculum as fine arts majors. McCallum Fine Arts Academy attracts a diverse student body from all over Austin, including students who attended public, private, and home middle schools.
We sat down to talk to director Joshua Denning to get a deeper look into this program that is producing theatre that holds up to the work being produced on any stage in town.
BWW: What is the history of the Mac Theatre and the education program?
JD: The movement for a fine arts intensive high school in Austin was initiated in the early 1990s and was coordinated by a group of Austin community members who realized the value of drawing together like-minded arts students to study and learn from arts experts and from each other.
This community group asked for guidance on where to found a fine arts academy in Austin from Ruth Denney, who founded Houston's High School for Performing and Visual Arts after retiring as a professor at The University of Texas at Austin. Ms. Denney recommended McCallum High School as the site for the fine arts academy due to its rich history of excellence in arts education and its close proximity to a high concentration of community arts organizations.
Partly as a result of Denney's involvement, McCallum Fine Arts Academy was embraced by The University of Texas College of Fine Arts from its inception and enjoys a strong partnership that continues today. McCallum Fine Arts Academy also collaborates with the Austin Chamber Music Center, Texas State University, the Austin Classical Guitar Society, ZACH Theatre, the Austin Symphony, MINDPOP, The Long Center, Ballet Folklorico, Ballet Austin, Mother Falcon and myriad other artists, community organizations, and cultural and educational institutions to provide the highest level of experiential learning opportunities to our students.
BWW: What is the mission of the Theatre Department?
JD: The mission of McCallum Fine Arts Academy as a whole is to foster a diverse group of student artists who will create, lead, inspire, and contribute to a global community...To prepare gifted and talented students for post-secondary colleges and career in the Arts.
There are five pillars to the Academy, as follows:
1. Focus on the individual development of each student,
2. Provide high-quality instruction,
3. Integrate collaborative, intentional, reciprocal relationships with the broader Austin arts community into programs and instruction,
4. Encourage an interdisciplinary approach to curriculum and instruction, and
5. Graduating students produce a pre-professional level of product in their chosen art form.
BWW: What are your goals with the Mac Theatre program?
JD: To create a rigorous curriculum and production season each academic year that prepares students for the new Platinum era of musical theatre and contemporary theatre in the digital age.
BWW: What is your background in theatre?
JD: Aside from being a director, I am currently Head of Theatre at McCallum Fine Arts Academy. Among the shows I have directed are: TITANIC, SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, ROMEO AND JULIET, BONNIE & CLYDE, THE PRODUCERS, GHOST, THE YELLOW BOAT, OKLAHOMA, THE SECRET GARDEN, LES MISERABLES and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, BOB: A LIFE IN FIVE ACTS and A KID LIKE JAKE.
I trained in New York under Broadway professionals on scholarship through the Broadway Dreams Foundation and am an active member of the Musical Theatre Educators Alliance (MTEA). After graduating with a BFA in Acting with A Musical Theatre Emphasis from Wright State University, I split my time between New York and Hamburg, Germany, where I played Adult Simba in THE LION KING directed by Julie Taymor and Britney in WE WILL ROCK YOU directed by Ben Elton.
For the NEA-recognized organizations Center Stage Texas and the ZACH Performing Arts School, I developed educational touring shows for youth and created and directed numerous city-wide outreach projects including an original musical revue entitled GIGGLEHOUSE.
BWW: You've received a number of awards?
JD: Yes. At McCallum Fine Arts Academy: The 2013 Broadway World Award for Best Direction of a Musical for BONNIE AND CLYDE: A NEW MUSICAL (Texas Premiere), the 2014 Broadway World Award for Best Scenic Design for THE PRODUCERS, the 2014 Broadway World Award for Best Family Friendly Production for LES MISERABLES, and the 2015 Broadway World Award for Outstanding High School Or College Production for THE PRODUCERS. The theatre at McCallum Fine Arts Academy was awarded the distinction of Outstanding Academic Theatre by the Central Texas Excellence In Theatre Awards presented by Austin Entertainment Weekly. Acting has twice earned distinction from the Austin Critics' Table Awards and the Austin Creative Alliance/B. Iden Payne Awards for the role of Angel in RENT at ZACH Theatre. Other awards include the Odyssey of The Mind Ranatra Fusca Creativity Award for spontaneous problem solving.
BWW: Is this the first theatre program you have run?
JD: Yes. I give my heart and soul to this program everyday.
BWW: What is your personal goal?
JD: To create theatre at the highest level.
BWW: What challenges have you encountered bringing this program to life?
JD: There are politics in everything...politics.
BWW: Where do you see Mac Theatre in 10 years?
JD: Nationally recognized as a leader in preparing high school theatre artists for the most exclusive college theatre programs in the nation.
From what we've seen, Joshua Denning is well on his way to making that ten year dream into a reality.