Student Blog: 2023 Jimmy Award Nominee Denver Dickenson Jr. on Defying Expectations and Thriving with Versatility

Plus Thespy Awards, Pippin, Zombie Prom, NYC Life, and More!

By: Nov. 29, 2023

Student Blog: 2023 Jimmy Award Nominee Denver Dickenson Jr. on Defying Expectations and Thriving with Versatility

In this interview, I got to sit down with Denver Dickenson Jr., one of my personal role models as a performer. I spent a year working with Denver when they were a senior and I was a sophomore, and the knowledge I gained from getting to even watch Denver onstage is immeasurable. They spent their summer in New York representing AZ at the Jimmy Awards as a nominee before moving there to pursue a BFA in Musical Theatre at Pace University. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it.

Alright, let's get started. Okay, how has moving to New York been for you?

Moving to New York has been really crazy, but in, I feel like, the best ways? It has been crazy in the best ways because- it’s very different from Arizona. Like, everyone's always doing something. Everyone always has something to do, so that was crazy adjusting to. I feel like the craziest thing was just adjusting to the fact that I'm actually living in my dream spot. The rest came pretty easily, like just figuring out where to go and stuff, that came with time. But the thing that I still haven't gotten to is the fact that I wake up every day and. It looks like this outside [re: NYC skyline outside window in background]. 

Was there anything that was really unexpected for you or that you were not at all prepared for?

I guess the thing for me that was unexpected was how many nice people are actually in New York, because I feel like I grew up with the perception that everyone in New York is like “Don't talk to me,” but there are so many nice people. Normally, if you keep to yourself, you won't have an issue. So that was probably the biggest change or thing that I had to get used to was the fact that not everyone I see on the street is scary. They all just have things that they're doing.

I’m going to rewind a little bit to Thespys. For the people who don't know, what a Thespy?

A Thespy is basically an award you’re given by International Thespian Festival. I'm trying to remember this properly, but it's an award you're given after you compete. So they pick who they want to give these awards out to. I think that I was one of like 11 people who got a Thespy.

Student Blog: 2023 Jimmy Award Nominee Denver Dickenson Jr. on Defying Expectations and Thriving with Versatility What did you win it for?

I won a Thespy for my solo musical piece, which was “Genius on Cleveland Street” from A Christmas Story.

What do you feel like you gathered from the experience of ITF (International Thespian Festival)?

From ITF, it was very nice to be able to go and take masterclasses from people all over the country because that was one of the first times I'd ever been able to have access to people outside of Arizona who do theatre. To be able to take different classes from people with different viewpoints was very beneficial for me personally. The other part of ITF that I loved was just the fact that we got to see a different show every night and it was all by students our own age. So that year we got to see Bus Stop, we got to see Beauty and the Beast, we got to see Groundhog Day, and we got to see Kinky Boots. And the funny thing about Kinky Boots is that one of the people that I watched on stage goes to Pace now, so we're like best friends. That was cool because it was just cool getting to see how other schools do art, and the different levels of artistry in other schools. When it came to competing and performing at Thespys, that was fun because it was the biggest audience I had ever performed in front of. In front of a crowd that day, it was interesting and fun to try and figure out how I would regulate my body and the adrenaline that I felt. So that was the most fun. That whole week was just fun because it was just a bunch of people from everywhere doing theatre and wanting to do it. So that was cool.

In addition to being a phenomenal actor, you've also done some work as a choreographer. How did you balance the responsibility of both playing the lead in a show and choreographing it at the same time?

Ohh, that's a question. I feel like if I go back specifically to Pippin, there are things I would change. I don't really have any regrets about that show, but there are definitely things that would change. I would definitely be nicer to myself throughout that process because it was the first time I ever had to choreograph the entire show by myself. I had helped, I assisted with choreography, but I'd never taken on an entire show just me, so that was daunting already. Also, the fact that it was Fosse and Fosse is a very stylistic thing. You have to get it right or people who know Fosse are like “This isn’t Fosse.” I feel like all the stakes were so high, but mostly because I made them so high for myself. I feel like, if I were to go back, the way I balanced stuff back then is not the way I would balance it now. I feel like back then, my idea of balancing both being a lead in the show and being a choreographer in the show was to just never take a break and just always be working. That was not healthy at all. I felt like I had to do it all myself to prove that I could, especially because it was my first time doing it, so I wanted to prove that I was able to do it right. So I overworked myself, which isn't a good balance to have at all. Not great. So going back, I feel like the proper way to balance having a lead and being choreographer is to know when to switch hats. For certain rehearsals to know, “Okay, this rehearsal I'm in my actor hat, and I'm just going to focus on the acting portion of it,” and to know when to switch over to “Okay, I'm in my choreography hat, and I'm gonna switch over,” so I wouldn't get burnt out as fast. Pippin was a lot. Like, a lot. In a fun way and in a learning way. Because, first of all, the material is heavy; heavier than I think I realized it would be going into it. I feel like Pippin was the start of me trying to figure out who I am as an artist. Figuring out what I need during a rehearsal process. Because it's so heavy: like, so heavy. For me, if I were to go back, I would just balance the different hats that I wore and understand that I didn't always have to wear both hats at the same time. I didn't have to be the only person wearing those hats. During the Pippin process, once I was able to go to the assistant choreographer or my director and be like “Hey, I need help with this,” it got so much easier. Once I stopped putting the pressure on myself to be perfect in both aspects and just allowed myself to learn, then it became easier.

Do you feel like you were able to balance it more efficiently with Zombie Prom having done it before? Or do you feel like you still saw a lot of the same issues?

I feel like definitely, going into Zombie Prom, I had a better balance because I had a plan of attack. I knew that my process is to, when the musical’s announced, go through the musical and just listen to it a bunch of times so that I feel comfortable with it. Also so that I know in my head “These songs are the songs that are going to be the heaviest, dance-wise, so I need to work on these first.” It just allowed me more time to plan. I also knew how I wanted to do research. For Pippin, I had always loved the show, so I felt like I had already researched some. I watched a ton of videos of other people's productions so I could get inspiration. With Zombie Prom, I really knew what I wanted. That made things easier because I could step into a rehearsal space and be like, “Okay, this is what I want. These are the people that I want to go here. This is what I want the story to be through choreography.” The biggest thing that helped me during Zombie Prom that I didn't know during Pippin is that, as a choreographer, you don't have to go into the room with it all figured out. The minute I went into the room and tried to have it all figured out was the minute something went wrong and I had to change everything. So I learned to not put too much pressure on myself for it to be perfect and to just do my best in that moment to service the story and to service the people on stage: to do the movements that I know the people on stage feel comfortable doing. Once I did that, and once I was just able to go with the flow and trust my instincts, then it became easier. So overall, Zombie Prom was so much easier to choreograph than Pippin because I feel like I had more confidence in myself as a choreographer.

Then of course, that show led you to win the Student Leadership Award at Gammage [re: Arizona State University Gammage High School Musical Theatre Awards]. What do you feel a good leader needs within the world of theatre?

That's a good question. In the world of theatre, a good leader needs to know when to ask other people for help. Especially in the world of theatre, because it's so collaborative and everyone is giving so much of themselves, a good leader needs to know when to allow other ideas to enter the room. Theatre isn't entertaining if you only see one person's ideas. If one person goes into the room and, from beginning to end, it's only their ideas, that's when theatre gets boring. But when someone in a leadership position is able to be like, “Okay, here are my ideas, but I'm not so sure about it. What ideas do you have?” Then it becomes a collaboration. That’s when it becomes fun because you get to bounce ideas off of each other and you get to grow. As a leader, you don't grow if you don't hear everyone's ideas in the room. There might be someone in the room who has an idea that you love and you just didn't know you were going to love it until they said it. You have to be able to put your ego aside. You have to know that you are going to mess up and that you don't have to be perfect. Again, that's when you're able to more efficiently collaborate with other people: when you realize, “I don't know everything, and I'm not gonna know everything, and there is going to be someone in the room who has an insight to something that I was not able to see.”

Student Blog: 2023 Jimmy Award Nominee Denver Dickenson Jr. on Defying Expectations and Thriving with Versatility Of course, if we’re talking about Gammage Awards, that obviously leads us to the Jimmy Awards. What was that process like for you?

I just always felt really grateful. The way it works is that you find out that you're going, you do a bunch of paperwork, which was fine: paperwork is easy. The day that I loved the most during the prep was when we went to Gammage and we spent the entire day recording and filming stuff, working with people to help hone the songs and monologues we were doing so they could be sent off to the Jimmy Awards. I loved that day because I got to spend an entire day doing what I love with people that also love the same thing. So that was exciting for me. It was also the first time I'd ever worked with cameras. I had done self tapes before, but there's something different about having someone record you; and it was a nice lesson in learning to not let someone else operating the camera get you nervous. That day was fun. That day was my favorite. There wasn't really a part of the prep that felt stressful to me.

For the experience like as a whole, what is the biggest thing that you learned and you took away from it?

The biggest thing I took away from the Jimmys is that it is okay to be in a room with people who are better than you. Jimmys was the first time I'd ever not felt like I had to compete or do more to be seen in a room with people who were at a higher level than me. The energy in the room every single time all 96 of us walked in was nothing but loving and supportive because we all wanted the same thing and we were all just excited to be there. It was the first time I had ever stepped into a room and watched someone do a solo and been like, “Oh, they do this thing that I really love. I can take that away without also taking away the feeling of ‘I'm not good enough.’”

What made you decide that you wanted to do theatre for life?

I feel like I've always been drawn to perform. Since I was three, I was drawn to perform. When I was three, my mom put on this Michael Jackson DVD. It was Michael Jackson's Dangerous tour in Bucharest, and I was just transfixed to the TV. I remember, in the very beginning, he pops out of the stage and there's sparks coming down behind him. I had never seen anyone be so magnetizing in my entire life. Granted, I was only three, but still. I remember from that day on, I watched that video on loop and learned all the dances, all the accents, all the music, so much so that there are now three DVD's in my house because, two of them, I watched so much that they burnt out and didn't work anymore. I even bought it on Apple TV because I was like, “I just need to watch this when I feel down.” So performing has always been something I've been drawn to because it's the thing that I feel the most comfortable and confident in. Every time I step on a stage or every time I'm in a rehearsal room, I feel like I'm in control. That's a nice thing to have and I feel so blessed that performing is the thing that gives me that feeling. I also knew that I wanted to be a performer and be in theatre when I realized that theatre was the one space where I wasn't hard on myself. I could make a mistake and be like, “Okay. This is what went wrong. Now we can fix it for next time.” That was just really empowering for me to know that I found a space and an art form where I can make mistakes and not feel like I'm being judged. There's something so fun and exciting and invigorating about putting on a costume and stepping out on stage and telling someone else's story. That’s always been fun, and I've been blessed enough to be given characters that have taught me a lesson that I need to learn at that point in my life. I was talking about this in my Foundations class: I've never really felt bad or rejected if I didn't get the role that I wanted, because, at the end of the day, the role that I got was the role that taught me something that I needed to learn and that shaped me into who I am today.

What is your philosophy around risk taking in the world of theatre?

At least in the theatre world, I've always been someone who likes to go big. I like to take risks. To me, if I'm not taking a risk, why am I here? I feel like taking a risk is the only way I'm going to learn and grow. At least, what I've learned through doing theatre is that you don't learn and grow by staying in your comfort zone. This is one of the few art forms where the only way you can grow is by stepping out of your box of comfort and doing something that you didn't think you could do. So like risks in theatre to me are fun; very exciting because then I can prove to myself that I can do so much more than I thought I could.

As a Pace MT student, what was the process of musical theatre college auditions like for you?

Musical theatre college auditions were stressful. Stressful. Essentially because most musical theatre students are perfectionists. At least I know I am. So it was stressful to have to record myself and then figure out how many takes I wanted to do until I found the perfect one. That was stressful. From the jump, it was stressful. I wanted to prove that I belonged here. I just wanted to prove that this is the thing that I’m meant to do, so I did put a lot of pressure on myself. The process in and of itself is a lot. I went to ITF. That's how my process started. I went to ITF and I sent in auditions, two songs and a monologue, for all the colleges there. Then, while I was at ITF, I sat down with the different colleges that called me back or wanted to speak with me and just had conversations with them about what their program was like and what their values are. That helped a lot because it helped me find what I felt most comfortable with in a school, ideals-wise and training-wise. So when it came to actually auditioning through colleges, I felt prepared because I felt like I had a good grasp on which colleges I wanted to attend and view. 

Student Blog: 2023 Jimmy Award Nominee Denver Dickenson Jr. on Defying Expectations and Thriving with Versatility Once I had finally decided on colleges, the actual process of auditioning for colleges is, again, a lot. I'll just go based on Pace. I had to first apply to the school and get in before I could even do prescreens. After I knew I was in the school, I then applied to prescreen and, if I remember correctly, the Pace prescreen is two contrasting songs and a monologue. It took me a week to film those because, again, the perfectionist aspect. It wasn't until I was talking to Clausen [re: our school’s choir teacher] and she was like, “When I'm filming stuff, I give myself three takes. After three takes, it’s not going to get any better.” It wasn't until I heard her say that that I was like, “Okay. What I can give is what I can give. I'm just going to give my best, record it, do three takes and then choose the best take and send it off.” So I did that. I forget how long, but after a certain point I got a message saying that they wanted to do a callback. It was an in-person callback. Some schools have virtual callbacks and some schools have it in person. Pace was the only school where I did an in-person callback. So I had to schedule that and then when that day came, I flew to New York and it was my first time ever being in New York. So I flew to New York and the day of, we walked into the room and every single staff member, every single person working in the audition was so sweet and so supportive. I guess I had it in my mind that auditions were so cutthroat and the people you were auditioning for were gonna be very stoic and not say anything. Everyone in the room was so friendly, and that gave me the energy to show up. So we went into the room, we stretched, we went across the floor, and then we learned a combo and did that combo a couple of times in groups. and then we went upstairs to what I now know is the seventh floor of the PPA (Pace Performing Arts Building). I did my two songs. They didn't ask me to do my monologue, but I did my two songs. AfterI did my two songs and. Jesse Carlo, the head, was like “Do you have another song?” and I was like, “I don't. I don't have one right now. I can sing a longer cut of one of the songs I sang, but I don't have one now.” So I left the audition feeling- I just knew. I was like, “I'm not making it. I didn't have enough songs. I failed.” It was my first time ever going to an audition where I had to have a book, like, had to have more than one song. So I just brought the two songs that I had. I had a third song in my back pocket but for some reason I didn't print it out and bring it with me. I was just like, “Oh, I didn't make it in. I'm just not going to make it in. I can't listen to this one song that I didn't bring ever again because I didn't bring it.” I was being so hard on myself. I've been blessed to have a bunch of people around me who know how to bring me back down. My mom was like, “What’s meant for you was meant for you. If this is meant for you in this moment, there's nothing you did or said that will prevent you from having it.” So that calmed me down. Of course, as you know, I came back to Arizona in the middle of Cyrano [re: our spring play, Cyrano De Bergerac]. That was kind of nice, to have something come back to. I wasn't able to sit and dwell on it for too long. There was this place where they would show your acceptance and then at the bottom they could change it and be like “You're accepted in the musical theatre program.” I would check that periodically, like once a week, I would check it. I remember I looked one day and it was like “Congratulations, you've been accepted into the musical theatre program.” I was shocked. I didn't think it was real. I was like “This is a glitch. This isn't real, my audition was bad.” And my mom was like, “No, no, no, they wouldn't put that on there if they didn't mean it. You got in.”  And then later that day like that same day I got a call and it was like “You were accepted,” and I was like, “Oh, okay, great. So this is real, you know, this is nice.” I was excited and there was also part of me that was so scared too. I was scared because it was such a big change. And I was just like, “I don't know if I'm ready for it.” My ballet teacher today said something that I wish I had known back then, like a couple months ago, my ballet teacher, Latrisa Harper, said: “There's never going to be the right time and you're never going to feel ready, so you might as well just do it and see how it goes.” And that's basically what it is. I came here, saw how it went, and I've never been happier.

If you had to pick just one, what would you consider your defining moment as a performer?

I think you know I'm going to say. Playing Leading Player in Pippin is the moment that actually defined so much for me because it was the character that helped me discover who I am both onstage and offstage. That character was very beneficial in my self discovery as a non-binary individual, as an individual who loves both feminine and masculine things, that helped me personally. It helped define that for me, and it also proved to me that I could do more dramatic-leaning roles because up until that point I had always been the comedic foil, the comedic character, the character who gets all the laughs. But that was the first time where I was fully able to. Show a different side of me. In addition to that, it also taught me how to release roles? Like, once you're done with them, how to mentally drop them so you aren't carrying them. It taught me the techniques that work best for me, so I'm not carrying around a heavier character. The moment of that show that I’ll actually always remember is this. I had gotten offstage. We've done our bows, we were going out to meet people and this black boy just comes running out to me and gives me this gigantic hug. Hepulls away and he’s like, “I have never seen anyone like me doing what you did on stage. I want to do that when I get older.” For me, that was such a defining moment, because I was that little boy, that little boy that wanted to see people that looked, sounded, danced and acted like me on stage. Just to know that I did that for someone and am still moving in that area- it's so motivating, especially on days when I question whether or not this is something I'm supposed to do.

The two roles that I got to see you in were Leading Player in Pippin (April 2023) and Eddie Flagrante in Zombie Prom (November 2023, Jimmy nom). What similarities do you see between Eddie and Leading Player?

That's a good question. For me, the similarity that I found between them is that they're both very large, but in different ways. I feel like Leading Player is large in a sense that they're intimidating. But Eddie is large in the sense that every emotion is just big, everything he does is big.I also feel like both of them are kind of manipulative, Leading Player more so than Eddie. But they are both very manipulative and they both will do whatever it takes to get what they want. So that was the connection for me. But for me as an artist, what I found the most similar between both of them was the confidence I needed to have in order to play them both. But for different reasons, because with Leading Player, I had to have a confidence in myself that I could do this, in order to play someone who knew what was going to happen and that was in charge of everything and had a good hold on it. As with Eddie, I had to have the same confidence that I could do this, but in order to play someone who's suave and sexy and good with words.

I’m curious to hear about your Leading Player’s moral compass. How evil and outright wicked do you feel your Leading Player was?

That is a really good question! I was lucky enough to play this role during a time where there was both a male and a female version of it that I could watch. But for me, I connected more with the Ben Vereen version, the 1970s version, because there was a playfulness in his Leading Player. His Leading Player wasn't entirely wicked. They still had things that they did that some people would consider evil, but to them they were just having fun. And so that's the part that I tried to take from me. And then the part that I tried to take from Patina Miller is the suaveness and the sleekness of her Leading Player and combine it into one. So for me, I feel like my Leading Player was someone who has those evil intentions but is really just trying to give people a good show. They don't think that they're wicked. Like, they're just trying to give the audience the best show possible. And for me, my Leading Player was someone who was trying to give the audience the best show possible but was also just having fun up there themselves.Student Blog: 2023 Jimmy Award Nominee Denver Dickenson Jr. on Defying Expectations and Thriving with Versatility Because I don't think it would have been fun to see me go out there and be evil the entire time. Then there's no story if there's no development. What I learned from the Ben Vareen one is that the last scene where Leading Player goes insane and tells everyone to tear everything down is more menacing and scary if the audience falls in love with them. I feel like my Leading Player was charming and was playful, and teases the audience and Pippin, so they can get the audience and Pippin on their side. In my mind, how I thought of it, if Pippin decided to go through with that whole thing, Leading Player would never change. We as an audience would never realize that Leading Player had evil intentions. We’d, the entire time, be like, “Oh, okay, cool. Leading Player’s just happy and charming, and da da da da. I wanted it to be very much like Leading Player is not wicked until the end. Sure, there's that subtext of “you'll do what I want you to do,” and frustration. But I didn't want it to seem like wicked frustration, if that makes sense.

What was the most challenging part about playing Eddie in Zombie Prom for you?

For me, the most challenging part of playing Eddie was two things. The first thing was letting go of Leading Player’s mannerisms. I had been so into that show that I would find myself walking a way that Leading Player would walk. And I'm like “Oh, that's not how this reporter in the 60s would walk.” It was going through the process of creating an entirely new character that was difficult. Also going through the process of playing a character that is what I would call rough. For him, I crafted a voice that was so much lower and filled with a growl. So then, to me, in my mind, at least in the early stage of the rehearsal process, I wouldn't be like “Oh, I'm still playing Leading Player.” I'd be like “Okay, I'm Eddie now. This voice is Eddie's. This walk is Eddie's. This look is Eddie's.” So that was like the first hard thing was just letting go of the past show’s mannerisms and adopting this new show’s mannerisms and speech pattern. Student Blog: 2023 Jimmy Award Nominee Denver Dickenson Jr. on Defying Expectations and Thriving with Versatility The other fun part of playing Eddie for me is playing someone who took up a lot of space in a room, who was very blunt, very loud. Actually that's not how I live my day-to-day life. I don't like my day-to-day life being loud or gruff or yelling. That was one of the hardest parts, to find my own way of being that character while also staying true to who I am. It took me a while to like feel comfortable with Eddie and there were a bunch of times after rehearsals where I'd go up to Pitner [re: the director] and be like: “Am I doing this right? Like, am I doing this right? Am I doing this how you want it to be done?” And I remember she looked at me and she was like “I trust you.” She's like “You're doing exactly what I want. I trust you, you just have to trust yourself.” I was like “Oh. Okay.”  I just had to trust myself. Actually allowing the rehearsal process to be the rehearsal process made Eddie a lot easier. One of the harder things about Eddie was going into the rehearsal process, feeling like I had to top Pippin. In a way like I felt like Pippin was here, and so Eddie had to be even higher. Once I allowed myself to trust myself and know what I'm doing at this point, I think it became a lot easier.

Going back to Pippin one more time, if you had to describe the experience of Pippin in one word, what would it be?

Fulfilling. Which actually is so ironic, based on the fact that throughout that whole show, that word gets tossed around a lot, but it was very fulfilling. It was the first time I felt like I had been on stage and all aspects of me were truly represented.

Okay, I have one more question, but before we do that, I have a “lightning round” of sorts. So I'm going to set a timer for 30 seconds and I'm going to ask you as many questions as I can. Are you ready? Okay, here we go. Favorite restaurant in New York City?

Starbucks. 

 #1 dream role?

Genie.

Favorite show you've seen?

Some Like It Hot.

Favorite show ever? 

Pippin.

Favorite role you've played?

Leading Player.

Current musical soundtrack that you have on repeat?

Here Lies Love.

Favorite non-musical-theatre artist?

Michael Jackson.

Alright, and that’s your time. That was good! Last question I have: what advice would you give young performers out there who are hoping to do what you do?

Trust the process. That's the advice I would give. Trust the process. Let the process be what it’s going to be. Don't go into the room expecting to be perfect because the minute you go into a room expecting to be perfect, you shut yourself off from learning so many beautiful things from not only the director, but from everyone else in the cast. So trust the process. Also, be present in every moment. I feel like every person who's gone through high school says this, and I'm going to be another person that says this: high school, especially like if you're doing high school theatre, goes by so fast, and before you know it you’ve graduated. So just be in the moment. Be 100% in every moment so that you can, again, take everything you can from every single moment. In addition to that, look at every role and every opportunity to perform as a new challenge, as a new way of pushing your box outwards and as a new way of being able to show different people the different things you can do. The last thing I would say is a quote that, again, I got from my ballet teacher, Latrisa Harper. This was the quote she gave us when she was talking about giving your all, no matter what it looks like. She said that one of her old dance teachers used to tell her: “If you have 65% that day, you give 100% of that 65%. Because just doing your best that day is going to help you grow. You don't have to worry about the rest. Just come into the room, do your best and you will leave more knowledgeable than you came into the room.”



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