Unpacking Arts Break With Teaching Artist Alberto Denis

Arts Break Alberto Denis Q&A

New 42 staff member Niki Cruz, Assistant Director of Media & Communications, sat down with New Victory Teaching Artist Alberto Denis to discuss his experience as a New Victory Teaching Artist and the process of creating an Arts Break! 

In 2020, the New Victory Arts Break program was created in response to the pandemic giving families who were stuck inside their homes an outlet to learn about the different performing art forms while doing fun activities. New Victory Teaching Artist Alberto Denis is one of the many teaching artists who guide Arts Break. 

Alberto is featured in a Arts Break video, “Devising Stories,” which borrowing a page from Manual Cinema’s book, explores the fun of devising and performing stories inspired by different source material. For this Arts Break video, he pulled from his love of graphic comic books to talk about the art of storytelling, allowing audiences to unlock their imaginations.

Every storyteller has an origin story. For Alberto, his inspiration to help create this particular Arts Break video came from the desire to ensure his beloved comic books were accessible to young people. 

“I grew up during a time when comic books were somewhat frowned upon in my household.” Alberto continued, “I grew up in an era when we didn’t recognize the value of comic books. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry. Back in the 80s, my reading and writing skills skyrocketed because of comic books. I know I had higher vocabulary competency and better use of my language skills because the comic books I was reading were at a high school level.”

Inspired by the book “Understanding Comics” by Scott McCloud, Alberto applied the particular theory discussed in the book to art books, theater, dancing, and his latest Arts Break video. 

For more about Alberto and his processes and beginnings as an artist, check out our Q&A below:

Niki Cruz: Everyone has a unique experience in the evolution of their artistry. How did you develop your artistry growing up?

Alberto Denis: Growing up, I didn’t have much in terms of art. I was raised Roman Catholic and [went through] private schooling, so it was really about grades. Arts were touched upon a bit in my life, but they weren’t centralized or focused on. I was raised to think of it as a means of destitution and struggle. It wasn’t until college that I got an opportunity to do more. In my senior year of high school, I secretly used to record videos by Janet Jackson on VHS down in my basement. I would teach myself all the moves, but I wouldn’t tell a soul. I had an opportunity to go on a date to the local high school that I didn’t attend, and we did a little talent show at her school. I helped choreograph this whole thing. I got to crack out of my shell a little bit [so] by the time I went into college; I felt more secure. 

I went to a liberal arts college called Rhode Island College. I’m very proud to say that I am a fellow alumni with [actress] Viola Davis. I took a modern dance class as an elective in my freshman year because I had to [but] I started dancing, and I liked it. It was the summer of 95, between my third and fourth years when I got a scholarship; a free ride to go to Harvard for [their] dance program.

[After that] I moved to New York, and I worked for Dance Theater Workshop as their lead technician. I went to Juilliard, working backstage. So I became a technical director, an audio engineer, a lighting designer, and a stage manager. As a dancer, it let me see the work.  

Alberto as a child
Alberto as a child (courtesy of Alberto Denis)

NC: What has it meant to be a New Victory Teaching Artist?

AD: Mind-blowing in the best way possible. I thought it was like some rinky-dink after-school program. I didn’t quite understand what my friend Josh Matthews (former TA) was referring to when he spoke about it. Another colleague of mine at Third Rail Projects was talking in between shows, and when I mentioned I had applied for the program, I saw in her face what I was missing, which was that this is a big deal. I got a letter inviting me to audition. I was so grateful when I found out I got it. I feel blessed twice for being a member of the Third Rail Projects, an exceptional immersive theater company — a truly collaborative family. I shouldn’t be surprised that I found my way to the New Victory through Josh because New Victory is also a remarkable collective ensemble that works collaboratively.

NC: What was the process of being approached by the New Victory Education team for this particular Arts Break?

AD: I was apprehensive because it wasn’t necessarily my comfort zone, but this just felt so radically different [than before] because [I wasn’t filming myself in my home.] I was very grateful to come back to the building to work with Zack [Ramadan] and Nicole [Wong]. I felt supported. I didn’t in a million years expect to be able to do something about comics books. It’s funny because it’s one of my favorite art forms to enjoy. So it was nice to be able to give it a try. Also, Zack is a remarkable scriptwriter, and Nicole was wonderful.

Alberto Denis at home for Arts Break
Alberto’s Arts Break At Home (courtesy of Alberto Denis)

NC: I was thinking about the collaborative spirit of the Arts Break. Did you partner with Zack to write the script or storyboard? How was that process?

AD: Working on this was fantastic because I know Zack also shares similar interests. We just worked on storyboards together. While sketching this, it was blowing my mind because it felt like he was inside my head, so it was just magic. I was so impressed by what we were able to do in such a fast time when the pandemic hit, but it’s nice to have a little bit more time and teamwork so that they can kind of polish what it is that we’re putting out there. It feels like the Arts Break now is potentially more effective than [it was in its] our first incarnation. It just makes me happy to have a chance to reach theater audiences and give them an actual chance to have agency over a creation.

Alberto holding up a piece of paper for Arts Break: Devising Stories
Alberto in Arts Break: Devising Stories

NC: I love the graphic arts and illustration piece and how it pushes families to use their imagination to create these new worlds inside of their minds. Was there a graphic novel growing up in your formative years that you loved that unlocked that? 

AD: I’ll try not to get too emotional. Recently, my absolute favorite and probably the most influential comic book creator passed away. He was an amazing writer and artist named George Perez. In the summer of 1984, my cousin introduced me to this big epic that was happening in the DC comics at the time, and I wasn’t a comic book reader then. He introduced me to a series called Crisis on Infinite Earths, famously known in the comics industry as the world’s first incredible crossover series. 

It was a really important time in middle school because this was my first experience with an epic story, the characters that I loved growing up, and with stories that were high stakes. I remember crying and feeling very emotional. The heart of it is its beautiful storytelling and the grandness of it. I was drawn to the battle between good and evil or what’s right. As an adult, I have a very nuanced relationship with the words good and evil. Another comic book writer who I absolutely love is Phil Jimenez. 

NC: What about speaking to a younger demographic inspires you, whether through an Arts Break video or in your day-to-day as a New Victory Teaching Artist?

AD: Being a young person was hard for me. I had my challenges. I’m grateful to have had the good fortune to have enough of a combination of resources and individuals to support me in one way. I can go back and edit and say, “Oh, this could have been better. This would have been better or improved,” but I’m thankful for my journey. I feel like it is a tremendous privilege to get to participate in people’s lives in a way that has the potential to improve whatever journey that they’re on with whatever struggles they may or may not have. I know for a fact that the arts saved my life. So it is a privilege to participate in an ensemble of excellence that works hard to do good work on behalf of young audiences and students, to give them an opportunity to find their voices, explore their questions and discover what they need and want. I want them to be the best versions of themselves that they can be, and I know that the arts are our pathway to that. 

[This interview was edited for length and clarity.]

Courtesy of Alberto Denis

ALBERTO DENIS  (BA in Theater/Dance, Rhode Island College, summa cum laude)

A company member of Third Rail Projects since 2011, Mr. Denis has been an original collaborating cast member in several of the company’s preeminent works including their Bessie’s Awards winning “Then She Fell” originating the role of Lewis Carroll as well as  playing the role of Doctor. completing over 1200 performances, “The Grand Paradise” which ran for 11 months in 2016 to critical acclaim originating the role of the Activities Director (and subsequently playing the role of Dad), and in the sold out 73 show run of “Ghost Light” at Lincoln Center in 2017. Most recently he completed a 37 sold out run of “Confection” commissioned by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC in 2019.  Throughout this time he has also supported his burgeoning career as international burlesque sensation GoGo Gadget, with featured performances at almost 7 years of the New York Boylesk Festivals, featured in the 2012, 2013 & 2016 London Burlesque Festivals, performances in Boston, New York City, Denver, Toronto, Paris, Stockholm and Vienna. Most recently Alberto has been awarded a coveted Artist Residency in Cork, Ireland in the beginning of August at the esteemed Firkin Craine Center and will be making his Fringe Festival debut in Edinburgh, Scotland two short weeks later.