Triple threats always steal a part of my heart when it comes to the arts, and it doesn’t have to be the traditional actor-dancer-singer combo that slays me. Today, for example, we’re throwing an overdue spotlight on Denzel Belin, improv genius, beautifully gifted actor, and a director whose growing strength and name are going to be legendary in the Twin Cities in no time if he keeps his current pace up.
I first became aware of Belin as an actor—he was in a one-act horror show I produced. Though it had comedic elements (which are one of Belin’s greatest strengths), the more serious notes and horror in the show (that centered around people blinking out of existence) were also brilliant. I have since worked with him in a number of capacities, and I’ve seen him on stage and his directing work at countless other Twin Cities venues. One of the marks of true talents, in my humble opinion, is that even those who know someone’s style pretty well from collaborating with them are consistently joyfully surprised by every single they you see them do. By that token, Belin is one of the Twin Cities’ theatre and improv communities greatest talents. He is consistent in his gifts and their growth, yet he consistently surprises audiences and collaborators in the absolute best ways possible. If the name Denzel Belin rings a bell to you, it may be as a member of Lavender Panic who are “promoting queer visibility by being queer and visible.” Or, because he’s currently starring in a show at the Brave New Workshop. Or perhaps through the seemingly countless shows he’s done since moving to the Twin Cities to take them by storm. Here’s more about this theatrical mult-talent in his own words:
To start, just tell us about yourself!
Sometimes I think I am both so interesting and so boring because so much of my life revolves around art (doing it, seeing it, reading it). I am originally from Seattle, Washington, and was much more of an anime kid than a theater kid before college. I started doing shows (and taking them seriously) around 10th grade, and I did productions of Hair, Avenue Q, and Rent during my high school years. Angel is probably my favorite role I have had the chance to play, and a role I do not have the voice for anymore. I am a sucker for any queer romantic comedy that appears on Netflix and will always buy the new Pokémon games when they come out. I am a huge Steven Universe fan, and my favorite Lin-Manuel Miranda songs are “Satisfied” and “Paciencia y Fe”. The first time I felt absolutely confident I knew where Minnesota was on a map was probably sophomore year of college. I went to St. Olaf College, which as one may know, is in Minnesota – I am horrific with maps.
What draws you so strongly to theatre and improv?
I love and am attracted to the dialogue and conversation aspects that are attached to live performance. The conversation between the performers, performers and audience, and between audience members all creates this unique hive of energy and shared experience, and I find myself able to explore most of who I am as a person in these environments.
Whats your favorite part of the acting process? What about the directing process?
My favorite thing about working in theater is the chance to contribute as a part of a larger puzzle. I remember a conversation I had with my Intro to Acting teacher in college when she suggested that I look into assistant directing a show because she thought it was a good fit for me. At the time, I felt a bit hurt because I initially read it as “I know you are in this acting class, but maybe you should not act”, but what she saw was how I was always curious about the whole picture. What was the lighting like, and what kind of costume would this character have, and other questions like that. When I did assistant direct a show the following year, I was hooked and found myself drawn to the role and over the years it is my experience as a director and an improviser that has strengthened me as a stage actor. If I were to break it down, I would have to say that as an actor, I love the opportunity to present anything and everything I can knowing that there is a director who will be making calls and leading me in the proper direction. As a director, I love being the person to see all of the creativity being presented and shaping it into a cohesive form.
Is there any kind of through line or mission to your arts work as a whole?
I would say that my goal as an artist is to best serve the purpose of the work and create the groundwork for conversation to happen around it, while at the same time being able to best express myself and collaborators as artists. I love it when I hear audience members discussing the content and presentation of a show I was involved in. When a piece sticks with people and makes them genuinely interested in deepening their knowledge around it, that’s a win in my book. For Dirty Story, [ed. note—Belin directed this John Patrick Shanley piece as part of the Arts Nest program at the Phoenix Theater earlier this year] the show was so dense, and I was afraid that it wouldn’t be accessible for that reason. However I got a lot of feedback about how the show made them curious about the topic, which was a success to me!
Tell us about the Brave New Workshop show you’re acting in?
For What the Elf I was involved from the beginning. We had a meeting that discussed what the title of the show would be, and we had a photoshoot. We got together and brainstormed as a group, then wrote our sketches on our own time, came together, read them out loud, did revisions, and repeat. We put together a set to work on that we felt good about and staged them with the help of the Artistic Director, Music Director, and Technical Director, showed them in previews, made some changes to the running order, and made it show ready, so that by time we got to opening night, we had a polished show that we created and curated together. Throughout the process, I really felt like my voice was heard and that I was as valuable as everyone else.
This is your first turn at a major theatre, right? How has that process been different than the small theatre circuit?
Working at the Brave New Workshop is indeed my first major turn at a major theatre, and I couldn’t be more thankful for it. I felt really taken care of as a new member and really supported by everyone as I did a lot of learning on the job. I had one sketch class under my belt and had served as an understudy for their winter show earlier this year; I had not written for a show or gone through the development process. Sharing a room with such wonderful (and established) talent was a bit jarring at first, and I was in my head about it, but I was able to relax and grow very quickly in. At the core of it, working on this show had a lot of similarities to my work in other theaters in a really positive way. I felt like I was able to bring a lot of my already established skills to the table and it kind of broke this myth of “big theatre” for me. Often when we think of working for a big theatre, we think that egos and overpriced sets will get in the way, and that is not the case here. The work is very much on display and there isn’t the sense that we need to impress some particular group of people or anything. We work hard and the ability to be paid enough where we can really prioritize the work is amazing.
Tell us about your upcoming directing opportunity with Uprising Theatre.
My upcoming show with Uprising Theater Company is an adaptation of the Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound, which I am excited about because not only do I love this company but it will be my first Greek play I have directed. So far, the collaboration has been amazing. The Artistic Director has been wonderful to work with, and he has been timely with his communication, and has been very upfront about what he has in mind and my place in it. The show itself presents more of a blank slate for staging than some other shows I have worked on; I am excited to really color the staging in a way that will really represent myself as a director. Something that I am excited to explore is the story’s relationship with contemporary police politics and see those two ideas influence each other when creating with the cast and creative teams. This was one of the ideas that the Artistic Director brought to the table that really excited me about the project and definitely something I am excited to dive into.
What other projects or ongoing endeavors are on the horizon for you?
Other things that I am excited about that will be happening in 2017 relates to myself within the improv community. I am a part of the TA program at HUGE Theater and will be assistant teaching starting this January. I am also taking a larger role in Lavender Panic as a coach and general organizer. I am still very much involved with Blackout Improv as well, and helping with the POC community at HUGE. I will be performing my show Third Wheelin’ at HUGE on Wednesdays in February and April as well.
What’s your favorite type of project to be involved in? What have been some of your favorite pieces to work on?
My favorite type of projects to work on are those where the environment that surrounds it makes it seamless for people to learn and grow from each other. This seems basic but I find it one of the most important things in creating any work environment. For me, there is so much value in the process of the work, especially at the stage of life that I am at. I have learned so much, about my craft and otherwise, from the people that surround me in the rehearsal room. One of my favorite pieces that I have worked on that highlights this is when I directed a production of Dirty Story through the Fledgling Program at Phoenix Theater. I felt that not only the autonomy that the program gave me presented a strong learning environment, but the cast and creative team were highly invested people that presented strong insights into the rehearsal process so that the final product was not only polished from a presentation standpoint but was an amalgamation of all of us.
Supporting art is really important, in my opinion, to the survival of the queer community at all. Do you have anything to add to this? What’s the best way to support any of the projects you’ve mentioned?
I think more and more, we are becoming witness to art, especially performing art, being mixed into everyday life. Art is used to craft the labels on the things you buy at the grocery store. Art is used when constructing a resume. Art is used when looking at any aspect of politics. Supporting the arts and understanding that arts literacy benefits so many aspects of life is important. Art for so many people provides agency and a voice to express themselves and can be an accessible way to learn and explore topics. I also think that so many people, when thinking about how to support the arts only think monetarily. While money does affect some things, a lot of us are privy to the fact that great art can be done without breaking the bank. What we do need to do is support art with keeping it alive and present in our lives. Making a commitment to do two art activities a month or something along those lines can make a big impact. It can be tricky to “compete” with more accessible forms of entertainment (Netflix, Hulu, etc.), but I like to think that commitment and effort are things that people are attracted to no matter what. My favorite form of support is to go out and see a show or art exhibit or whatever!
What are your hopes for the future of theatre (or the arts in general) in the Twin Cities as we move forward?
The community in the Twin Cities is so special and I am very happy to have found myself here. I have been very fortunate to have encountered the opportunities that I have and make the connections that I have. With that being said, there is always room to grow and improve, and I am excited to see how the community adapts and strengthens within the next five years. I find that there is no one that holds the sole responsibility to be the voice of change or activism. Everyone should be responsive to it and no one is excluded. Big theatres are not exempt because they have an audience that they have “to take care of” – this would be in disservice to the audience. Small theatres are not exempt because they have to keep the doors open – this would be in disservice to you. I do understand that there are things that must be taken care of (paying artists and staff, etc.) but when that becomes the sole focus of art, it is my opinion that you are limiting the possibilities and potential of what you are doing.
For more about What the Elf, check out the Brave New Workshop’s website here. For emerging news on Uprising’s show Belin is directing, check out their site. Finally, Huge Theater’s site is here, and that’s where you can keep up with Belin’s improv career.