The Journey and Art of Scott Dennis

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by Catherine Kirkpatrick

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Scott Dennis (profile) in 2014; all photos by Catherine Kirkpatrick

I first saw Scott Dennis perform at the Metropolitan Bar in 2013. A friend brought me to a Thursday night DRAGnet competition, promising great pictures. But as I settled on a hard chair in front of a dinky stage, I wondered. How much could happen in five feet of space?

Then a purple-haired figure took the mic, and suddenly everything was in motion, white-hot, inches away. Hips swung, Kabuki eyes flashed. Pounding sound flowed into the wild colors of the clothes, the hair, the lights. The audience screamed and was swept away on a rising tide of spectacle-induced synesthesia.

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London Girl: Dennis at DRAGnet

Then Scott Dennis appeared and took it to another level. In a short fur, fishnet hose, and classic mini, his character, Madame Vivien V, screamed Mod, Swinging Sixties London. Suddenly we were on Carnaby Street jaunting along with Twiggy (“The Face of 1966”), shopping for clothes by Mary Quant, hoping for a glimpse of the Fab Four. Like a great actor, he made choices specific and so right, stirring my imagination, which is exactly how Scott Dennis would have it, because he is very serious about his art. “It’s not just going on stage and lip synching,” he said of drag. “I am an actor and storyteller.”

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Scott Dennis in 2014

Great performing starts inside with the creation of a complex character, one with likes and dislikes, quirks and dreams. In developing Vivien, Dennis borrowed freely from his favorite “booming” female figures, including Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty), Ursula (The Little Mermaid), and Jessica Rabbit. Madame is “not a villainess,” he said, but “not a superhero.” She is “kind and courteous, but also blunt and cackling.” Classy too. “Something I admire most about women,” he said, is that “a woman can be any shape, any size…and still have an elegant quality. I dream of that for Madame and I’m told by many she has it.”

So it’s surprising to learn that Scott Dennis grew up on a pig farm. He was born in Amarillo, Texas, but after his parents’ divorce, he went to live with his father in Washington State. In addition to pigs, Gageby Farms raised goats, llamas, and chickens, of which he sometimes was in charge. Always a slight outsider, he had a rich fantasy life, creating characters and acting out scenes from favorite books in a wooded area near his school.

He was called a faggot at age six, and came out to his family when he was twenty-two. Although this is part of his story, it somehow doesn’t seem to be the overriding thread. Do we know Tchaikovsky because he was gay or because he was a great composer? There is in Scott Dennis a creative quest and artistic integrity that sweeps all else aside.

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Making Up, May 2014

In 2008, he moved to Milwaukee to study accounting—which is how Leo Bloom got into show business in The Producers. His gifts are not only imaginative, but practical as well. If Scott Dennis wants to get somewhere, he will find a way.

In November 2011, Dennis set up a series of interviews in New York and drove through the night. By the next afternoon, he had an internship with Dodgers Properties, a producing organization, and three months later became an administrative assistant. In love with Broadway, always learning, he hopes to become an independent producer like his idols Kevin McCollum and Michael David.

After three months of commuting from Raritan, New Jersey (he hadn’t looked at a map), he moved to Bushwick and in 2012, encouraged by a friend, performed at Bushwig. When the first act cancelled, he wound up opening the show, and has never looked back.

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Making Up 2, May 2014

All the different threads seem to be coming together. Starting July 24, 2014, Dennis will be producing a monthly show at Bizarre Bar called Bordello. Each segment will be built around a unique concept revealed only to the performers. He wants them to “step up their game,” so the audience feels that they’re “only seeing things once.” “We don’t,” he said emphatically, “want boring lip synch.”

Dennis is always searching for something deeper, which brings us to Polus and Rosie. Describing the concept of emotional memory, acting teacher Lee Strasberg used to tell a story about Polus, an actor who played Sophocles’ character Electra. In the scene where she carries the ashes of her brother Orestes, Polus would carry an urn filled with the ashes of his dead son. By bringing something filled with personal meaning to the stage, he was able to create a moment that was authentic and deeply felt.

On May 9, 2014, I was invited to watch Dennis make up for a look (“not yet a character”) based on World War II icon Rosie the Riveter. A lot of effort went into it, including research to recreate the wrap of her signature bandana. But it popped to life when Dennis donned the bright red jumpsuit worn by his grandmother. During one Thanksgiving visit, she had offered Dennis some souvenirs, but instead they went into her closet. Asked to try things on, he demurred, saying they wouldn’t look right unless he was in “full face and shape.” So he began sending pictures and now counts his grandparents among his biggest fans.

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Full On Rosie

That May evening, after Dennis transformed into Rosie, we went downstairs for the drive into Manhattan. I was nervous, wondering if some tough would take offense and get violent. But Scott Dennis would have none of it. He stepped out into the street wearing his Granny’s red suit—tall, confident, and proud. He knew who he was and what he wanted. Nothing was going to get in his way.

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Bordello will next take place Thursday, August 28th at Bizarre Bar and will continue on the fourth Thursday of every month. 

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Author: Catherine Kirkpatrick

Writer and photographer. Wrote intros for Meryl Meisler's two books. Had solo show at NYC's FRONT Art Space last fall. Creating an oral history called Voices and Visions: Making Photographs in the Digital Age.