An "Inimitable Genius" Takes a Final Bow
Issue   |   Fri, 05/23/2014 - 10:58
Photo courtesy of Josh Wren '14
Wren became a theater and dance major after transferring to the college in fall 2011. While at Amherst, he's been a playwright, poet, actor, dancer and musician.

The house lights in Holden Theater go down as Josh Wren enters stage right, dressed in a sharp-looking toupee, white Oxford shirt, black slacks and a professional tie and carrying a large brown briefcase, crossing to the opposite corner of the stage. He sets down the briefcase and begins to slowly move in a mechanical, puppet-like fashion across the stage as if his movements were being controlled by invisible hands. He meanders erratically across the stage for several minutes, occasionally falling to the floor and picking himself back up. Eventually, he exits stage right, and the theater falls silent for nearly half a minute as the audience stares blankly at the scene, trying to process what they just witnessed.

Wren, a theater and dance major who transferred to the college in fall 2011, often leaves those who encounter him with similar reactions. He’s a playwright, poet, actor, dancer and musician who lives life theatrically, taking Shakespeare’s observations about the world being a stage to a remarkably literal level.

Wren’s friend and sometime bandmate Andrew Wang ’15 recounts his experience first meeting Wren as a first-year at the college.

“Josh was a loud, long-haired dude who told me he was a transfer student. He told me he was part of an anarchist group that helps people transfer into good colleges to help take down the system. Not recognizing Josh as the multi-faceted vortex of words and ideas, that I know him as today, I took him at face value,” Wang said.

Wren, as far as Wang knows, is not in fact a member of an anarchist group trying to take down the system.

Sasha Smith ’14, a fellow transfer student who met Wren when she visited the college in 2012, calls Wren an “inimitable genius” along with one of her first and closest friends at Amherst, praising his visceral creativity and passion for novelty and adventure.

“Josh Wren is always in Character, with a capital C. He is a playwright of the self with the world as his muse. Playing a part forever in the making, he writes himself anew with each passing scene,” Smith said.

Wren cites among his influences figures as diverse as Martin Heidegger, Eminem, Plato and Rage Against the Machine, combining a passion for the deep and philosophical with an ironic sense for the absurdity and ignominy of human existence.


After the heavy silence, one member of the audience begins to tentatively applaud, perhaps under the mistaken impression that the performance has ended. Suddenly, Wren reappears on the stage, carrying a life-sized manikin in a chair. He sets it down in the upstage corner and begins to strip down to his underwear, placing his business clothes and toupee inside the briefcase and retrieving a dress and wig in their place. He puts the wig on the manikin and lays the dress in the middle of the stage, and then exits.

The lights change to a intense shade of red, and Wren bursts through a small hole in the back wall of the stage, thrashing violently and wriggling his way onto the stage as loud industrial music plays in the background and fake blood pours through the hole. Wren slithers and crawls across the stage, “like an epileptic snake monster,” and fights his way into the dress. Then, he deliriously staggers across the stage and takes the wig from the manikin’s head, placing it on his own before turning to address the audience. Inhaling deeply through his nose, Wren recites: “Warm nickels — damp ashes — thirsty lips — quiet birds — lightning flashes — storm trickle — moon eclipsed — empty words — MY EYES, MY SAD BEAUTIFUL EYES — ”
Wren begins to lovingly caress the manikin, cooing his lines into the manikin’s plastic ears. Wren takes the manikin in his arms and dances wildly across the stage — “you’re quiet tonight, my son, you haven’t sang Mama a single word, where’d your spirit go?”


Wren’s thesis, “Wholly Man Again,” continues his explorations of the traumatic core of human nature. Depicting the sick, deranged relationship between a delusional son and mother — both played by Wren, with the help of a manikin (note the pun) — the play develops three of Wren’s favorite themes.

“It’s about the difficulties of forming identity, expressed through psychoanalytic literary theory, idiosyncratic dance and lyrical poetry. Because those three things are super fucking cool. Whenever I see other people do them, I substitute them with me, and feel like I’m watching myself do it,” Wren said. “I like to shock and to be challenging, because I think good art does that.”

And “Wholly Man Again” does just that. Liya Rechtman ’14, one of Wren’s close friends, called the play “beautiful and disturbing,” and lauding its creative approach to questions of gender, parenthood, childhood and the role of the audience.
“I saw it twice and in the final night, at the very end of the play, he made eye contact with me or ... just past me, in between me and the friend I was sitting with but I knew he was aware of me and he was including me in the piece. It was a very powerful moment and I felt uncomfortable, but uncomfortable in the way that he was pulling me out of my comfort zone and ask me to imagine something new,” Rechtman said.

Wren says that his passion for exploring difficult questions extends back to his childhood, when he would go on fishing trips with his grandfather on the Chesapeake Bay and barrage him with unanswerable existential questions.

“I’d always ask him ‘where do we go when we die?’ I just loved that question because I wanted to hear different responses to it every time. And I’d always ask him, and he’d always say the same thing, which was always a let down — he’d say, ‘well, you go to heaven’ — but why? What it started to do for me is that it got me in the habit of trying to find other ways to ask the question or try to figure out how I could rephrase it to find out the thing I wanted to know.”


Wren switches wigs and personas with the manikin, taking on the character of Jonathan, a delusional petulant man-child struggling to break free from the manipulative control of his mother.

“Baby Bird all by himself inside his broken shell again, wailing-n-wailing in the wet blue dark like a witchy cat. Plucked not for dancing like Mama Bird’s Manikin, but I’ve learned how to dance now, Mama, I swear I’m here to dance you up a miracle, so bright; I’m going to be good, Mama, I promise, I’ll act right — ”

Wren continues to switch between identities throughout the play, building up the tension between Mama and Jonathan until it explodes in a climactic scene of passionate copulation between Wren/Jonathan and the Manikin/Mama, entitled “The Copulation of Illusion and Disillusion” in the script. Thrusting his pelvis forcefully on top of the manikin, Wren’s voice fills the entire theater:



For Wren, his time at Amherst was one of personal growth and profound changes in his identity. At community college in Essex, Maryland, Wren says that he was a “do-gooder” intent on saving the world through education. He was the president and founder of the multicultural club at his community college and sought to become a teacher after he graduated. However, Wren arrived at the college full of doubts and questions about himself and his future.

“At first I was just really angry and sad when I got here. I didn’t know why I deserved to be here. I think a lot of transfer students go through that, honestly. There’s this wide-eyed moment, because a lot of us don’t come from the money that a lot of people here come from that sort of makes this place what it is,” Wren said.

After he took his first theater and dance course — Language of Movement with Roger C. Holden ’19 Professor of Theater and Dance Wendy Woodson — Wren said that he discovered a way to express and explore the doubts and questions that had been troubling him.

“It changed my life. It gave me a vocabulary and it gave me a way to express all these things that I really enjoy thinking about,” Wren said.

Since then, Wren has acted in two movies along with countless performances at both Hampshire and Amherst.
He also performs at open mics, concerts and Marsh Coffee Haus on a regular basis, combining music, dance, poetry and acting to create unique interdisciplinary performances.

After graduation, Wren plans to head to New York City to study dance with Movement Research, supported by funds from the Raymond Keith Bryant Prize, which he shared with Patricia Cardenas ’14. Wren hopes to build a career out of performance, cognizant of all the risks that such a path entails but eager for the challenge.

“You have to make such a loud noise in order for it to pay off, which I am ready to do. I think I have been preparing myself to do that at Amherst. I think my attention-hog personality is indicative of that desire, and I am ready to do it. Do I want to be famous? Hell yeah, I want to be fucking famous!” Wren said.

Asked where he saw Wren in five or ten years, Wren’s thesis advisor and dance professor Paul Matteson gave only a one-sentence answer: “This question makes me happy.”