Eli Russell of Teen Arden gives audiences a peek behind the scenes of the Cabaret of Duets, an evening of cabaret which paired professional performers with members of Teen Arden. Teen Arden is an extracurricular program for 9th – 12th graders, comprised of kids who are passionate about developing an arts community among peers from diverse social and economic backgrounds. We give teens full access to Arden Theatre Company resources as well as open channels of communication between them and the professional artists who have helped build Philadelphia’s theatre community.
On my first day at Arden Summer Camp, everyone gathered in a circle and we introduced ourselves, sharing our name, age, and favorite place in the world. When my turn came, I bent the rules and shared a fantasy destination combining the comfort of my bed, the beauty of a Jamaican beach, and the atmosphere of the Arden. When I hosted the Cabaret of Duets on December 15, I realized that this daydream wasn’t so fantastical after all, as I could find all three qualities–– comfort, beauty, and atmosphere–– in abundance at the Arden.
The Cabaret of Duets, which took place at the Hamilton Family Arts Center on December 15, featured a dozen duets between Teen Arden members and professional artists like Jeff Coon, Rachel Camp, and Carl Clemons-Hopkins. Behind the scenes, teens were involved in all stages of planning, writing, and producing the event. It was an audacious undertaking, but our adult directors Jonathan Silver and Amanda Morton ensured that the process of producing the Cabaret of Duets was a comfortable and fun experience. Everyone was convivial as we brainstormed themes, divvied up tasks, and managed the hundred other minutiae that goes into an event like the Cabaret of Duets. One thing that makes Teen Arden special is that the adults involved expect a lot of us, which feels great as a teenager looking to be seen as more than a walking lump of angst and puberty. I doubt that many theatres would entrust teenagers with as much responsibility as we were given in the planning stages for this event. I felt the impact of this trust especially as I wrote the script with my co-host Sydney Chin. Obviously, not all of my jokes made it to the final script, but Sydney and I were grateful that Jonathan took all of our ideas seriously and treated us as equals in the writing process
My fantasy destination included the somewhat generic beauty of a Jamaican beach. I now know that there is a much more meaningful kind of beauty at the Arden (although I certainly wouldn’t mind a Caribbean vacation). First of all, the performances at the Cabaret of Duets were stunning. One thing that made them so beautiful is how different they all were. Who would think that a hard-hitting rock anthem from Rent (performed by the ever-awesome Iyke McCoy and Michael Philip O’Brien) would pair so well with a heartwrenching mother-daughter duet from Next to Normal (performed by actual mother-daughter duo Krissy Fraelich and Zoe Hunchak)? Knowing that the final product was the culmination of many people’s hard work made the event all the more beautiful and inspiring. At the Arden, a lot of emphasis is placed on the process. Everyone was engaged in the process at different stages, bringing their own skills to the table with the common goal of producing a great event.
The theme of the evening was “Autumnal Campfire,” and we found plenty of parallels between the Arden and a campfire. As I sermonized while emceeing, “the Arden Theatre Company is dedicated to bringing to life great stories by great storytellers, and what do we do at campfires? We tell stories! Some are scary, some are hilarious, some have music, some are classics, some are original, the list goes on.” Most of all, both are warm and inviting environments. I know that I can always come to the Arden for support or advice and I’ll be warmly welcomed by my friends and instructors. I could especially feel this warmth at the Cabaret of Duets (and not just because Sydney and I were sitting in front of the lighting booth). The professional artists were friendly and supportive and the audience blew us away with their responses to our emcee schtick and the beautiful duets. Lastly, the Cabaret of Duets demonstrated the Arden’s low-key atmosphere. Whenever I attend classes at the Arden Drama School, I am impressed both by the expertise of the instructors and their modesty. There is plenty of incredible and brag-worthy artistry going on at the Arden, but the theatre maintains a refreshing lack of snootiness or competitiveness. This comfortable, beautiful, and warm atmosphere is what keeps bringing me back to the Arden.
Eli Russell is a junior at Abington Friends School, where he leads both the Cappies team and a National History Day club. He has been involved with Teen Arden for three years and is currently co-chair of the Teen Council’s Artistic Committee. Eli performs in Arden Summer Camp’s Musical Theatre Studio productions, and will be one of three head writers developing an original play to be presented in this year’s FringeArts Festival.