Nonbinary actor Jayden Russell talks about their love for theater life
MELISSA WHITLER | Contributing Writer
Avenue Q is far from your typical musical. Nonbinary actor Jayden Russell describes the show as “an adult Sesame Street.” There was, they noted, always a random celebrity in each episode of the actual kid’s show. And in the parody, opening Aug. 25 at Theater Arlington, the random celebrity is Gary Coleman — played by Russell.
While you probably remember Coleman as the child actor who starred in Diff’rent Strokes, in the musical he is the washed-up superintendent of a building on Avenue Q.
Russell is especially excited about this role because it is their first time playing a specifically male character. They’ve had fun taking the source material on who Coleman was and playing around with his mannerisms When performing, Russell has found they don’t like to distance themselves completely from the character. “I like to keep some of myself, find a balance between my own intentions and thought processes and that of the character,” they explained, noting that this is especially true for pieces covering heavier subject matter.
This musical, however, is far from serious. While it covers a lot of different themes, it is decidedly a comedy.
“The boundary in this musical is almost nonexistent,” Russell said, and they have found themself asking how far can they go during rehearsals. The whole cast has had the freedom to push and throw their whole selves into the story, and Russell has really enjoyed watching everyone play around it.
Adding to the wildness of the show is the fact that eight of the 11 characters are portrayed by puppets. Russell said it’s been an adjustment in rehearsals, as “it’s very different acting with a puppet.”
First off, they found that making eye contact with unblinking black eyes is very jarring. Also, while the puppeteers are on stage, the rest of the cast is meant to ignore them.
While the puppeteers might do natural facial reactions, there is only so much a puppet can do. To try and compensate for what the puppeteers can’t do, Russell asked themselves, “What can I do to clearly portray the emotions in the scene?” so that the audience doesn’t miss anything.
While acting might not be Russell’s full-time gig, they have been in love with theater most of their life, they said. Growing up in Irving, they were obsessed with Pirates of the Caribbean and were convinced that if they just took a theater class, they could star in one of the movies.
TA Gala brings Broadway magic to Arlington
Theatre Arlington has been celebrating a half-century of shows throughout 2023, but its 50th Anniversary Gala coming up in September will be the centerpiece of the company’s golden anniversary season with Arlington Mayor Jim Ross as the event’s honorary chair.
The gala will be held on Sept. 16 at the Bluebonnet Ballroom in the Hereford University Center at UT Arlington. The night will include dinner, dancing and a raffle. There will be a live luxury auction including a Texas Rangers luxury suite, a seven-night stay in Cabo and a progressive dinner in Arlington Highlands among other items.
The magic of the night will be provided by Broadway actor and Tarrant County native Major Attaway, who starred as Genie in Disney’s Aladdin. Attaway’s road to New York included appearances here in North Texas, including roles at Theatre Arlington, Casa Mañana, Jubilee Theater and Theatre Three. Attaway recently directed TA’s production of Fly By Night and is honored on the TA Walk of Fame which was unveiled this year.
Individual tickets are $150, $1,200 for a table, available at TheatreArlington.org.
Theatre Arlington’s 2024 season
The company announced its next lineup of shows on Thursday afternoon for its 51st season. The theater will produce six mainstage shows and two for the Family Series.
Here are the shows for TA’s next season:
• Feb. 9-March 3: Cabaret
• May 3-19: Steel Magnolias
• June 7-23: Chicken & Biscuits
• Aug. 9-25: Big Fish
• Sept 13-29: Visiting Mr. Green
• December: Show to be announced.
• March 29-April 14: Alice In Wonderland
• Nov. 1-10: The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley
So even though they are very shy and hate attention, Russell began acting freshman year of high school. Despite how much they enjoyed it, they tried hard to not want to be an actor, knowing the job’s reputation.
Russell tried forensic science for a while but never loved anything as much as they love being on stage. Acting on stage is like therapy for them, they said, a chance to be the complete opposite of themself. Playing a character and performing that persona comes very naturally to them, no matter the gender of the character.
The moment Russell knew the Dallas theater scene was for them actually came in high school. One year their class went to see a show at the Dallas Theater Center as part of Project Discovery. By the end of that show Russell knew that they wanted to be a part of this.
Now they’ve been with Theater Arlington for more than a year, and Avenue Q is Russell’s fifth show during that time. They’ve found the experience to offer the perfect balance with their day job, as well as a good mix of familiar and new faces.
Their favorite part, Russell said, is attending rehearsals and making new connections. And with this show, Russell gets to work with some of their favorite people, who “are just really funny, strong comedic actors.” They find it mesmerizing getting to see such talented and incredible people in their element.
Of course, Russell is most excited to start performing for an audience. They said they are eager to hear that first laugh and applause, as they really feed off an audience’s energy. And of course, they are excited for their mom and grandma to watch the musical, as the two go to almost all of Russell’s shows.
Avenue Q runs at Theater Arlington from Aug 25 to Sept 10. Tickets and more information are available at theatrearlington.org/production/avenue-q/