You can't just hang a shingle that reads cabaret and expect audiences to flock to what should be an intimate environment for revelation through song.
Musical cabaret artists must dig deep into their lives and memories for what is real and honest, "then dig deeper," says Matt Decker, associate artistic director of the Arden Theatre Company, which this weekend is launching the first season of the Arden Cabaret Series at its Hamilton Family Arts Center. Lead-off performer: actor-singer Jeff Coon.
Long a Philly favorite and Arden player (Tulipomania, Sunday in the Park with George, and many others), Coon will be followed by two other Arden favorites - Joilet Harris (Caroline, or Change, A Raisin in the Sun) from Feb. 12 to 14 and Krissy Fraelich (Next to Normal, Baby Case) from April 22 to 24 - in a 2015-16 season curated and directed by Decker, with music supervised by Amanda Morton. The artist for a fourth program, in June, has yet to be announced.
"Terry and I have been working together for almost 10 years," Decker says of his relationship with Arden co-founder and producing artistic director Terrence J. Nolen. The Old City theater has long been interested in alternative programming and has offered its actors up for behind-the-scenes visits.
"What the Arden takes pride in is our relationship with Philadelphia theater artists and heading into that fourth wall," Decker says.
The cabaret series knocks that wall down completely.
When the company opened the 100-seat studio in its new Hamilton building two years ago, it was meant as a room for house concerts, new-play readings, and special events. But some smaller cabaret events for fund-raisers and donors ("testing the waters") gave Decker the idea that a full series was possible.
To start, it will focus on artists "our audiences knew, that have been on our stages for years, through the artifice of playing a role," Decker says.
"This is now them, up close and personal - which I hope will deepen the connection between audience and artist. It makes sense to lay the foundation with familiar faces, and if this catches fire, to program artists not as familiar to the Arden, the next generation, the fringe singers."
Decker says his job is to be both therapist and provocateur to the artists who are sharing their lives.
Though he notes that Harris is richly experienced on the solo stage - "Joilet does lots of cabaret and is a pro at this" - Coon and Fraelich are relatively new to it. He says he has pushed and prodded both into realms of self-discovery.
"This series is about providing an artist with a space, a budget, and an outside eye, saying, 'Go, play, explore - we trust you, we can't wait to hear what you'd like to say.' "
To begin the process, Decker has asked them to strip all but the essentials in order to get to a place of raw truth - sonically ("Jeff's a trumpet," he laughs of trying to mute that brassy blast) and personally.
"I keep asking Jeff, 'What do you want to say here, what are you trying to figure out?' We start at a place and peel layers."
Decker is relying on several facts: Arden audiences know Coon; he's in his 40s and has played "pretty much every role he's wanted to play," and he has a lot to say about his life as a family man, partner, and father.
"So, let's create a narrative," Decker says. "I'll be the 'truth police.' I think Jeff is open to that."
He is. A Cape May native, Coon already was on a journey of musical self-discovery when, in 2014, he co-created the Summer Club, a 17-piece big-band show with four vocalists and guests that plays in the summer months at various Jersey Shore points.
"That was definitely too big for the Hamilton," he says, "but I was in the mind-set of these kinds of events, which have a different audience-performer relationship than a conventional play or musical. So I called Terry about doing something there," and the series was just the ticket.
No spoilers about Coon's act, but he does hint at Rufus Wainwright, Betty Hutton, and Stephen Sondheim (mandatory at the Sondheim-loving Arden) for material that's personal and soul-searching.
"As I've gotten older," Coon says, "I've enjoyed the opportunity to relate to a group of people as me, without the filter or prism of another artist's point of view."
Fraelich, who started her career with Nolen as a teen actress in Annie, loved the nakedness of the cabaret form but was always hesitant to do a show without the right team behind her.
"The fact that it's at the Arden, a place I feel extremely comfortable - and have Matt and Amanda behind me - puts my anxiety at ease. A little," she says, laughing. "I'm sure I'll have a Sondheim or two or three in there, some Jason Robert Brown, and that my show will incorporate my children."
Fraelich pauses, registering the challenge that lies ahead. "Cabaret is a huge undertaking," she says. "It's all just you."
8 p.m. Friday; 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday; and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Arden Theatre Hamilton Family Arts Center, 62 N. 2d St.
Admission: Theater seating, $30; four-person table, $200; two-person table, $100. BYO food and wine.