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Elle Shaheen ’21 on Family, the Arts, and Her Thesis

Elle Shaheen stars in her senior thesis production, "Recorded Live: The Great American Family Jukebox Cabaret."
Elle Shaheen stars in her senior thesis production, "Recorded Live: The Great American Family Jukebox Cabaret." By Courtesy of Elle Shaheen
By Megan Gamino, Contributing Writer

If someone who can act, sing, and dance is considered a triple-threat, then Elle Shaheen ’21 is a quintuple-threat — at least. Shaheen's stage presence and command of speech came through clearly even as she sat down to talk over a Zoom call about her upcoming creative thesis project: “Recorded Live: The Great American Family Jukebox Cabaret,” which premieres this weekend. The project is a capstone to her time in Harvard’s Theater, Dance, & Media concentration.

Shaheen’s thesis is the culmination of a life wholly dedicated to the arts. After beginning performing arts classes as a child, Shaheen branched out further into writing and producing in high school. Before arriving at Harvard, she was honored by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as the winner of a young playwrights competition. With this background, Shaheen always knew a creative program was in her future. Although she originally considered applying and auditioning for conservatory programs in high school, her interest in writing and producing led her to Harvard instead. “In order to be successful in an industry like this, it’s important to have an understanding of everything that goes into it, every aspect of it,” she said.

Shaheen has taken this holistic approach to heart, devoting herself to every aspect of the performing arts, and she’s excelled at it, becoming one of the first women to join The Hasty Pudding Theatricals. “I try to do as much as I can because inevitably it makes me better,” she said.

When I asked Shaheen about her hobbies and pastimes, she paused for a moment. After collecting her thoughts, she answered, “I’m sort of always practicing,” before adding, “and to me, that’s always fun.”

Shaheen views her artistic training as an expression of herself and as a big part of her personality. When she begins talking in-depth about “Recorded Live: The Great American Family Jukebox Cabaret,” her passion for the project is palpable, and watching her speak about it almost constitutes a show in itself. Her show uses a cabaret framework to weave a story about shared and family history. It started as simply a list of songs that Shaheen felt a connection to, but upon further reflection, she found the common thread between them: her grandfather. They were the songs of his childhood and young adulthood that he had shared with her, a list that included the music of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Carole King, among others.

The project went through three conceptual iterations before being approved by the department, which in hindsight, Shaheen was thankful for. “It ended up getting me to the right idea,” she said of the long planning process. This “right idea” is one that weaves family and history into the show, accomplished by weaving songs with home videos and family photos, as well as audio from interviews with her grandfather — making the production a true labor of love.

Although working during a pandemic certainly had its challenges, Shaheen was quick to say that the show wouldn’t be the same if not for these circumstances. “This particular project could not have been made a year ago, or a year in the future,” she said.

Being suddenly thrown back home with her family allowed them to be more involved with the project than they would have otherwise had a chance to, as they helped her comb through family archives for more material. Her show lays bare the intricacies of family and how they can often be “complicated and confusing,” and with it, she seeks to find her own place in the family history. ”I hope [audiences] take away the importance of family and connection, especially during this time of really incredible isolation and loss.”

Going forward, Shaheen’s only problem might be that she has too many incredible possibilities with which to continue her artistic success. Although presented digitally due to Covid-19, the show was originally conceived as a live performance, which Shaheen hopes to pursue when theaters reopen. “It’s all going up from here, I’d like to think.”

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